(Photo: ASU Athletics)
It’s the game that needs little introduction. Arizona State versus Arizona – the Territorial Cup – is upon us, and as if the game needed any more buildup, both teams are coming off arguably its biggest win in the last decade.
A win for the Sun Devils and they host the Pac-12 Championship game, and believe me, that means something. A win for the Wildcats caps a remarkable late-season turnaround and propels UofA into a respectable bowl game.
Arizona State wins if: The Sun Devils play Sun Devil football. It’s abundantly clear which team has more talent. Arizona State has been one of the 10-best teams in the country over the last six weeks. They’ve dismantled lesser teams and last week, for the first time in recent memory, won a major road game.
Taylor Kelly has been great, Jaelen Strong looks like an NFL player right now, and the defense is as aggressive as ever, hitting the quarterback and converting turnovers into points. If the Sun Devils just keep playing like they’ve played since the Notre Dame loss, this should be a win for the home team.
I understand Arizona just beat Oregon. Oregon also should’ve lost to Oregon State on Friday night. The Ducks have mailed it in like no team I’ve ever seen, and the Wildcats played an emotional, physical and complete game last week. It’s hard to imagine them doing it again.
The Sun Devils are in trouble if: Arizona wins the rushing game by 75 or more yards. Marion Grice isn’t going to play, regardless of how much hope the Sun Devils have tried to instill in fans this week. Ka’Deem Carey, meanwhile, is the best running back in college football.
But where Arizona State has been so good lately has been at taking away the opposing teams strength. I call it the Bill Belichick defense. When you have talented, smart athletes but not necessarily a bunch of great football players, like the New England Patriots often have, or in this case Arizona State has, the best thing to do is key in on the opponents strength. If the opponents beats you with its weakness, so be it, but don’t let them beat you with their strength.
The Sun Devils have taken that approach, and the only game it failed them in was Notre Dame, when quarterback Tommy Rees was forced to beat Arizona State and did just that. Otherwise think of the great players the Sun Devils have shut down. Washington’s Bishop Sankey, Oregon State’s Brandin Cooks, Colorado’s Paul Richardson and UCLA’s Myles Jack.
Can the Sun Devils do it again? If not, this game will be closer than it should be, especially if D.J. Foster struggles in his return to the running back role, or if Deantre Lewis can’t step in and make some plays for Arizona State. Carey is going to get yards, but they can’t be meaningful, and the Sun Devils are going to need to at least keep up with him if they want to pull away with this game.
The Sun Devils want B.J. Denker to throw the ball. Last week, he did it well, but that was the first time all season that Denker looked like a throwing quarterback, and even then he was more of a manager. Speaking of which…
Arizona State loses if: B.J. Denker turns into Taylor Kelly. Denker hadn’t been good all year until the Oregon game. There’s no bigger proof than the horrendous display of offense the Wildcats showed in a home loss to Washington State. Denker struggles in every facet of the passing game; simply put, he’s a running back with an alright arm and nothing else. The sad thing for Arizona fans is he’s still the best option.
If Arizona wants to pull the upset, Denker is going to need another big game. No turnovers, vertical passes and a high completion percentage are all going to be keys. The easy way for Arizona State to prevent this is to continue hitting the quarterback as they have in recent weeks. But a lack of a pass rush will open the doors for Denker to have a big night, and if he does, Sun Devil fans are going to walk away disappointed.
Prediction: Arizona State wins, 44-24. The biggest mistake football fans make is overreacting to one game when the sum of the season points in a different direction. I understand that Arizona just systematically picked apart Oregon. I also get that Arizona State struggled in the second half against UCLA. What I know is Arizona is fortunate to be bowl eligible. Over the course of the season, they’ve been the third-worst team in the conference. The Sun Devils, meanwhile, have only gotten better as the season has progressed. With the exception of Grice, the team is healthy and clicking on all cylinders. I would be shocked if the Sun Devils had a letdown game, but I almost expect the Wildcats to. Arizona State wins this one handily, and the Pac-12 Championship game is coming to Tempe.