Expert preview and viewing guide: ASU at UA

The 90th installment of the Territorial Cup takes place at 7:30 p.m. on ESPN at Arizona Stadium in Tucson between Arizona State and Arizona. Here's an analysis-based preview.

Arizona Offensive Scheme

More than any other team in the Pac-12, Arizona relies upon the mobility of its quarterback to set its offense in motion. This philosophical approach is increasingly less common in college football and especially in the pass-heavy Pac-12. 

It's also risky and potentially unsustainable, as the Wildcats have learned. Quarterback injuries have become commonplace at Arizona, with the system exposing the position to seemingly continuous physical harm. 

The Wildcats don’t necessarily need their quarterback to rack up a lot of yards on the ground in order to be successful when the rest of the offensive talent is good. They incorporate more throws on intentional roll outs and bootlegs than any other team in the league. But when the offensive line and complimentary players aren't as good, such as this season when the Wildcats are 0-8 in the Pac-12, it's a particularly fraught approach. 

Like all systems, Arizona's offense is designed to induced mistakes from opposing defensive players. There’s a big schematic emphasis on layered play action fakes that force defensive backs in particular to make multiple correct decisions in quick succession — often nearly simultaneously — post-snap in order to be successful. 

The Wildcats want to initially trick the eye discipline and processing power of defensive backs with play action fakes at the line of scrimmage that occur nearly simultaneously with the need to read what the receivers are doing. It’s essentially a run or pass read and a bubble screen or vertical route read that defensive backs must correctly identify and often leads to indecision. That’s something that ASU and other teams commonly do in the Pac-12 on offense, so it’s not an unusual challenge in and of itself.

Where the Wildcats are really outside of the norm is how they then additionally test the discipline of defensive backs by moving the quarterback quite aggressively outside the pocket in order to induce mistakes and get defenders to break off their responsibility by feeling stress to respond to the quarterback run threat. 

This is a style of play that exposes the quarterback more and so it’s not really a big surprise that Arizona’s had injury problems at the position, including starter Anu Solomon, who is questionable to play with an ankle injury. Solomon has only played in five games this season due to injuries. In last year's Territorial Cup, Solomon did not play after suffering a concussion in the previous game. He's reportedly had multiple concussions in his career and an assortment of other injuries.  

Solomon’s backup is Brandon Dawkins, a very athletic player with a big arm and fleeting accuracy on tougher throws. Arizona is last in the Pac-12 in completion percentage, largely due to its style of play, but also because it hasn't secured a very accurate passer -- or even perhaps, a true quarterback, for that matter. 

Still, Dawkins completed 16 of 30 attempts for 305 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions in last year's Territorial Cup, and also ran for 78 yards and a touchdown despite taking eight sacks. 

Dawkins is the team's leading rusher by far this season because Arizona's been hit hard by injuries in the backfield. In fact, the Wildcats have had to convert wide receiver Samajie Grant to the position because its two two backs have been out for weeks. 

Arizona's top receivers are short, slot-style players Nate Phillips and Shun Brown. They're quicker than fast and elusive working laterally. Brown has a bit of a vertical capability that has to be accounted for. 

Partly because of how it likes get their quarterback on the run, Arizona throws to its backs on swings and screens far less than most Pac-12 teams, and instead stresses defenses laterally through the bubble screen ability to receivers and quarterback roll outs. 

At 21.9 points per game, Arizona is last in the Pac-12 in scoring and by a pretty considerable margin. 

Arizona Offensive Personnel

Anu Solomon (No. 12) // Brandon Dawkins (No. 13) — Solomon is a little more accurate passer and better polished quarterback even though Dawkins has better overall physical tools. Solomon could give ASU some trouble with his ability to accurately throw on the move if he plays, especially with some the problems we’ve seen from a decision-making and communication standpoint in the ASU secondary. But his mobility should be compromised due to the ankle injury, which really hampers the schematic approach. Dawkins has a big arm and is good sized but also runs extremely well. But he's more raw as a quarterback by far, and only has seven touchdown passes and six interceptions in nine games. If Dawkins plays we can expect he'll carry the ball 15 times in this game, and Arizona will call designed sweeps and other runs for him.

Samajie Grant (No. 10) — A senior who converted to running back due to need, Grant is an undersized 5-foot-9 and 180 pounds. He is agile and quick, with the ability to make defenders miss tackles and lose containment. But he's not among the better running backs ASU will have faced this season.

Nate Phillips (No. 11) — A 5-foot-7 jitterbug of a slot receiver, Phillips works leverage routes underneath very effectively and Arizona likes to get him working laterally to the outside working with the flow of the quarterback on roll outs. Sometimes Phillips will align into the boundary on a 2x2 in order to try to generate a man coverage match-up the boundary safety on a vertical. That’s something ASU will have to watch out for. 

Shun Brown (No. 6) -- Quick and shifty, Brown is very small at 5-foot-8 and 175 pounds. He's similar to Phillips in a lot of respects and both players align primarily in the slot either on 2x2 of 3x1 formations. He's got a little more vertical route running and explosiveness that ASU will have to manage with its defensive backs. 

ASU defense against Arizona offense

Last year ASU brought a lot of pressure on Arizona and generated eight sacks. Graham and Patterson will likely attempt to replicate this strategy, particularly because Arizona's outside receivers aren't a significant threat.  Some of the strategy could depend on which quarterback Arizona has, but this is the type of team ASU will likely use a lot of field side overload blitzes against to try induce mistake throws and corral the run capability. 

What's been interesting this season is how ASU's at times blitzed a lot less and played more Cover 4. There's the potential for ASU to try to zone off the field and force Arizona to increase its drive sustainment with long, drawn out drives. More snaps in this fashion would lead to more opportunities for quarterback exposure.

Either of these strategies could work, if executed, but some key players for ASU in this game are WILL backer D.J. Calhoun, Spur Laiu Moeakiola and Bandit Marcus Ball (assuming he plays, as expected).

Arizona Defensive Scheme

Arizona has a first-year offensive coordinator, Marcel Yates, who arrived from Boise State. The Wildcats have kept the names of their defensive positions, which include the "Bandit" and "Spur" because ASU coach Todd Graham and Arizona coach Rich Rodriquez have a shared coaching history. 

But Yates has made the Wildcats more adaptable to their opponents in terms, though not really with improved results. A lack of overall talent is as to blame as anything else,with the Wildcats potentially the least talented defense in the Pac-12. 

The Wildcats are less of a stack 3-3-5 defense this year and playing a lot more four and five man fronts, albeit it with two or three stand up linebackers or hybrid end players depending on the personnel grouping. They've gone from being primarily a two-gap front -- increasingly rare in the Pac-12 -- to more of a one-gap, attacking style and are now playing with more seven man boxes than in the past. 

Yates dials up a lot of blitz pressure and brings it in a wide variety of ways. Ten of his players have at least one sack, but nobody has more than three sacks. Arizona lacks potent pass rushers up front and so it has to be more creative in how it gets to the quarterback. It's one of the biggest hurdles the team has in addition to being very light at the point of attack and especially over the football with a 247 pound nose tackle, Parker Zellers. Arizona likes to stand up Zellers at times and run him at an aggressive slanting angle to try to open up blitzing holes and make the job tough on opposing centers and offensive guards. 

Where there are remaining similarities with the ASU scheme, beyond the names of positions, is with the back five defenders, with Arizona using a hybrid safety similar to ASU’s Spur and flipping its players from field to boundary. 

Overall, this is a defense that has had to rely too much on its defensive backs to make plays because of an inability to stop the ball nearer the line of scrimmage. 

One of Arizona's biggest problems has been its turnover margin. It's given up ball more than 10 other teams in the Pac-12, and also generated fewer turnovers than 10 teams. 

Arizona Defensive Personnel

Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles (No. 6) -- A Tucson native who was offered by no other Pac-12 team, Flannigan-Fowles is Arizona's leading tackler (74) as a sophomore at 6-foot-2, 199 pounds. He primarily plays the boundary safety position, but is a long and rangy defensive back athlete who can cover and fill against the run. He has two interceptions and four passes defended. 

Michael Barton (No. 11) // Paul Magloire (No. 14) -- Arizona's inside linebackers are both fifth year seniors, with a combined 124 tackles. They're average inside backers and primary run stoppers but Yates will blitz either, at times. 

Davonte' Neal (No. 19) — After playing wide receiver earlier in his career, Neal switched to defense because of regular lapses and a modest skill set. In a lot of ways he’s been like junior running back De’Chavon Hayes for ASU, an athletic player who was hyped but has not delivered. A fifth-year senior, Neal has just 20 tackles and passes defended with no interceptions. 

DeAndre Miller (No. 32) — A junior who has moved from SAM backer to the STUD pass rush position, Miller's productivity has dropped off with just 15 tackles including five for loss in eight games played. Though he's one of is one of the better prospects on the Arizona roster, with impressive range and a high ceiling, Miller is probably better suited as an inside backer.

ASU offense against Arizona defense

ASU's run the ball very successfully on Arizona in three of its last four games with Graham and Rodriguez as the coaches. The only time ASU didn't run the ball well was 2014, when it lost and Arizona won the Pac-12 South as a result. Last year, ASU running backs Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage each rushed for more than 100 yards and ASU had 250 rushing yards in the game. When the Sun Devils have run the ball well and taken care of it, winning the turnover margin, they've won. When they haven't, they've lost. It's a simple thing to say and much tougher to execute, particularly given ASU's recent struggles to run the ball in its five game losing streak. 

Arizona's forced just 12 turnovers this season. If ASU turns the ball over more than once it has failed at ball security and the game will be in jeopardy, particularly even the team also doesn't run it successfully. For quarterback Manny Wilkins, ball security is everything in this game. 


ASU needs to win to gain bowl eligibility and get the crucial extra practices to develop, while Arizona has no chance at a bowl and will conclude its season on Friday regardless of the outcome. Arizona is looking to avoid its first winless season in Pac-10/12 history. My prediction is ASU wins 34-31. 

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