Ten years ago, the Arizona Wildcats capped a chaotic season with one of the most improbable Territorial Cup victories in recent history.
The Wildcats outlasted ASU 31-27 in Tempe, delivering a win for interim coach Tim Kish days before Rich Rodriguez was hired as Mike Stoops’ full-time replacement.
Arizona was led by star quarterback Nick Foles, who finished the game 35 for 51 for 370 yards and two touchdowns. Juron Criner had nine receptions for 134 yards and a touchdown.
To many, though, it remains “The Bryson Beirne Game.”
With just over five minutes remaining, Foles exited the game with a back injury. Beirne, who had thrown 16 career passes — most of them in garbage time during blowouts — replaced him. Beirne’s first and only pass attempt was a 23-yard strike to Criner for the go-ahead touchdown. Beirne, a career backup quarterback during his four-year career at Arizona, etched his name in UA football lore with his late-game heroics.
Beirne, former Arizona center Kyle Quinn and former Wildcats defensive back Robert Golden joined the Star’s Justin Spears on ESPN Tucson’s “Spears and Ali” this week to reflect on beating ASU in 2011 and the rivalry overall:
Is that win over ASU a decade ago the best victory during your time at Arizona?
Beirne: “That’s definitely the pinnacle moment. I definitely have a few memories that are close to that, but beating ASU in Tempe? On a wide receiver middle screen pass to Juron Criner, where he just broke a million tackles to get across the finish line? That’s definitely at the top of the experiences.”
Quinn: “That game had a lot of emotions to say the least. It was one of the pinnacle wins of my career. We had a 2-8 season at the time, Coach Kish was leading us for the second half of the season, we went up there as heavy underdogs and we really took it to them. …
“It was one of the top two or three wins of my career for so many reasons, and then when you talk to alumni, that game gets brought up because it was such an adverse situation and we were able to stick together, get a win and bring the Territorial Cup back to Tucson. It was such a special night.”
What happened when you found out Foles was injured, leaving you with quarterback responsibilities?
Beirne: “When Nick went down, the first thought that went through my mind was, ‘That’s my best friend; I hope he’s all right.’ But that thought immediately left when I saw the score. … We needed to score or else we were going to lose to ASU in Tempe. Immediately, the thought was, ‘What do we gotta do to get there?’ Once that happens, you get into a zone, find out what you need to do and we were able to get it done that night.”
How is your guys’ relationship with Foles now?
Quinn: “It’s awesome. Nick deserves everything that he has earned in his career. He is one of the most humble, genuine human beings I’ve ever been around. He’s one of the best teammates and it’s an honor that I was his center, it’s one of my claims to fame. Nick is a great friend and a great ambassador of the program, and it’s pretty special to be his center because you’re basically a second quarterback and you go through a lot of trials to be a center. … There’s not many rewards other than Ws, and I have a winning record against the Sun Devils and it’s a big accomplishment to say that. There are a lot of great memories and I’m just honored to say that I was Nick Foles’ center during my time at Arizona.”
Beirne: “We still are best friends, but obviously, we aren’t as close as we used to be. If I saw him on the street, we’d probably talk for hours until our wives told us that we have to go. Back then, it wasn’t just me and Nick; it was Matt Scott, too. We were always training and preparing. We knew one guy was playing on the weekends, but me and Matt would always help Nick look at different things since he’s only got two eyes to see what’s going on out there. We were always training together — we even took a boxing class senior year, which was pretty interesting because it helped with footwork and shoulder conditioning.”
What inspired you and Foles to box for football training?
Beirne: “Nick. He was always trying to think outside the box to try and get better. We took a boxing class … and we were there twice a week leading up to the 2011 season, just skipping rope, hitting the bag and getting some good work in.”
As a center, how did you communicate with Foles? And how did you help Beirne once he came in?
Quinn: “The center is the soundboard of the quarterback. Honestly, Bryson helped me a lot as a player, because he’s a mature player and a quarterback that’s been in the system — he was a ‘program guy’ for so long, he got an opportunity and went in there and was just like another quarterback. He had a presence about him during practice and was always there to game plan. It wasn’t that much of a change, but he went out there and executed.
“I have to clear the air on this: I was accused of trying to tackle Juron Criner on that play. I was not trying to tackle him and I was situationally aware of where I was; it was third-and-three and I tried to hit him forward for a couple more yards. I wasn’t trying to (spring) him for a touchdown, but it worked out that way.”
What was the 2011 season like for you?
Beirne: “I don’t know who christened this quote for the game of football but, ‘Football doesn’t build character; it reveals it.’ With all the things that went on in 2011, it revealed the character of our team that year. It was crazy, but we dealt with it and coped, figured it out and tried our best to win every weekend. Practices weren’t any different and we were working hard and just having a good time. We didn’t have the season we wanted, but man, it’s hard to argue against beating ASU in Tempe, I’m telling you.”
Golden: “The mentality that the team had, it was ‘next man up’ and ‘let’s get the job done.’ When you look back at (the ASU game), you had guys like Gino Crump making some big plays as well, too, to help us seal that victory. Here you have Nick Foles, Juron Criner and Keola Antolin and all of these great stars, but the people who really went out there to help us win the game were the Gino Crumps, the Bryson Beirnes and those guys who weren’t really household names, but understood the magnitude of the moment and got the job done.”
And what about the moment when the team sang ‘Bear Down, Arizona’ in the locker room after the win over ASU in 2011?
Beirne: “I probably lost my voice, especially after everything we went through that year. Beating ASU solves a lot of problems and heals a lot of wounds that were opened that year. Not a lot of people knew this, but I blew out my knee senior year. I didn’t have an ACL my senior year and that (win) made it sweeter, because I didn’t have surgery to try and come back next year. It was very surreal and I still look at the pictures every once in a while, holding the (Territorial Cup) in my hand with Nick and Matt and some of the other guys. It’s hard to forget. … When we walked off the field, I took the decal off my helmet and slapped it on the field goal post — I put it on that little devil thing or whatever they call it, Sparky or whatever. I just stuck it right on the field goal post and walked into the locker room with a big ol’ smile on my face.
“The ASU fans didn’t like it and probably said more swear words than me, but who cares? We beat ASU in Tempe.”
How would you describe the emotions and passion that play into the Territorial Cup?
Golden: “I’ll tell you what: there’s nothing like the Arizona and Arizona State game. It’s one of the biggest rivalries in college football. … When we beat them in 2011, that was a moment I’ll never forget and it’s such a big rivalry. It was bragging rights for who runs the state and that is something that we definitely took to heart. … This game should be the Super Bowl or bowl game to cap off the year.”