(Photo: Elaine Wilson/WCSN)
Nothing quite like the start of rivalry week.
Although Arizona State and Arizona are a combined 11-10, that doesn’t mitigate the importance and emotions heading into the 89th installment of the Territorial Cup.
“This game is worth five wins,” ASU head coach Todd Graham.
With both teams relatively underachieving according to expectations, a win in a rivalry game could be the near end of the season jolt to put the 2015 season in a more positive frame.
“It’s the most important game of the year, period,” Graham said. “It’s the most important thing that we do, and you want to be able to be a part of the group that says in the Territorial Cup, you got it done. That’s it. Simple as that.”
The Wildcats are coming off a momentum-building, double-overtime thriller of a win over Utah, and they also won last year’s Territorial Cup contest in Tucson 42-35.
That game was as much of a back-and-forth contest as any in recent memory, and while emotions naturally ride high during rivalry week, managing those emotions is vital to which team comes out victorious.
“A lot of times, you can get over-emotional, but if we can channel that into being disciplined, playing with great energy and effort, I think we’ll come out with a good result,” redshirt sophomore James Johnson said.
Johnson is coming off a nice game against Washington, when he came in for the injured redshirt senior safety Jordan Simone and broke up a potential touchdown pass. The Huskies would attempt a field goal on that possession, which was missed. Johnson also forced a fumble which was recovered by ASU.
While Johnson was positive about his performance and mentioned the “unspoken” intensity surrounding practice, he was also mindful of Simone’s importance. Simone, the nation’s leader in tackles per game, was ruled out for the remainder of the season with a knee injury sustained against Washington. Simone also missed last season’s Territorial Cup due to injury.
“It’s heart-breaking,” Johnson said. “My heart goes out to him (Simone). That’s my brother. It’s sad to see him go out that way, but if there’s anybody that can handle it, it’s him.”
With it being senior day as well, redshirt senior cornerback Lloyd Carrington and his classmates are also tasked with remaining focused amidst the hoopla and intensity of the rivalry game.
“It’s a rush walking out with the fog and the fireworks going,” he said. “It’s a crazy moment, crazy feeling to have. Emotions are going to be high. It’s going to be kind of hard to stay focused.”
Backups ready in the secondary
With freshman safety Kareem Orr out of action last weekend and the in-game injuries Simone and redshirt junior linebacker Laiu Moeakiola sustained, three new players were forced to jump in on ASU’s defense.
Redshirt sophomore Marcus Ball stepped in at SPUR linebacker while Johnson and sophomore Chad Adams stepped in at both safety positions.
While Graham mentioned the defense had to simplify what it was doing, the Sun Devils pitched a shutout in the second half en route to 27 unanswered points and a 27-17 win.
In addition to Johnson’s forced fumble, Ball picked off Washington freshman quarterback Jake Browning to all but seal the game for the Sun Devils.
“We have the ‘next man up’ mentality,” Carrington said. “Guys have been able to come in, and they know what they’re doing now, so it’s not really a big thing for me to try to communicate or make them do something different because they understand what we’re supposed to do defensively.”
While the Sun devils are down to their second- and third-string safeties, the performance against Washington was motivating in the immediate and distant future.
“It shows that we’re going to be leaving here with some great Sun Devils in the back end,” Carrington said.
With Orr’s status up in the air (he was in a green, no-contact jersey today), the secondary that will lineup on Saturday is still cloudy, but the group is confident nonetheless.
“Everybody is always back there taking every single rep mentally,” Johnson said. “So going in there, we were pretty comfortable with the guys we had, all hands on deck, and it felt good to see everybody do their job.”
While the Sun Devils sit at .500, records will be thrown out of the door – as one would assume – once the teams run out of the tunnel. Given the lack of championship implications in this contest as opposed to 2014, pride is on the line more than usual.
“No matter what we do during the season, we’re always going to be measured by the Territorial Cup,” Johnson said. “Regardless of what’s happened in the past, we’re focused on Arizona and only Arizona.”
– Orr, Moeakiola, redshirt junior linebacker Salamo Fiso and sophomore safety Armand Perry were in green today. Graham expects Orr, Fiso and Moeakiola to play.
You can reach Zac Pacleb on Twitter @ZacPacleb or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org