Gary Doran

Three Tines to Victory: Territorial Cup

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Saturday marks the 91st edition of the Territorial Cup between Arizona State and the University of Arizona.  Much has been said over the last half decade in terms of the connection between the two head coaches of each of these programs during this time.  At the beginning of 2012, Stewart Mandel of Sports Illustrated assigned a letter grade for the coaching hires made for the 2012 college football season, including that of Rich Rodriguez by Arizona and Todd Graham by Arizona State. He also included his rationale for each grade he assigned. Here is his assessment from January of 2012 for the two Territorial Cup coaches:

Rich Rodriguez, Arizona: A-

“AD Greg Byrne knew exactly who he wanted, pouncing early (Nov. 21) in naming Mike Stoops’ replacement. While Rodriguez’s three-year tenure in Ann Arbor did not end well, the pressure is much lower in tradition-starved Tucson. He’s reunited the majority of his staff from West Virginia, where he led the Mountaineers to two BCS bowls. Arizona is still waiting on its first.”

Todd Graham, ASU: D

“Forget the unseemly way he exited Pitt. Why exactly is Graham is a hot commodity to begin with? It’s certainly not due to his one 6-6 Big East season. He had three 10-win seasons at Tulsa, but much of the credit belongs to respected offensive coordinators Gus Malzahn and Chad Morris. His one season without either, he went 5-7. But perhaps his fourth dream job in six years will be the one.”

How has each coach fared after almost six season on the job? How would we grade each of them? Here are several metrics to compare the two with some of the measurements beyond just wins and losses:

Based on the categories above, Todd Graham has outperformed Rich Rodriguez over the first six seasons in almost every category listed. Based on the categories above, and a somewhat biased view, this writer would give Graham a B- and Rodriguez a C-.

One of the biggest disparities between the two is the different directions of the Academic Progress Report Scores (APR) for ASU and U of A. The year before Rodriguez took over at Arizona, its football APR was 980, and under Rodriguez, it has steadily dropped to 916 as of the 2014-2015 season, which is the latest reporting period. For Graham, he took over the Sun Devil program with an APR score of 935, and has steadily increased the number up to 990 for the 2014-2015 season.

There is one area where the trajectory of the metrics is strictly in favor of Arizona, and it shows up in the graph below:

In Dennis Erickson’s last year at ASU, the average home attendance was just over 59,000 per game, however, in Graham’s six seasons, he has only topped that mark once in 2013. A big chunk of the decline could be attributed to the downsizing of Sun Devils Stadium, but the capacity was over 60,000 until the last two seasons. On the other hand, the trend line for Arizona has been somewhat steady.

2017 Conference Play Results 

In an attempt to compare apples to apples, the table above compares just the conference game results for both teams for 2017. In the eight conference games this year, six have been common opponents.

Arizona State (6-5 Overall, 5-3 Pac-12)

The difference between when ASU wins and when it loses seems to be more about the defense significantly stepping up, rather than the offense. The points being scored, the average yards gained per play, and the percentage of converting third downs is better on offense in the wins, but does not compare to the significant improvement in the same categories by the Devil defense in the games won vs. the games lost.  For ASU winning, it’s all about the defense stepping up big.

Photo by Kevin Camp

The turnover margin is usually a huge factor in determining a game, but not so much for ASU. Of the twelve takeaways ASU has generated in conference play this year, seven of them happened in just two games against Utah and Oregon State. In the other six conference games, ASU had three takeaways in three of their wins and three takeaways in three losses. Additionally, in two of the wins and two of the losses, ASU was even in each of those games in the takeaway margin. The Devils were just +1 in one of its wins and only -1 in one of its losses. This suggests that in six of the eight conference games played in 2017, turnover margin was not a strong determinate in the outcome of the game for the Devils.

One other strong characteristic for ASU as a determinate in a win versus a loss has been the ability of the defense to limit scoring in the first half.  The difference in limiting first half scoring is significant; roughly two touchdowns and a field goal less in games they won compared to the games they lost, whereas the offensive scoring difference was just two points.  The numbers are telling us that the Devil defense can’t let Arizona’s scoring get going early in the game.

Interestingly, in games that the Devils have lost, they actually cut the success rate of their opponents scoring red zone touchdowns in half, as compared to the games they won. That’s the good news; however, the bad news is that in their three losses, opponents scored nine touchdowns of more than 20 yards against the Devils defense. Compare that to the five game ASU has won, where the defense only gave up two touchdowns of over 20 yards.  Limit those big plays; more on this later on.

Arizona (7-4 Overall, 5-3 Pac-12)

The Wildcats are just the opposite of the Devils in conference games. It’s the swing in their offensive production that is a major factor in determining games won vs. games lost. In the three games they lost, Arizona score roughly half of what they did in their five wins. The yards per play they generated in those losses was also about half of what it was in their wins, as was their average first half scoring. For Arizona to win, it’s all about the offensive production early on.

There is also a big difference in the way each team has handled turnovers. In the eight conference games, ball security has been a strength for ASU, having only lost the ball seven times. For Arizona, they have lost the ball 16 times. In fact, the Wildcats turned the ball over more than once in half of its conference games, whereas ASU has only done it once. On the other hand, ASU has had only two games where they had more than one takeaway, while Arizona has had four such games.  ASU giveth little and taketh away little (just 73rd nationally), while Arizona has been more generous in giving the ball away, but a little bit better at getting it back (15th nationally).

One last issue that wasn’t addressed in the table, but is a huge factor is Arizona’s big play capability running the ball versus ASU’s less-than-stellar ability to limit big running plays. Arizona is first in the conference in the number of running plays gaining more than 20 yards thanks in part to their stand-out sophomore quarterback Khalil Tate, while ASU is tenth in the conference in the number of running plays that go for more than 20 yards.  On paper this is a huge red flag for the Devils.

Photo by Josh Cohen

Three Tines to Victory for the Territorial Cup

  1. The ASU defense must limit the number of big running plays centered around Khalil Tate who has averaged nearly 190 yards rushing a game over the last seven weeks.
  2. ASU needs to win the turnover battle as it is +8 in wins this season and -2 in its losses.
  3. Don’t let the Wildcats jump out to a meaningful halftime lead and lose the advantage of the home crowd in a rivalry game.

The real questions is which ASU defense will show up for the game?  The one that helped the Devils in upset wins over Oregon and Washington, or the side that underperformed against the Texas Tech, Stanford, and the Los Angeles schools. Whichever one shows up Saturday will have a huge impact on determining the rivalry game and perhaps Graham’s future at the school.

About Gary Doran

Gary Doran

Gary graduated from ASU many years ago. After careers working in banking, finance and the financial administration of academic research funding, he is now interested in utilizing his passion for numbers towards two things he thoroughly loves; Arizona State University and college football. He is looking forward to finding the “stories” buried within the numbers on a football stat sheet. He has gone to ASU football games all the way back to the days of Frank Kush and the WAC. He has been married to an amazing ASU graduate for almost forty years, and they currently live in Ventura, CA. Although this may disqualify him from talking football, he and his wife enjoy the practice of yoga and dancing the Argentine Tango. Ole!

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