(Photo: Scotty Bara/WCSN)
An argument can be made that this year’s Territorial Cup matchup is the most important in the series’ history.
The No. 13 Arizona State Sun Devils (9-2, 6-2 Pac-12 South) will travel to Tucson to take on the No. 11 Arizona Wildcats (9-2, 6-2 Pac-12 South) with both teams still hoping for a chance to win the Pac-12 South and play in the Pac-12 Championship Game. It is the first time since 1986 both teams are ranked going into the Territorial Cup game.
The two teams not only have identical records, but they are also even in most statistical categories, which should make for a close and exciting game.
Snapshot of Arizona
The Wildcats are one of the biggest surprises in the country. After an 8-5 season in 2013, that included a surprising 42-16 win over then-No. 5 Oregon, the Wildcats lost their quarterback, their top three rushers and three of their top five receivers.
Despite these losses, the Wildcats’ offense is better this season than in 2013, when the Wildcats rode running back Ka’deem Carey.
The quarterback position for Arizona was a mystery until the season opener, but freshman Anu Solomon has been fantastic in the role. Solomon already has more yards (3,216) and touchdown passes (25) than B.J. Denker did all of last season (2,516 yards, 15 touchdowns).
Solomon has done a great job spreading the ball around to his receivers. The Wildcats have seven different receivers with 20 or more catches and 10 different players have caught a touchdown pass.
This passing attack combined with running back Nick Wilson, who has 1,085 yards on the season, has made the Wildcats’ offense more dynamic and tougher for teams to defend.
On the other side, the defense has played well for the Wildcats even though the numbers do not support that. The Wildcats are giving up just under 440 yards per game, which is 96th in the nation. However, the defense is on the field for almost 80 plays per game.
The Wildcats are plus-10 in turnover margin and are averaging almost three sacks and seven tackles for loss per game.
Overall, the Wildcats’ defensive numbers are only slightly worse than the Sun Devils.
Matchup to Watch
Anu Solomon vs. Arizona State’s defense
In last week’s victory over Utah, Anu Solomon injured his ankle and his status for Friday’s game remains unclear. Reports from Wednesday have him officially listed as questionable.
If Solomon is unable to go, the Wildcats will turn to senior Jesse Scroggins, a transfer from USC. Scroggins has thrown seven passes in his collegiate career, all of them this season for the Wildcats. Scouting reports from the Wildcats’ offseason camps say Scroggins can be inconsistent at times, which is why he lost the starting job.
Against the Sun Devils’ blitzing, ball-hawking defense, Scroggins’ inexperience could be an issue. If he even plays.
There’s still a chance Solomon will play but if his ankle is bothering him he may not be very effective. If the ankle does not bother Solomon, his mobility could cause problems for the Sun Devils’ defense.
ASU Wins If…
They control the Wildcats’ running game.
For all the talk of Anu Solomon’s success as a passer, the Wildcats still rely on running the football. In 11 games this season, the Wildcats have rushed for 100 yards or more nine times. They won all nine of those games. The two times they failed to reach 100 yards rushing– against USC and UCLA– they lost.
Now that’s not to say the Sun Devils have to hold the Wildcats to under 100 yards rushing. Against California and Washington, the Wildcats rushed for 107 and 133 yards. Though they won both games, the Wildcats needed a Hail Mary against Cal and a last-second field goal against Washington.
If the Wildcats are held to around 150 yards rushing, and Solomon, or whoever is playing quarterback, is forced to throw the ball a lot, the Sun Devils will win the game.
ASU Loses If…
They fail to capitalize on turnovers.
Both of these teams rely heavily on turnovers. The Sun Devils have 23 takeaways this season, and a turnover margin of plus-12. The Wildcats have 22 takeaways with a margin of plus-10.
Even though the Sun Devils are slightly better in overall numbers, the Wildcats are better at overcoming turnovers in a game. The Sun Devils are 2-2 when they lose or tie the turnover battle. The Wildcats are 4-1 in that situation.
Obviously, teams always want to win the turnover battle but, given the Wildcats’ abilities to overcome their mistakes, it is imperative for the Sun Devils to score touchdowns after forcing a turnover. Flipping the field or settling for field goals after turnovers would be a victory for the Wildcats.
Vegas has the Wildcats as 2.5 point favorites. Both these teams are basically even in every statistical category. And given the uncertainty of Anu Solomon, it makes it hard to predict this game. However, the game is in Tucson which will give a slight edge to the Wildcats, especially considering how many Sun Devil defenders are playing in their first Territorial Cup matchup.
Arizona State – 38
Arizona – 31