(Photo: Scotty Bara/WCSN)
One month of spring practices from March to April, a month of fall camp from August to September, and three months of practices during the week and games on the weekends from September to November, has culminated in this: a meeting between No. 13 Arizona State and No. 12 Arizona in the 88th Territorial Cup matchup.
Simply put, the stakes could not be any higher.
The matchup was recently rated as the most intense rivalry in all of college football, according to an algorithm developed by researchers from Western Carolina and Northern Kentucky. For the first time since 1986, both schools are ranked in the top 25 in the country. And, a win for either school, coupled with a loss from UCLA, means a trip to Santa Clara for the Pac-12 Championship.
Yet as riveting as the historical tales, untold side-stories and emotional hype may be, the game played on the field is the only one that ultimately matters. The adrenaline from the entire week is bound to wear off eventually, and at that point executing a game plan and understanding another team’s strengths and weaknesses becomes the decisive factor.
“It’s about discipline, you can’t lose focus and get caught up in the emotion and start playing outside the framework of the defense,” defensive coordinator Keith Patterson said. “You have to stay sound, take care of your responsibility and make sure you play with great discipline.”
So, what exactly is the framework of the defense and the individual responsibilities going into the matchup against Arizona?
According to Patterson, the Wildcats remind him much of his own team—a marked difference from past weeks with matchups against pass-crazed Washington State and tight end-dependent Oregon State.
“Obviously, I would say probably ourselves, our own team,” said Patterson, when asked which team Arizona resembles the most. “They’re pretty physical running the football. A lot of the same concepts, as far as the run-pass read. I would say concept-wise, probably us.”
Like the Sun Devils, Arizona’s offense operates out of a read-option attack that showcases workhorse freshman running back Nick Wilson between the tackles. Against Utah’s formerly-impenetrable front seven, Wilson galloped for 218 yards and three touchdowns. The effort put him over 1000 rushing yards for the season and bolstered his yards per carry average to 6.0.
Patterson, however, is confident in his defense’s ability to rise to the occasion.
“If you look at it, over the course of the past six or seven weeks, we’ve been pretty solid at stopping the run with the exception of the two big runs that we gave up at Oregon State. We build every game plan around trying to stop the run and build off of that. It’s no different than any other week,” Patterson said. “They’re very effective at running the football. They put a major emphasis on it and then that sets up their passing game. So again, we’ve got a solid plan and I feel good about our ability to stop the run. It’s going to be key in this game.”
While ASU can all but bank on 20-plus touches being allocated to Wilson (who’s averaging 23 carries and 158 rushing yards in his past three games), the conductor of Arizona’s read-option remains unknown.
Quarterback Anu Solomon, a freshman as well, injured his ankle on his team’s final drive of the first half last week and did not play for the remainder of the game. Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez has been mum on Solomon’s status, leaving open the possibility of redshirt senior Jesse Scroggins making his first career start.
As was the case the week that ASU was set to play UCLA—a week in which Brett Hundley’s health had been concealed beautifully by Jim Mora—the Sun Devil coaching staff is not going to alter its preparation.
Regardless of who is under center for Arizona, ASU’s defensive game plan is no secret: Embrace your strength, and bring the house.
“When we do what we do, quarterbacks aren’t very comfortable in the pocket,” Patterson said. “There’s a lot of indecisiveness, hanging onto the ball maybe just a little bit longer than what you normally do. When you sit there and you just play zone coverage after zone coverage—we tried that earlier in the game last week—but then we went back to what we do. We have to remind ourselves, stay aggressive.”
Patterson said that this type of defense is often what helps the offense going.
“That’s when we started creating those turnovers, it started creating momentum,” Patterson said. “It’s so critical that our players on defense understand the importance of forcing turnovers, batted balls. The offense feeds off it and the crowd gets into the game. It’s no different this week. We have to force those turnovers and put indecisiveness into the quarterback’s mind.”
Thus, whether it’s a concerted effort to stop the run or a message of staying aggressive and continuing to blitz, the coaching staff continues to profess the importance of resisting the urge to become entranced with hype and emotions.
“We are always going to be passionate and intense, but we’re going to be very disciplined,” head coach Todd Graham said. “That’s what we’ve always done, especially in these big games. All the other stuff around the game is for the pageantry of it, it’s for the fans. We need to stay focused on the job at hand, and that’s fundamentally executing our scheme and being prepared for the adversity that always comes in these games.”
- Due to the understandable desire to keep information in-house for rivalry week, all of the Sun Devils practices this week are closed to the media. Though ASU practices tomorrow, Tuesday was the last day for statements from coaches and players.
- Wide receiver Jaelen Strong is primed to return to the field, according to Graham.
- “He was close to playing last week. It was really just precautionary that we didn’t play him,” Graham said.
- While ASU embracing its blitz-oriented attack may be playing to its strengths, the scheme undoubtedly leaves the team susceptible to giving up big plays. Still, it excels at forcing turnovers, and to Graham, that is what ultimately matters.
- “Bottom line, the team that wins the turnover battle wins these games. That’s the way it is, and so the key is to minimize the errors,” Graham said.
- As for Thanksgiving on Thursday, “We’re going to have Thanksgiving lunch like we always do,” Graham said. “Then we’ll let them go with their families.”