In what could be Arizona State’s last game of the season, emotions are running high heading into ASU's Friday matchup against its in-state rival, Arizona.
“I hate this school to be honest,” ASU senior tight end Kody Kohl said. “I grew up bleeding maroon and gold so we have always hated that place and I don’t even like going down there. I already feel the pressure. As soon as that game was over at Washington, I knew it was time to turn around and that’s all I was talking about. It’s a different motivation this week for sure.
“This is the last time I will go against U of A and I want to make them remember me for sure.”
With ASU (5-6 overall, 2-6 in the Pac-12) needing a win against Arizona (2-9 overall, 0-8 in conference play) to become bowl-eligible, everything will be on the line for the Sun Devils Friday night.
“We are definitely excited,” ASU senior De'Chavon Hayes said. “We are taking this game very serious. The meaning of this game means a lot more than any other game we’ve played. It’s one of the biggest rivalries in college football. To us, it means a lot to beat the team down south.”
Rivalry week brings out a lot of emotions for players, especially seniors who have consistently played in this game for the length of their careers at ASU.
“It means everything, man,” ASU senior offensive lineman Stephon McCray said. “The team, we need another win to be bowl-eligible and the Territorial Cup. This is what we are play for at Arizona State is to go down there and kick their butt.”
While the intensity is clear, the challenge for the Sun Devils will be to not get caught up in the emotions, but rather execute on both sides of the ball.
“You [have] anger and controlled anger and sometimes you get lost in it,” Kohl said. “That’s happened to me before. Last time we went down there I messed up on a play because I got too angry and I lost sight of things so playing with controlled anger, you are going to play lights out and a great game.”
ASU senior wide receiver Tim White said in any rivalry game a player's “energy spikes up” and it’s a mutual feeling throughout the program.
“The biggest thing is getting the guys to understand how crucial this game is and not only to this program, but to this state and coming in as a freshman it’s just another game, but being here five years you see the intensity of the game and not only what it means to the fans, but to the guys around the community and in the state,” ASU senior safety Laiu Moeakiola said.
When he first got to ASU, Moeakiola said freshmen think of the Territorial Cup as just another game, but as players start to grow and be around the program for four years, they understand the seriousness of the rivalry and how much it means to the program, as well as the fans.
“It’s been intense,” Moeakiola said. “It gradually grew on me in my last four years here. The transition from being a freshman to a fifth-year senior, you grow the hate for the guys down there and I’m just excited to play them one last time and come out with a victory.”
In the Todd Graham-era, the Sun Devils have won three of their four Territorial Cup matches against Arizona. However, the Wildcats still lead the series with a 48-40-1 record.
After beating Arizona in 2012 in Tucson, ASU beat Arizona 59-21 in 2013 at Sun Devil Stadium. With the win, the Sun Devils won the Pac-12 South and the season was the first of back-to-back 10-win seasons for ASU.
“2013 when we beat them and ended up winning the Pac-12 South championship that year and it was a great moment and even if you don’t play you understand the intensity of that game,” Moeakiola said. “You have alumni come through and kind of explain the history of the university and what it means to the community. You kind of grow a hate for them over the years so it’s an exciting time.”
In 2014, the Pac-12 South title was again on the line, but ASU couldn’t get it done, losing 42-35 to the Wildcats on the road.
“When we went in that locker room I just busted into tears because I was so angry,” Kohl said. “We had that. There was a lot on the line. The Pac-12 championship and they got to go and we beat ourselves that game and so it was really hard.”
Despite the loss, Kohl said one of his favorite memories was that game when he scored a touchdown in the fourth quarter.
“I mean the loss really sucked, believe me, and it haunted me all offseason, but I had a touchdown in the corner that game and my parents and family were right in that corner and I got to see them and just pointed at them and they were freaking out,” Kohl said. “They hate them (Arizona) as much as I do.”
Moeakiola said the 2014 Territorial Cup loss was a feeling players "never want to experience again" and said the bus ride back to Tempe after the game was especially quiet.
“It sucks,” Moeakiola said. “I’m not going to lie. Having that loss and then heading into that offseason, one of those losses was to the team down south. You kind of use that for fuel for the fire for the offseason and you never want to experience that again and because that game was the pivotal point. Whether we went to the Pac-12 championship or not and them having the opportunity and they beat us, it was a kind of fuel for the fire in the offseason.”
Last year, ASU won the Territorial Cup last year, 52-37 at Sun Devil Stadium. Arizona quarterback Brandon Dawkins was the primary quarterback and was 16-of-30 passing for 305 yards and two passing touchdowns. Dawkins also ran for 78 yards, accounting for the eight sacks he took, and had one rushing touchdown.
This year, Dawkins has played in nine games for the Wildcats, completing 95-of-174 passes for 1,271 yards, seven touchdowns and six interceptions.
Dawkins has had to replace Arizona junior quarterback Anu Solomon, who has been recovering from a knee injury for the majority of the year. Solomon has only played in five games this year, throwing one touchdown.
“They got two quarterbacks who know what they are trying to do as an offense and they got the playmakers to do it and it all starts with the quarterback,” Moeakiola said. “You see that on film and he can make plays with his feet and his arms. Try to limit those big plays and make him earn it."
In Arizona’s 42-17 loss to Oregon State last week, Solomon made his first start at quarterback since the Wildcats’ season opener, but he was injured in the first quarter and was replaced by Dawkins.
With the loss to the Beavers, the Wildcats have an eight-game losing streak headed into Friday’s Territorial Cup game. After Solomon went down against the Beavers, Dawkins finished the game and threw for 106 yards and a touchdown while running for 88 yards on 15 carries on Saturday.
Last in the Pac-12 in scoring offense at 21.9 points per game, the Wildcats haven’t scored four touchdowns since their 35-28 overtime loss to Washington on Sept. 24. Since then, Arizona’s largest point production has been 24 points in a blowout loss to Colorado on Nov. 12.
In the run game, Arizona senior wide receiver Samajie Grant has been leading the group after season-ending injuries to running backs Nick Wilson and freshman J.J. Taylor.
Grant has played in all 11 games this season, rushed 55 times for 285 yards and scored three touchdowns. He also has 22 catches for 247 yards and two receiving touchdowns.
Arizona is No. 3 in the Pac-12 in rushing offense with 209.9 yards per game, mostly due to how the Wildcats execute on offense, with Dawkins taking off to run more times than not. Dawkins leads Arizona in rushing yards, with 119 carries for 761 yards and eight rushing touchdowns.
“Their quarterback is definitely a quarterback that can scramble the ball and we have to put a lot of pressure on him and stop him from running the ball and we will be fine,” Hayes said.
In the receiving corps, Arizona sophomore wide receiver Shun Brown is the top receiver in yards per game with 47.4 in addition to three touchdowns. Arizona senior wide receiver Nate Phillips leads the receivers in catches with 31 for 346 yards on the season and one touchdown.
On the defensive side of the ball under first-year defensive coordinator Marcel Yates, Arizona has tended to play five players at the line of scrimmage, a variant from Rodriguez's traditional 3-3-5 defensive look.
However, despite the varying schemes, Kohl said he hasn’t seen anything that stands out to him so far regarding Arizona’s defense.
“I haven’t seen too much,” Kohl said. “A lot of people seem to be running all over them. People were being aggressive and knocking them over and stuff like that. I think they do have some good skill players and they might have some good coaches, but I haven’t seen too much from them.”
The Wildcats are very aggressive on defense, blitzing five or six players at a time, which looks similar to ASU’s defensive scheme from last year.
“They definitely blitz a lot more than they have in the past and that’s definitely a strength because it causes more chaos and communication will have to be a lot better, especially us on the road and I mean I don’t really see them having any weaknesses, especially with this being a rivalry game and everyone plays better,” McCray. “You can’t count anyone out in a rivalry game.”
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.
Arizona sophomore free safety Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles leads the Wildcats with 74 tackles, three tackles for loss, two interceptions, four pass breakups and six passes defended.
“There’s a lot of holes on the field and we just want to exploit that and try to take advantage and trying to be an explosive as an offense,” White said. “That’s what you want to do, exploit a team weaknesses and hoping we can exploit that and go out there and do a great job."
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. Nobody on the team has more than three sacks. McCray specifically singled out Arizona junior defensive lineman Jack Banda, who has two sacks on the year, as a challenge on the defense.
“Number 93 (Banda), their nose guard is a real active player,” McCray said. “He’s been there for awhile, has played a lot and he’s a real good player. Played against him a little in my sophomore year. Like I said, it’s a rivalry game and everyone is at their best for those."
Within the Pac-12, Arizona is ahead of only ASU in yards allowed per pass and in total defense, as the Wildcats are giving up 6.2 yards per play. The Wildcats are allowing 4.8 rushing yards per play, which ranks ninth in the Pac-12.