Saturday, in Tempe, the game everyone has been waiting for will take place: the 89th edition of the Territorial Cup. The ASU football team welcomes the Arizona Wildcats for the annual rivalry game. Kickoff is at 1:30 pm.
Quite honestly, this game is difficult to break down for several reasons. First, it’s a rivalry game. It is well known that rivalry games produce zany plays and unpredictable outcomes. It is not uncommon for a losing team to upset a highly ranked rival in games like this. The reason: the hatred for the opponent causes supreme focus and determination. Rivalry games result in players being totally locked in to their assignments. Nagging injuries and fatigue are ignored. Pressure to perform and self-doubt are set aside to simply “join in the fight”. In short, players usually play out of their minds. Unlikely heroes step up. Undermanned units overachieve.
This rivalry particularly has had some quirky trends for the last decade. Until the 2013 season, the previous five winners were the visiting team. And with the exception of the 2013 shellacking ASU put on UofA, the last ten games have been decided on the last possession of the game. Additionally, there have been unusual circumstances that led to the final outcome of the game. The thrilling punt return by ASU’s Matt Miller in 2006 late in the fourth quarter. The muffed punt by ASU in 2009 that led to a chip shot game-ending field goal for UofA. The blocked extra points by ASU in 2010. Of course, older fans will recall “the catch” in 1975 by ASU’s James Jefferson. Or the interception return by UofA in 1986. All late game heroics.
All of that makes predicting this game nearly impossible. Secondly, the question has to be asked: Which UofA team will show up? The team that got blistered by Washington at home three weeks ago 49-3? Or the team that upset Utah last week in double overtime? Thirdly, the flip side of the coin: Which ASU team will show up? The team that let a sizeable lead slip away late for three games in a row? Or the team that “manned up” and went on a second half tear last week against Washington? Again, impossible to predict.
Lastly, the injury situation for both teams. The ASU Devils Den believes that UofA has the biggest question mark revolving around their quarterback Anu Solomon. He was having his best game of the season last Saturday until he was knocked out of the game with a concussion. He is questionable to play. And don’t forget that Arizona’s linebacker corps has been decimated. (how they contained Utah’s Devontae Booker is a mystery) ASU has lost their leading tackler in Jordan Simone. Two other starters are down for ASU. Who knows how the replacement for both teams will fare. Most likely, the Solomon injury is the key. If he can play and play to his talents, the ASU defense will have their hands full. If not, UofA will have a big hill to climb.
In any event, the ASU Devils Den offers these Three Tines to Victory:
It’s been noted by everybody concerned that the rushing attack for ASU is the identity of this football team. And while the run game was reasonably held in check last week against Washington, the Sun Devils would be foolish to not test the Wildcat’s run defense. As mentioned earlier, the linebackers for UofA have serious injury issues. It started with the loss of Scooby Wright and has just gotten worse. Another middle linebacker Jake Matthews was lost last week in the second half against Utah. And with the mantra of “no sympathy” in rivalry games, expect ASU to try to pound the ball.
Second Tine to Victory: Have A Plan for Both Quarterbacks
It would be unwise for ASU head coach Todd Graham to enter this game with the mentality of “we’re just gonna do what we do.” While that sounds good in the locker room, it’s irresponsible. The reality is that Arizona quarterback Anu Solomon is quite a different player than his backup, Jerrard Randall. While Randall is a solid backup and has filled in nicely at times, he clearly is not the same passing threat that Solomon is. Randall is an excellent athlete that can really hurt you with his legs. Therefore, the ASU defense must prepare for two drastically different offenses from UofA.
Third Tine to Victory: Special Teams Must be Perfect
This is a more general Tine to Victory. Furthermore, it may be a stretch to ask a specific unit to be perfect. But it is legitimate. The inconsistency in special teams has to stop right now. ASU returners don’t need to return every punt and kickoff 40 yards, although it would help. But here’s what does need to happen: kicker Zane Gonzalez must continue his streak of touchbacks. He needs to do it every single time. Punter Matt Haack needs to strike the ball cleanly every single time. Not three out of four, not nine out of ten….every single time. And of course, the coverage units need to be spot-on. UofA cannot be allowed any momentum or extra yardage on their kickoff and punt returns. The ASU coverage units need to put the returner on the ground immediately. Every single time. It may seem unfair to put that kind of pressure on these players, but the ASU Devils Den sees it as an absolute necessity.
Of course, all the other requirements are still in play for ASU: protect the quarterback, don’t turn the ball over, etc. That essentially goes without saying this week.
It’s going to be an interesting game. Both teams are having disappointing seasons with similar records. Both teams are banged up. Both teams want to reach a respectable bowl game. And most of all, neither team wants to lose this game. The whole country should watch because it could be a slug-fest.