What to watch for when the Arizona Wildcats host ASU for the Territorial Cup
Here are three things to watch in the Arizona Wildcats’ game vs. Arizona State (Saturday, 1:30 p.m., FS1), plus a score prediction and some pertinent preview links:
1. RUN, THEN LET IT FLY
Those Khalil Tate-orchestrated, extend-the-play bombs are fun to watch. They often produce big plays (see storylines below). They can’t be the foundation of the offense. It has to start with the running game. That’s what won it for Arizona in 2016, and that’s what can win it for the Wildcats today. Arizona is at its best when it’s feeding J.J. Taylor. If Tate would like to crash the party as a runner, all the better. Running the ball consistently and authoritatively would help the Wildcats in three ways: (1) They would establish the edge at the line of scrimmage, crucial in every game but especially this one; (2) it would make it easier for Tate to throw the ball via play-action and RPOs; and (3) it would ease the burden on a defense that’s going to have its hands full. I have serious concerns about Arizona’s ability to cover N’Keal Harry; I don’t think anyone on the roster who’s healthy and available to play can do it by himself. The problem with double-teaming him is it takes a defender out of the box. I remain steadfast that the Wildcats should focus on stopping Eno Benjamin. Harry is going to do his thing. It becomes harder for ASU to throw if Arizona knows it’s coming.
2. CLOSE BUT …
Regardless of what happens today, the Sun Devils will look back on this season and wonder what could have been. All five of ASU’s losses have come by seven points or fewer. But to say Arizona State hasn’t or can’t win close games would be a false narrative. ASU beat Michigan State, USC and UCLA by three points apiece. You can’t assert that the Sun Devils are however many points from being undefeated without also acknowledging those close victories. Anyway, any number of factors could be the difference in a close game, which this latest Territorial Cup matchup is expected to be. One to keep an eye on is which team does a better job of keeping its composure and avoiding unnecessary penalties. After Scottie Young Jr. committed an off-the-ball unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty to help extend the opening drive against Washington State last week, Kevin Sumlin just about lost it; it’s the maddest I’ve seen the first-year UA coach get. The players seem to have gotten the message heading into this week. “It’s like that in every rivalry game. Emotions run high,” senior tackle Layth Friekh said. “You’ve just gotta keep your cool and know that if you do something stupid, it hurts the team ultimately. You’ve gotta really check your emotions, hold back and play whistle to whistle.”
3. SOMETHING SPECIAL
Something strange and/or unexpected invariably happens when these teams get together. I’ve covered two of these games. The first was the ’16 matchup I previously referenced. That was a bad Arizona team. The Wildcats found a way to win anyway, relying on effort, passion and physicality. Last year’s game featured all manner of weirdness, from Rich Rodriguez’s game management at the end of the first half to Arizona’s punting woes to the play that still seems to gnaw at Shawn Poindexter. You know the one I’m talking about — the punt-return touchdown that got called back because of Poindexter’s phantom block-in-the-back foul. Reflecting on it the other day, Poindexter said he felt bad for returner Shun Brown — as if he someone had let his teammate down. Brown surely doesn’t feel the same way. But Brown undoubtedly wants to redeem himself after fumbling on a punt return last week — a ball he should fair-catch 100 times out of 100. Brown hasn’t had a punt-return touchdown all season. Could it happen this afternoon? Could that be the play that swings the game? ASU has surrendered a punt-return TD and is allowing a hefty 11.7 yards per return.
FINAL SCORE: Arizona 31, ASU 28
Game advance: What’s at stake? Just a bowl berth and the perception of the ’18 season Greg Hansen: ‘Mr. Football’ on sellout streaks, ASU’s star — and Saturday’s prediction UA-ASU storylines: On Tate’s scrambles, seniors’ memories, coaches’ flips Podcast: Lev, Finley and Spears break down the UA-ASU game