The story with Nick Foles is well known throughout both Tempe and Tucson; a former standout prep passer in the state of Texas, Foles committed to Dirk Koetter at ASU in 2006 but when Koetter was fired and Dennis Erickson was brought in, the two sides parted ways. Foles ultimately signed with Michigan State, and after a year in East Lansing he migrated to Tucson and grasped the starting position early in 2009.
Since that point, Foles has turned blossomed into a nationally-known passer as engineer of UA's explosive spread offense. In his second year as a starter, Foles has completed 232-of-340 passes (68.2 percent) for 2,649 yards with 16 touchdowns and seven interceptions.
Foles missed two midseason games, allowing former first-stringer Matt Scott to temporarily reclaim the starting role. Scott, a former teammate of several Sun Devils at Corona (Calif.) Centennial High School, did so in more than adequate fashion, completing 70.3 percent of his passes for 772 yards with four touchdowns and two interceptions, in addition to 125 net rushing yards.
Arizona's efforts in the run game has been less productive this year compared to recent annual efforts, though a stable of quality backs is still found on the roster.
Junior Keola Antolin, the team's leading rusher (117 carries, 584 yards, seven touchdowns) has been a spark plug in each of his three years, while tenured runner Nic Grigsby (98 carries, 467 yards, eight touchdowns) is a former 1,000-yard runner with dynamic capabilities. Antolin and Grigsby have split starting duties, and power runner Greg Nwoko (43 carries, 223 yards, three touchdowns) rounds out UA's primary rushing trio.
As a whole, Arizona has one of the deepest and most diversely talented crop of wide receivers in the Pac-10, led by surefire First-Team All-Pac-10 member Juron Criner (67 catches, 1,091 yards, eight touchdowns), the team's lengthy leading pass-catcher.
Steady junior David Douglas (42 catches, 398 yards, four touchdowns) joins Criner as the primary outside receivers, with speedster Travis Cobb (24 catches, 267 yards, one touchdown), a senior, and former West Virginia Mountaineer junior Gino Crump (four catches, 39 yards) behind them.
Junior Dave Roberts (38 catches, 429 yards, two touchdowns) has established himself as a solid inside receiver, while sophomore Terrence Miller (22 catches, 266 yards) and redshirt freshman Richard Morrison (11 catches, 108 yards), originally a quarterback, have come on strong as of late at inside receiver.
As has been expected lately of players at the position not named Gronkowski for the Wildcats, the statistical contribution from tight ends has been minimal this season, as senior A.J. Simmons (seven receptions, 88 yards) and redshirt freshman Jack Baucus (four catches, 22 yards, one score) have been quantitatively overshadowed by UA's wide receivers.
UA's entire starting offensive line can wave goodbye to Tucson in unison Thursday night as all five starters are seniors playing their final collegiate home game.
From left-to-right, sixth-year senior Adam Grant starts at tackle and Conan Amituanai starts at guard, with standout center Colin Baxter joining them on the first-team. Jovon Hayes fills the spot at right guard, with Phillip Garcia at right tackle.
All things considered, UA's offense is cooled off noticeably compared to recent years, as the Wildcats rank fifth in the conference in scoring offense (29.8 ppg.) and third in total offense (450.1 ypg.). These numbers are greatly impacted by Arizona's disproportionate offensive output, as the Cats top the Pac-10 rankings in passing offense (314.0 ypg.) but eighth in rushing offense (136.1).
Despite the uncharacteristically middle-of-the-pack offensive statistics, Foles has the ability to methodically pick defenses apart, largely thanks to Criner's physical mismatch advantage.
Add in a veteran offensive line and capable 1-2-3 punch at running back, and Arizona has no shortage of quality components.
When UA has the ball, ASU needs to generate a pass rush on Foles to avoid giving him pocket time to progress through his options. Additionally, the secondary – which likely will be stretched out due to the array of multiple-receiver sets – will need to be on point in Tucson.
If these achievements can occur, Sun Devil fans can be confident in the matchup of ASU's run defense, ranked first in the Pac-10, versus Arizona's lower-tier rush offense.
However, as always, ASU defenders will have to harness the game's innate intensity to avoid continued self-inflicted wounds by way of penalty yardage.
Up front, Arizona has the advantage of perhaps the most talented and experience pair of defensive ends in seniors Ricky Elmore (40 tackles, team-high 10.0 TFL, Pac-10 high 8.0 sacks) and Brooks Reed (39 tackles, 8.0 TFL, 5.5 sacks), both bring equal talents to pester quarterbacks.
Though depth at defensive end is limited, senior D'Aundre Reed (32 tackles, 5.0 TFL, 2.0 sacks) has performed admirably in a reserve role. Mohammed Usman, listed as the primary backup to Reed, has appeared in only one game this season.
Redshirt freshman Justin Washington (40 tackles, 8.5 TFL, 4.0 sacks) burst onto the season early this season but calmed down as the year progressed, but still has been very solid with a bright future. Senior Lolomana Mikaele (29 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 0.5 sacks) one of six defenders to start all 11 games this year, enters his final collegiate home game.
Redshirt freshman Sione Tuihalamaka (15 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 1.5 sacks), junior Willie Mobley (six tackles, 1.5 TFL, 0.5 sacks), a former Ohio State Buckeye, and sophomore Chris Merrill (two tackles), a product of Scottsdale Saguaro High School, are listed as the primary reserves at defensive tackle.
The linebacker position has been one of the more pleasant surprises for UA this year, as all three starters – including two junior college transfers – were new to begin the year. Despite a lack of game experience, the trio of WILL linebacker Paul Vassallo (team-high 86 tackles, 7.5 TFL, 2.0 sacks), MIKE linebacker Derek Earls (43 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 1.0 sack) and SAM linebacker Jake Fischer (45 tackles, 7.5 TFL, 2.0 sacks) has by-and-large held its own to a high degree in 2010. Both Earls and Vassallo, the two JUCO transfers, have started all 11 games, while Fischer has split time with the first and second-teams, appearing as a starter six times thus far.
Sophomore R.J. Young (19 tackles) is listed as the top backup at both outside linebacker positions, while Trevor Erno (one tackle), a former four-star recruit, has seen very limited action in nine games as the top reserve MIKE ‘backer.
In the secondary, UA has the dichotomy of talented underclassmen and savvy veterans throughout the depth chart at every defensive back position.
Junior Trevin Wade (36 tackles, one interception), regarded as one of the nation's premier cornerbacks, hasn't had the flashy statistics he had during his first two seasons but still creates a formidable combo with fellow starter Robert Golden (53 tackles, one interception), a former blue-chip recruit that has seen action at both corner and safety during his three-year career.
Senior Mike Turner (15 tackles) and talented true freshmen Jonathan McKnight (seven tackles) and Shaquille Richardson (28 tackles, two interceptions), one of three castoffs from UCLA's preseason controversy, have all seen ample time at cornerback this year, as all three have appeared in all 11 games.
At safety, seniors Joseph Perkins (56 tackles, two interceptions) and Anthony Wilcox (43 tackles) are the first-stringers at free and strong safety, respectively, while highly-touted youngsters Adam Hall (47 tackles, two interceptions) and Marquis Flowers (10 tackles) wait in the wings as the starting pair of the future for the Wildcats.
In the early part of the season, it appeared as if a paradigm shift had occurred in Tucson and UA would be a defensively prominent club, as the Wildcats harassed opponents during the infant stages of the year.
As the schedule grew more challenging, the statistics became slightly less impressive; however, there still is much to plan for when strategizing to face UA's defense.
Statistically, Arizona ranks third in the league in scoring defense (20.8 ppg.) behind BCS-bound Oregon and Stanford, while ranking fourth in passing defense (201.1) and fifth in rushing defense (138.0 ypg.).
Though UA ranks fifth in the league in total sacks (27), the duo of Elmore and Reed can are qualified to give the Devils' tackles Hell and will need steady and physical attention all night long.
The key component in the matchup of ASU offense vs. UA defense may not be in statistics or other proven, quantitative factors, but in the unknown factor of how Sun Devil quarterback Brock Osweiler will respond in the biggest game of his young collegiate career.
If the Brock of last Friday makes his way to Tucson, Thursday could feasibly reinvigorate Sun Devil football and intrigue the Maroon and Gold masses throughout the entire offseason.
Special Teams Preview
Few surnames are as transcendent through both sides of the ASU-Arizona rivalry as Zendejas, with UA's current kicker Alex having etched his spot in the series lore with his game-winning field goal in Tempe last year.
Zendejas has emerged into one of the Pac-10's better kickers, connecting on 12-of-15 field goals. The Glendale native has shown accuracy with what has been expected of him, with no attempts over 49 yards but he is six-of-seven from 40 to 49 with a long of 47. Oddly, Zendejas has missed as many extra points (38-of-41) as field goals this season.
Former Ray Guy nominee Keenyn Crier has tapered off since his career began in sensational fashion, averaging 40.9 yards on 40 punts on the year. Zendejas has also seen duty at punter, averaging 35.0 yards on three punts.
Junior John Bonano handles kickoffs and has placed 12 of 62 for touchbacks on the year.
Trevor Cobb has been a solid kickoff return specialist, averaging 24.4 yards on 24 returns with a 100-yard touchdown to his credit. Mike Turner, William Wright, Daniel Jenkins and Greg Nwoko have also seen action on kickoff returns.
Surprisingly, Arizona's production on punt returns has been very scarce this season, as William Wright carries a 6.1-yard average on his 14 returns. Last year, Wright had nearly three times the return average, boasting a 17.5-yard average on 12 punt returns with one touchdown.
True freshman Chase Gorham, a product of Scottsdale Chaparral High School, has assumed the duties as long snapper in his rookie season.
Whether a bowl game appearance is possible or not, for ASU the difference between a 6-6 record following a win over UA and a 5-7 finish measures much larger than the one-game separation in the season's final standings.
A win would restore order to the football cosmos in the state of Arizona; a win would likely kick start lofty expectations for Brock Osweiler's success as a starter in 2011; a win would feasibly allow the Devils to make up some traction with in-state recruiting.
For us fans these prizes are spectacular; however for the players on the field these goals likely won't make the trip down I-10 with the team.
Beating Arizona is about restoring school pride and ownership of dominance in the rivalry; it's about sending the senior class -- small as it may be -- out with pitchforks held high, not heads hung in disappointment.
It's about pulling the plug on two consecutive losing seasons, placing a cork in this year with a .500 record and lubricating the floodgates for a potentially redeeming 2011 season; it's about preventing the first three-game losing streak to UA in 15 years.
Most importantly it's all about bringing ASU's Territorial Cup back home where it belongs -- on campus in Tempe.
Injury News and Lineup Notes
• Defensive end Junior Onyeali missed some practices this week due to illness and if he cannot start he will be replaced by James Brooks.
• Defensive tackle Corey Adams is expected to see more action this week as he heals up from his injury but his replacement at second team defensive tackle, Toa Tuitea, has been placing very well in relief and is expected to see more snaps than Adams.
Five Questions: ASU at Arizona
• How will starting quarterback Brock Osweiler perform in a very hostile environment?
• Will the postseason speculations affect ASU's performance?
• Can the Sun Devils prevent Arizona from having a strong passing performance?
• Can ASU attack Arizona's run defense, which has shown deficiencies as of late?
• Will ASU be able to limit game-changing mistakes?
• ASU defensive coordinator Craig Bray coached UA's linebackers in 2003.
• UA running back Keola Antolin and ASU cornerback Josh Jordan both attended Las Vegas (Nev.) Bishop Gorman High School.
• UA offensive lineman Trace Biskin and ASU tight end Christopher Coyle both attended Westlake (Calif.) Oaks Christian High School. Current ASU verbal commit Dillon van der Wal is a senior at Oaks Christian this year.
• UA linebacker Trevor Erno and ASU wide receiver Kevin Anderson both attended Lakewood (Calif.) High School. Current ASU verbal commit Rashaad Wadood is a senior at Lakewood this year.
• UA quarterback Nick Foles initially gave ASU his verbal pledge before ultimately signing with Michigan State, where he began his career prior to transferring to Arizona.
• UA offensive lineman Phillip Garcia, ASU cornerback LeQuan Lewis and ASU wide receiver Mike Willie all attended Cerritos (Calif.) College.
• UA long snapper Chase Gorham, ASU cornerback Deveron Carr and ASU punter Trevor Hankins both attended Scottsdale (Ariz.) Chaparral High School.
• UA wide receiver Sean Lieb and ASU's Mike Callaghan both attended Phoenix (Ariz.) Brophy Prep.
• UA linebacker Bilal Muhammad and quarterback Matt Scott attended Corona (Calif.) Centennial High School, as did ASU's Lee Adams, Jarrid Bryant, Vontaze Burfict, Shelly Lyons, Brandon Magee and William Sutton.
• UA defensive back Kyrel Parker and ASU safety Shane McCullen both attended Apache Junction (Ariz.) High School.
• UA linebacker Brett Thompson and ASU safety Ramon Abreu both attended Tempe (Ariz.) Marcos de Niza High School.
• UA defensive linemen Apaita Tuihalamaka and Sione Tuihalamaka as well as ASU cornerback Devan Spann all attended Gardena (Calif.) Serra High School.