The Tim Kish era began with so much promise after a 48-12 victory over UCLA, but since has gone south in a hurry. Consecutive losses to Washington, Utah, and Colorado have the Wildcats in the basement of the Pac-12 South division heading into Saturday's game, virtually their last chance to salvage any sort of positivity to the season.
Dennis Erickson's team was in the driver's seat in the Pac-12 South and on track for an appearance in the inaugural Pac-12 title game before losses to UCLA and Washington State at home have shuffled up the standings a bit. A third loss to Arizona would likely signal the end of the Sun Devils' chance at playing against the North division champ.
On the surface, it appears that ASU has more to lose. But as well all know, it's not that simple in rivalry games.
After all, isn't that the beautiful thing about rivalry games? Beyond the result on the field lies a chance to hold the Territorial Cup trophy for a season, bragging rights until next fall, and the pride of victory over your arch-nemesis.
When Arizona travels the 110 miles up the I-10 to Sun Devil Stadium, it'll be looking to take the pride it seems to be losing week by week away from its in-state rival. Arizona State entered the season with high hopes for a dream season, and the Wildcats have a chance to turn those dreams into nightmares and try to close the book on any hopes of representing the Pac-12 in a BCS bowl game.
In 2008, a 31-10 Arizona victory prevented Arizona State from becoming bowl eligible and gave the Wildcats all of the momentum it needed to secure a victory over BYU in the Las Vegas Bowl a week later. While ASU is already bowl eligible, UA has a chance to derive some sort of positivity with the offseason just two weeks away.
The Sun Devils will undoubtedly be looking to further UA's already painful season with another loss, and send the Wildcats back home dejected and looking at the possibility of a 10-loss season. A win over its in state rival keeps ASU in the hunt for the Pac-12 title game, but also further demoralizes a team that has virtually nothing but pride left to play for.
On paper, Arizona State seems poised for a big victory for the second consecutive season and bragging rights heading into the tenure of the next head coach of Arizona. But this is a rivalry game, one as bitter and nasty as it gets, and what the result will be is anyone's guess.
And that's what we love about rivalry games.
Players to watch for Arizona State
#6, RB, Cameron Marshall : A big, bruising back, Marshall has scored at least one touchdown in eight of ASU's 10 games this season, and has gained at least 80 yards rushing on five occasions. Before being held to 37 yards versus Washington State, Marshall had rushed for 282 yards in the team's two previous games and will be looking to get back over the 100-yard mark for the fourth time this season.
#8- WR, Gerell Robinson : A former Arizona commitment that spurned the Wildcats for the Sun Devils, Robinson has always been vocal in his dislike for UA. After just 58 catches in his first three seasons with the program, Robinson has finally lived up to the hype and has emerged as Brock Osweiler's favorite target. He's really come alive in the team's last five games, registering at least 100 yards in four of those contests; including an eight reception, 158-yard performance last week against Washington State.
#32- RB, Jamal Miles: With how ineffective UA was at stopping Colorado's Rodney Stewart last week, Arizona State is going to try to get the ball to Miles in every way it can. He's often times used out of the backfield as a receiver, and with the ball in his hands is one of the most electric players in the Pac-12.
#2- S, Eddie Elder: A former Arizona commitment as well, Elder was less than pleased when the Wildcats pulled his scholarship after he had some issues qualifying. He vowed then to make UA pay for letting him go, and after playing a big role in last year's victory for ASU will be looking to make his mark on the game and show the Wildcats what they missed out on.
#7- LB, Vontaze Burfict: Perhaps more well-known for his on the field antics that often times get him and the team in trouble, there's no denying that Burfict is one of the best defenders in the conference. Opposing offensive lines often look to double team him to prevent him from completely dominating the game, but he's still managed five sacks and seven tackles for loss as a junior. The UA offensive line has to account for Burfict on every down or run the risk of him post double-digit tackles and harassing Nick Foles all game long.
#9- DT, Bo Moos: One of the more athletic defensive linemen in the Pac-12, Moos has made a living in opposing backfields all season long and is a tough matchup along the interior for an Arizona team that sometimes struggles with protection. If Burfict becomes too much of a priority in the middle of the field, look for Moos to make the Wildcats pay for the inattention to him.
Keys to the game:
1. Score first: Arizona State has lost its last two games to opponents it frankly should not have been beaten by, and a score first by Arizona has the chance to affect the Sun Devils' team psyche. On the flip side, points on the opening drive against a tough ASU defense may be the boost of confidence Arizona will need to stay competitive in the game.
2. Contain Miles: Osweiler looks to get the ball to Miles whenever possible, and he's often used in a lot of motion plays and misdirection in order to give him a running start at making a big play. Containing Miles takes away an entire dimension of the ASU offense and focuses Osweiler to make more risky throws down the field.
3. Air it out: After Washington State freshman quarterback Connor Halliday lit up the Sun Devils for 494 yards and four touchdowns, there's little doubt UA will look to hand it to its senior quarterback Foles and let him do what he can to win the ball game. Foles has struggled the past couple weeks, but a good game against ASU will erase any memory of those past performances.
4. Protect: It seemed that Foles was always on the move last Saturday against Colorado, and with pass rushers like Burfict for ASU, the UA offensive line will need to step it up. If Foles can hang in the pocket and stay upright, it gives the Wildcats their best shot at pulling the upset.
5. Temper emotions: Players on both sides will understandably be fired up for Saturday's game, but UA needs to do its best to calm down and play within itself. It can ill afford stupid penalties and mistakes that hurt itself or give ASU extra chances to score. Arizona will need to use the extra energy in a positive way, and not one that will be a detriment to its chances at victory.