With an injury-laden season almost behind them, the Arizona Wildcats head into the Territorial Cup looking for their first conference win of the year.
Arizona (2-9 overall, 0-8 in conference play) is dead last in the Pac-12 heading into its last game of the 2016 season against Arizona State (5-6 overall, 2-6 in conference) on Friday.
ASU won the Territorial Cup last year, 52-37 at Sun Devil Stadium, but Arizona still leads the series with a 48-40-1 record. ASU will head into Friday’s game seeking a last shot to become bowl-eligible.
“To our guys, to our fans, we understand how important this game is,” ASU head coach Todd Graham said. “Very exciting to get prepared to compete this week.”
For Arizona, it will miss a bowl game appearance for the first time since 2011. The Wildcats had won three of their last four bowl games.
If Arizona doesn’t beat ASU on Friday, it will be the first time the Wildcats go winless in conference since their 1957 season under head coach Ed Doherty in the Border Intercollegiate Athletic Association. Arizona finished 1957 with a 1-8-1 overall record, 0-4 in conference.
Arizona is riding an eight-game losing streak headed into this week after a 42-17 loss to Oregon State in Corvallis, Oregon. Both teams entered the game with 2-8 records. Arizona’s two wins were against Grambling State, 31-21, and Hawaii, 47-28.
Early in the season, the Wildcats challenged then-No.9 Washington on Sept. 24, taking them to overtime before falling 35-28. Ever since then, Arizona has been unable to pull out a win.
Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez is in his fifth year with the program and had expressed earlier in the 2016 season that this was “maybe the most frustrating year” he’s ever had. Rodriguez has accumulated a 35-29 record overall, 17-26 in conference with one game left this season.
In 2014, the Wildcats were No. 1 in the Pac-12 South, finishing 10-4 overall, 7-2 in Pac-12 play before losing to Boise State 38-20 in the Fiesta Bowl.
Fast forward two years later and Arizona is last in the Pac-12 in scoring offense at 21.9 points per game, with the Wildcats unable to find any offensive rhythm with multiple injuries at quarterback and running back.
Arizona is No. 10 in the conference for total offense with 397.2 yards per game.
Against Oregon State, Arizona junior quarterback Anu Solomon made his first start at quarterback since the Wildcats' season opener, but he was injured in the first quarter and was replaced by quarterback Brandon Dawkins.
Dawkins threw for 106 yards and a touchdown while running for 88 yards on 15 carries on Saturday. He has played in nine games for the Wildcats this year, completing 95-of-174 passes for 1,271 yards, seven touchdowns and six interceptions.
“Dawkins is a really talented athlete,” Graham said. “Guy is very, very fast and I think he’s one of the top six rushers in the Pac-12. He’s really a dynamic runner and has really good arm strong so he is very, very athletic quarterback that can really hurt you. He can take the ball to the house. He’s got tailback skills at the quarterback position.”
Solomon had been recovering from a knee injury and has played in five games this year, throwing only one touchdown. Last year, Solomon threw for 20 touchdowns, five interceptions and was 205-of-330 passing on the season.
“Anu is really good passer,” Graham said. “He’s been hurt off and on for the year, but he’s a guy that his style, he’s athletic too, he can extend plays, but he’s a really, really accurate passer and does a good job throwing the ball so they are very diverse there in their skill set.”
To further exemplify the depth of the injuries at quarterback, in Arizona’s game against UCLA on Oct. 1, the Wildcats were already without Solomon, had lost Dawkins to a rib injury in-game, walk-on Zach Werlinger was put in the game, but couldn’t execute and so Arizona was forced to burn the redshirt of true freshman quarterback Khalil Tate.
Tate has played in seven games this season with three touchdowns and three interceptions.
In the run game, the Wildcats have had to make multiple adjustments personnel-wise due to injuries to running back Nick Wilson and freshman running back J.J. Taylor. Taylor and Wilson are out for the year. Taylor was injured in Arizona’s overtime loss to Washington.
Wilson has been out since Oct. 15 with a knee injury. Wilson started the first games of the 2016 season with two 100-yard performances, but after spraining his ankle against Hawaii, Wilson missed the following two games.
Wilson tried to play against UCLA, but only played some of the first half. After missing the following two games, Wilson played against USC on Oct. 15, but suffered the knee injury that has kept him out since then.
With Wilson and Taylor out, Arizona senior wide receiver Samajie Grant converted positions and took over the starting running back duties. Grant has played in all 11 games this season, rushed 55 times for 285 yards and three touchdowns. He also has 22 catches for 247 yards and two receiving touchdowns.
Last year, Grant had 31 catches for 301 yards and two receiving touchdowns.
“I’m really impressed with Samajie Grant,” Graham said. “He really gives them a speed tailback that can really make things happened.”
Arizona junior wide receiver Tyrell Johnson has also been taking snaps at running back this season, recording 28 carries for 145 yards and one rushing touchdown. Dawkins actually leads Arizona in rushing yards, with 119 carries for 761 yards and eight rushing touchdowns.
Arizona is No. 3 in the Pac-12 in rushing offense with 209.9 yards per game.
“They definitely have great skill players,” Graham said. “Very capable. They got great speed at the skill positions. Wide receiver and running back.”
In the receiving corps, four receivers have 20 or more catches, but all average less then 50 yards per game. Arizona sophomore wide receiver Shun Brown is the top receiver in yards per game with 47.4 in addition to three touchdowns. Brown is also averaging 18 yards per catch.
Senior wide receiver Nate Phillips leads the receivers in catches with 31 for 346 yards on the season and one touchdown.
“They got very capable receivers that can stretch the field vertically and you have to do a good job of tackling and keeping them in front of you,” Graham said.
On defense, Arizona defensive coordinator Marcel Yates is in his first season at that position after the Wildcats hired him on Jan. 19 in replace of Jeff Casteel. Prior to Arizona, Yates was the defensive coordinator at Boise State.
The Wildcats are No.10 in the Pac-12 in scoring defense, allowing 38.6 points per game. In the secondary, Arizona is No. 9 in the conference in pass defense, allowing teams to throw for 266.4 yards per game.
Against Oregon State, Arizona gave up 475 yards of total offense, 265 yards through the air and 210 rushing yards. Arizona sophomore free safety Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles had a game-high 13 tackles in addition to one tackle for loss.
Flannigan-Fowles leads the Wildcats with 74 tackles, three tackles for loss, two interceptions, four pass breakups and six passes defended.
Arizona junior cornerback Dane Cruikshank also has two interceptions on the year in addition to seven pass breakups and nine passes defended. Cruikshank is a junior college transfer from Citrus College.
Arizona only has seven interceptions on the year and is last in turnover margin at minus-eight. The Wildcats have lost eight fumbles and 12 interceptions and gained five fumbles in addition to the seven interceptions.
Pressure-wise, Arizona has recorded 20 sacks this year, good for eighth in the Pac-12. Arizona senior linebacker Michael Barton missed one game due to a knee injury, but overall leads the team in tackles for loss and sacks with seven tackles for loss and three sacks.