When Arizona State and Arizona take the field Saturday at
Sun Devil Stadium it will be the 85th time the teams have
met in the “Duel in the Desert,” and the first since last
season’s stunning 30-29 ASU win in double overtime. The
Sun Devils reclaimed the oldest trophy in college football
– the Territorial Cup – and left Wildcats fans with a bad
taste in their mouths.
While that game is the most recent, it’s certainly not the
only one with a crazy finish.
The Devils’ victory brought the all-time series to 46-37-1
in favor of the Wildcats, with Arizona holding an 18-14-1
advantage since the battle moved to the Pac-10 in 1978.
Of course, the overall record does not tell the entire
story – not even close.
Unfortunately (depending on how you look at it), most of
the biggest games have come when Arizona has knocked off a
heavily favored Arizona State team.
Take, for instance, the 1982 game, which saw the 5-4-1
Wildcats beat the 9-1 Sun Devils 28-18 in Tucson. The loss
knocked ASU out of the Rose Bowl and began a run of
dominance for the team from Tucson, as the Cats did not
lose the Territorial Cup again until 1991.
That stretch included what was arguably the most important
game the teams have played, as the 1986 battle featured
the No. 14 Wildcats vs. the No. 4 Sun Devils. ASU was
undefeated at the time, but left Tucson with a loss and
crushed national championship hopes.
If it seems like the most memorable games seem to feature
the Wildcats upsetting the Sun Devils it’s because, well,
rarely has the UA ever been that good when the
teams have met. However, the 1992 Arizona team featured
the famous “Desert Swarm” defense and a No. 16 ranking
going into the game, but the 5-5 Devils won the game 7-6
and relegated the Wildcats to the Sun Bowl and out of the
top 25 at the end of the season.
The 1992 game was about defense, but the ’98 edition,
suffice to say, was not. The Holiday Bowl-bound Wildcats
won a 50-42 shootout in Tucson, improving to 11-1 on the
season and keeping the Sun Devils out of the postseason.
Of course, the game hasn’t always featured a pair of teams
in the midst of impressive seasons. Only ten times since
1978 have both squads had a winning record at the time of
the game, and only the ’86 game had both ranked in the Top
25. However, even at their worst the team has found a way
to win the game nine times.
Look no further than 2004 when the Wildcats, under first-
year head coach Mike Stoops, were 2-8 heading into the
game. The 8-2 Sun Devils were ranked 18th in the country,
but lost Andrew Walter to injury early in the game and
then lost the game itself 34-27. ASU wound up in the Sun
Bowl, the Wildcats finished with three wins. Their season
was bad, but you better believe taking back the
Territorial Cup meant something to that rebuilding
Of course, an upset win from the Sun Devils arguably tore
that rebuilding program down, as last season’s game put
the finishing touches on Arizona’s collapse from ranked
and rising to irrelevant. It was one of only two times
the team with a losing record beat one with a .500 or
better mark, which should give Sun Devils fans some hope
heading into Saturday.
While the rivalry has had its share of crazy games, the
better team usually finds a way to win the game.
Except when it doesn’t.