Arizona State at Arizona Preview

The battle for the Territorial Cup has always carried a high level of intensity. Yet, On Friday there will be much more than just bragging rights on the line. The winner of this matchup, coupled with a UCLA loss, will be crowned Pac-12 South Champions and have a shot at the conference a championship as well.

For the first time since 1986 both Arizona State and Arizona enter this game ranked in the Top 25, and never in the Pac10/12 era have both quads faced each other sporting nine or more wins. This is a matchup where the proverbial “throw the records out of the window” adage has been applied time and time again, yet this year this contest is truly one that is extremely even and hard to call.

Arizona State offense vs. the Arizona Defense

While the Sun Devils have generally not been explosive this year as they were in 2013, this is a group that still carries quite a punch.

The roller coaster season that quarterback Taylor Kelly has endured affected the passing game, but a four touchdown and more importantly turnover free performance versus Washington State last week gives hope that the senior can turn in another solid performance as his faces his in-state rival for the final time.

And it would behoove the passing game to have a big day as wide receiver Jaelen Strong returns to the lineup after sitting out last week with a concussion and the speedy Cameron Smith is continuing to emerge as a legitimate no. 2 option at this role.

Running back D.J. Foster continues to prove himself as a potent weapon both in the ground attack and as a receiver. He scored three touchdowns in ASU’s last game and is enjoying a solid year, and is undoubtedly one of the key players in this matchup.

While the Arizona defense isn’t an upper echelon unit, players such as Scooby Wright and Tra’Mayne Bondurant are among some of the Pac-12’s best defensive players and could contain the Sun Devil offense to some extent. However, while I’m not expecting ASU to explode for 52 points like it did against the Cougars last Saturday, I don’t think they will struggle either putting points on the board.

Arizona offense vs. the Arizona State Defense

Needless to say that quarterback Anu Solomon’s health is the biggest factor here, and as I write this article Las Vegas has taken the game off the boards until the status of his ankle injury becomes clearer.

It’s a well known fact that with players such Cayleb Jones and Austin Hill, Arizona boasts one of the best wide receiver groups in the conference, and Solomon has done a great job delivering the ball to them and the rest of his aerial targets all season long. His backup Jesse Scroggins has attempted a total of seven passes, five of them coming during his team’s game last week against Utah. It stands to reason that he can’t operate the offense’s passing game with the same level of effectiveness.

With Solomon’s injury Arizona was content to ride the coattails of running back Nick Wilson who had 218 rushing yards and three touchdowns in that game, and spearheaded a ground attack that was able to take the pressure off of Scroggins and the passing game.

ASU’s defense has been a bag a mixed goods the last few weeks, seemingly posting as many dominating performances as often as falling flat. Their rush defense is probably more of a deficiency than their pass defense. The unit’s calling card is its aggression and frequent blitzes, and that could be a concern for Arizona if the inexperienced Scroggins is behind center.

Five Keys to the Game

- Even without a betting line, it seems that the overall sentiment is that Arizona is the favorite to win this game. This is a program that usually thrives on being the underdog and succeeds as such, something that can be said about Arizona State as well. Thus, how do the Wildcats handle that pressure hosting one the most meaningful rivalry games in decades?

- It’s been proven time and time again that the ASU offense is at its best when its running game is in a good rhythm and providing good balance for the passing game. With Kelly’s recent struggles, it now becomes imperative for this aspect to take the pressure of Kelly, as well as sustain long drives that keep a potent Arizona offense off the field as long as possible.

- The ASU defense will have to pick its spots in terms of its pressure and not be overzealous if Solomon would to be sidelined. ASU cannot let Nick Wilson and Arizona’s running game take advantage of its aggressive mindset and establish itself early in the game and possibly dictate the rest of the contest’s tempo.

- Surely you can say that establishing the line of scrimmage is always a key to every game, yet this facet cannot be overstated this week. ASU’s front five has been giving up quite a bit of sacks and tackles for loss in the last handful or so of games, and that hasn’t helped an already shaky Taylor Kelly. If the ASU signal caller is continually harassed this could spell disaster for the visitors. On the other side of the ball, the Sun Devils’ defensive line cannot let Arizona’s running game to get off to a good start, and if Scroggins does indeed get the nod then they have to force him to win the game, let alone make sure this inexperienced quarterback is under constant duress.

- Usually no one brings up special teams unless there is an issue to discuss. Yet, going into this game this is a factor that is worth mentioning. The Wildcats punt and punt return units are some of the best in the conference and can really help the hosts win the field position battle, something that is crucial in such an even matchup. And such a close matchup could very well come down to field goal kicking where ASU’s Zane Gonzalez is 19-23 and Arizona’s Casey Skowron is 17-25. Therefore, does ASU perceived advantage here come to play on Friday?

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