Midway through this season, the two most recent Pac-12 South Division champions were left for dead.
The reigning champs, the Arizona Wildcats, collected five early-season victories thanks in part to a soft non-conference schedule, but after being crushed by Washington in a 49-3 blowout in late October, the Wildcats saw their hopes of becoming bowl eligible for the fourth consecutive season in danger.
Meanwhile, the 2013 South Division champion, the Arizona State Sun Devils, lost three consecutive fourth quarter leads to fall below .500 with just three games left on the schedule.
To compound matters, ASU failed to show up for the first half of its Homecoming game against Washington last Saturday, putting itself in a 17-0 hole that figured to spell the end of the Sun Devils’ hopes.
But somehow, someway, November 14 served as a turning point for the Pac-12’s desert schools. Hours after ASU scored 27 unanswered points and collected four fourth quarter takeaways to steal a victory away from the Huskies, the Wildcats stunned Pac-12 South leader Utah in double-overtime in Tucson.
This Saturday, Arizona and ASU will meet for the 89th installment of the Territorial Cup in a game that will serve as a breaking point. One program will continue its resurgence with a critical win, while the other will fall to a rival in a season destined to be labeled a disappointment.
Though ASU still has California bookending its regular season schedule, a rivalry game played toward the end of the season provides a much-needed jolt. Historically, the Territorial Cup has been as unpredictable as any rivalry in college football, perhaps thanks to the adrenaline rush players receive knowing the end is near.
There’s a lot to be said for the power of the mind as a healing mechanism, and this week, players on both sides will have their mental fortitude tested. Each team has been battered by injuries, and ASU offensive line coach Chris Thomsen said the rush of competing against a rival helps ease the pain.
“I think it’s good, because this time of year, in reality, guys are beat up,” Thomsen said. “It’s been a physical, long season for everybody. So that extra surge of momentum and adrenaline that you get form a rivalry game helps. That adrenaline helps everything, the bumps and everything, guys can kind of forget about that.”
The danger in playing with added adrenaline is letting emotions overtake your focus, which is a major concern for ASU given its feast or famine defensive style. The Sun Devils play so much man coverage in the secondary that ASU has to be cognizant of its defensive backs, especially inexperienced players, trying to do too much and failing on individual assignments.
ASU is also short-handed in the secondary this week because of a season-ending knee injury to senior safety Jordan Simone and an injury to freshman safety Kareem Orr that leaves his status for Saturday in question, so the Sun Devils will have to rely on veterans like senior cornerback Lloyd Carrington to help keep the emotions and focus of its defensive personnel in check.
“In this game, there’s a lot of hype surrounding it and you tend to let your emotions overtake your focus throughout the game,” Carrington said. “But the main thing is to continue to play with my teammates and stay on the same page.”
ASU learned this lesson the hard way a season ago, as the Wildcats took advantage of defensive breakdowns for a pair of big play touchdowns.
In Arizona’s 42-35 victory, the Wildcats scored on a 69-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter and a 72-yard touchdown run early in the third quarter that negated any defensive momentum ASU started to build.
The Wildcats’ 42 points indicates ASU faced significant defensive struggles against Rich Rodriguez’s offense, but Arizona only picked up 13 first downs in the entire game.
“I feel like they didn’t do much last year,” senior cornerback Kweishi Brown said. “Honestly, we gave up too many cheap ones is what it was. Those cheap plays, but that means, we’ve got to stay focused and do a good job. I have to do my 1/11th and everything will fall into place.”
ASU’s defensive scheme sometimes lends itself to the cheap plays Brown talked about, and Arizona has an added big-play dimension to its offense this season.
Randall has given Arizona a spark as a ball carrier this season, carrying 70 times at a staggering 9.8 yards per carry. While he’s not quite as polished of a passer as Solomon, Randall has kept the Wildcats’ offense afloat and stymied defenses with his electric speed.
“Number eight (Randall), he’s a more athletic guy, so we have to be cognizant of him as far as running,” Carrington said. “But you know, that’s pretty much the big difference between the two.”
Solomon has still taken the lion’s share of the reps this season, but after suffering a concussion against Utah, his status is undetermined for Saturday’s contest. Nevertheless, both Carrington and Brown indicated ASU has spent time breaking down both quarterbacks’ tendencies, and are prepared for either to take the field come game time.
Brown said ASU spent a lot of time early in the week looking at film from Arizona’s win against Utah, in which Randall came in toward the end of the game when Solomon went down with a concussion.
Randall ended up throwing the game-winning touchdown in that game, but Brown said he thinks ASU has a better chance of shutting Randall down and taking advantage of his inexperience.
“Oh, that was a good game,” Brown said of the Utah-Arizona contest. “I’m not too worried about it though. What I’ve seen, the quarterback will, the backup, he’s going to give you a chance. He’s a new guy, so, I feel like we have more of a chance against him. But it’s on us to dominate.”
Whichever quarterback the Wildcats rely on Saturday will have a diverse receiving corps at his disposal.
Though not nearly as prolific as Washington State’s “Air Raid” offense, Arizona’s approach in the passing game somewhat mirrors the Cougars’ because of how well Arizona spread the ball around.
The Wildcats have five players with at least 27 catches this season, but no player with more than 42 receptions on the year.
ASU defensive coordinator Keith Patterson echoed a statement that came from head coach Todd Graham earlier in the week when he said the Wildcats’ best overall position group could be its receivers.
“I think there’s just so much diversity and they all have about four or five touchdowns a piece, they all have about the same receiving yards,” Patterson said. “You’ve got big guys, you’ve got quick guys, and you’ve got depth. They’ve got three bigger guys that they really like to run the passing game to, then they’ve got smaller, quicker guys who they can get the ball to quickly. They get the ball out of the quarterback’s hands, now you’ve got to go make a play in open space.”
Still, the Wildcats haven’t added any new pieces to their passing game since the teams squared off last season, and Brown said the familiarity ASU gained against Arizona’s receivers last season should help this year.
“[Straightforward] receiving corps,” Brown said. “I mean, they’ve got some good guys, but nothing we haven’t seen. Going against them last year, it’s going to be nothing new. So I’m pretty set on that.”
The Wildcats haven’t added many new pieces defensively, either, but they did lose a critical piece to an injury. Junior linebacker and defending Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Scooby Wright has only played in two games this season, and likely won’t be available on Saturday which leaves the Wildcats without the centerpiece of their defensive from a season ago.
The Wildcats differ from many Pac-12 opponents ASU faces in their defensive scheme, as Arizona runs a base 3-3-5 defense that frequently features a stack front.
Wright’s ability to roam sideline-to-sideline keyed Arizona’s defense, and with injuries to him and fellow junior linebacker Jake Matthews, ASU offensive coordinator Mike Norvell said Arizona has elected to dial up more pressure packages to create havoc defensively.
“I’ve got a tremendous amount of respect for Coach Casteel and the job that he does schematically,” Norvell said. “I know they’ve had some injuries this year, so you see probably a little bit more aggressive with their blitz packages. The last couple of games against USC and against Utah last week, they’re really bringing their pressure a lot more, playing more man coverage, attacking in that regard, so we have to be prepared for it all.”
The increase in pressure and blitzes comes toward the end of a season in which Arizona has really struggled to keep opposing offenses off balance. The Wildcats have had mild success with creating pressure from sub-packages, but Arizona’s 23 sacks rank eighth in the conference and the lack of a dynamic pass-rushing presence has hurt the team’s ability to get off the field on third down.
Still, the difference in Arizona’s 3-3-5 stack front compared to a 4-3 or a 3-4 look is significant because it forces opponents to prepare for an entirely different defensive approach.
Thomsen said that approach is tough for offensive linemen because it’s harder to know how the Wildcats will adjust their defense and looks over the course of a game.
“They’re different, most teams are going to come out and if they’re playing an odd front, a three-down front, it’s going to be a 3-2 box,” Thomsen said. “These guys will be in a 3-3 stack more or some, and then they’ll adjust their backers some. So they don’t really ever let you get settled in and get a bead on where they’re at.”
Thomsen said he does see a benefit in playing a team with a different defensive front, because it forces his players to maintain a sharper level of focus.
After facing the same 3-4 and 4-3 fronts over the course of a season, preparation can become mundane and checks and calls can be lackadaisical.
In a rivalry game, ASU already knows it has to emphasize its focus and attention to detail, and the Wildcats’ defensive approach reinforces that notion.
“For the last six or seven weeks, we could walk out here and it’s basically been the same defensive format up front,” Thomsen said. “Three down, four down, not a lot of variation, so when you get to Arizona, their defensive coordinator does a nice job of giving you some different looks and that’s good too because some of that becomes redundant. Now our guys can say, this is different, we’ve got to focus on this, and they do a nice job with their scheme.”
Another key for ASU’s offense against Arizona is building off of the team’s best performance in terms of ball security this season. For the first time this year, ASU did not commit any turnovers against Washington, and it helped the Sun Devils to not let the game get out of hand in the first half.
This Saturday, ASU is facing a team that ranks last in the Pac-12 in turnover margin thanks to the fact Arizona has forced just 11 takeaways this season. The talk of turnovers often sounds like a broken record coming from ASU’s offensive personnel, but in a rivalry game, turnover margin sometimes become an even greater indicator of an outcome.
“Any rivalry game, that’s what games always come down to,” Norvell said of turnovers. “You look at this season, it’s something that shows up throughout this year. I don’t think we have to emphasize it anymore to our guys cause they know. They know the importance of owning the ball and we know the importance of getting takeaways.”
There’s no question Arizona and ASU are both suffering from disappointing seasons, but Saturday affords each team the opportunity to reverse the overall narrative and end the season on a positive note.
Regardless of whether one team entered the contest 11-0 and the other 0-11, the players and coaches have stated throughout the week they know records and performances to date mean nothing in a game of this magnitude.
Even graduate senior wide receiver Devin Lucien, who is set to play in his first Territorial Cup on Saturday, said he knows Arizona has the potential to top its level of play from this season, and from last year, when the Wildcats took home the division crown.
“When I played them, I hate to say, they had a better team last year than they did this year,” Lucien said. “But I’m sure in a game like this, records don’t matter much. So they could come out and play better than they ever did last year, so we just have to be ready for it.”
Lucien offered perspective from the sense of the unpredictability of rivalry games, and Brown gave us his thoughts on the overall importance of the Territorial Cup.
Playing in his final home game at Sun Devil Stadium, Brown knows how meaningful a victory on Saturday would be for ASU’s seniors, but he said the game is about much more than the legacy of one class.
Though this Saturday’s game is especially critical in the context of how each team will view its season, Brown said the Territorial Cup isn’t just about this year, because its significance has much deeper roots.
“It’s not just about this team, it’s about everyone in this community, I feel,” Brown said. “It’s a big game, especially in my last year, we have to win this game just to go out with that, ‘We beat U of A’. It’s about more than just the players who are here, it’s about the players who have been here, and the recruits.”