In 2014, the annual football game between the Arizona State Sun Devils and Arizona Wildcats held a lot of importance.
The game, played at Arizona Stadium in Tucson, became a de facto Pac-12 South championship contest when Stanford upset UCLA earlier in the day. The Wildcats, powered by 178 yards rushing and three touchdowns from tailback Nick Wilson, beat the Sun Devils 42-35 to claim the division crown for the first time in school history.
A year later, the enthusiasm for the 2015 edition of the rivalry game is way down. ASU, a preseason pick by many — including ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit — to make this year’s College Football Playoff, is 5-5 heading into Saturday’s game and needs a victory in its last two games just to secure bowl eligibility. Arizona, the defending Pac-12 South champs, has reached the necessary six wins for a bowl invitation, but the Wildcats have seen their season derailed by costly injuries to key players.
Adam Green listed three things the Wildcats must do to win the game, and here are three things Arizona State needs to accomplish to beat Arizona and bring college football’s oldest rivalry trophy back to Tempe:
1. Run the football: If there is an area of ASU’s offense that is humming right now, it’s the running game. The duo of Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage has combined for 594 yards and five touchdowns over ASU’s last three games — that’s almost 6.8 yards per carry. You can make a compelling argument that the Sun Devils would be 3-0 in those games instead of 1-2 if there was an even bigger dose of the running game (especially near the goal line against Oregon and Washington State, am I right?)
The Arizona defense, meanwhile, has given up 200 or more rushing yards in each of its last three contests while allowing opponents to find the end zone seven times.
2. Limit the big run: Arizona State has given up a lot of big plays. In its last three games, the ASU defense has yielded three touchdown runs of 60 or more yards — Royce Freeman and Kani Benoit of Oregon each had one in the Ducks’ triple-overtime win in Tempe, and Utah’s Devontae Booker uncorked a 62-yarder last month in Salt Lake City. The possible presence of Jerrard Randall at quarterback for Arizona makes stopping the big run even more important. Randall, despite serving as Anu Solomon’s backup, has rushed for 680 yards on only 74 carries this season. The average distance on Randall’s five touchdown runs this season is 48.4 yards — and that’s with a 1-yard plunge against Colorado factored in. Even if Randall is only used as a change-of-pace Saturday, it is imperative that the Sun Devils limit his big-play and potentially game-changing ability in the run game. That will be a challenge as UA ranks third in the nation with 15 plays of 30 or more yards on the year.
3. Win the turnover battle: Todd Graham preaches 100 percent ball security, yet it’s been an almost entirely unreachable goal this season for the Sun Devils. Last week, in a comeback win over Washington, ASU had a turnover-free game for the first time this season. In fact, Arizona State has had only three games in which they have won the turnover battle this season; they are 2-1 in those games. On the flip side, Arizona is 1-3 in games when they’ve lost the turnover category, including a 49-3 thrashing at the hands of Washington on Halloween night when the Wildcats turned the ball over a season-high four times.