Saturday’s Territorial Cup at Sun Devil Stadium pits two teams in different stages of their rebuilding processes.
ASU has clinched the Pac-12 South and will play Stanford in the Pac-12 Championship Game, though we don’t yet know where. Arizona is coming off a win against then-No. 5 Oregon, though that came on the heels of back-to-back losses to Washington State and UCLA.
On paper, the matchup appears to favor No. 12 Arizona State over the 7-4 Wildcats, whose road wins have come against hapless UNLV, Colorado and California.
But that typically doesn’t matter in this game, which has been won by the underdog three of the last four years with the road team winning all four of those contests by an average of less than four points per game.
Here’s a closer look at what each team needs to do in this year’s Duel in the Desert, which kicks off at 7:30 p.m. on the Pac-12 Networks:
Keys for Arizona’s offense:
1. Feed Ka’Deem
It’s no secret that junior running back Ka’Deem Carey is going to touch the ball for Arizona, and he’s going to do it a lot. The 5-foot-10, 220-pound junior may be the best back in the country, and he’s the conference’s leading rusher despite being the Wildcats’ only major offensive threat.
Carey’s shown the ability to carry the ball 40-plus times on more than once occasion, and an effort similar to last week’s 48-carry, 206-yard, four-touchdown performance against Oregon will probably be necessary to pull off the upset in Tempe.
2. Be a threat to pass
As good as Carey is, Arizona’s best offensive performances this season have come when the Wildcats are at least a threat to pass the ball. Quarterback B.J. Denker had a career game against Oregon, completing 19 of 22 passes for 178 yards and two touchdowns.
If Denker can get into a rhythm and help keep the Wildcats’ offense somewhat balanced in its play selection, the UA’s chances at pulling off an upset will skyrocket. But if he falls into the same type of game that he played at Washington and for the first part against USC, Arizona will be in trouble.
3. Protect the ball
The Wildcats have generally done a good job of not turning the ball over save for the aforementioned Washington game and Carey’s goal-line fumble against UCLA. That’s a trend that will need to continue for the Wildcats to have a shot at the road upset.
Keys for Arizona State’s offense:
1. Don’t turn the ball over
Arizona’s upset bid hinges on the unexpected happening, and ASU turning the ball over falls in that category. Kelly is generally careful with the ball, as are the Sun Devils’ backs. If Kelly and the rest of the Sun Devils can avoid making a negative game-changing play, they’ll likely be in good shape.
2. Life without Grice (maybe)
ASU could be without one of its go-to offensive players in senior running back Marion Grice, who left in the second half of the Sun Devils’ division-clinching win over UCLA and was later seen on crutches. Grice is the team’s leading rusher and also leads with 20 touchdowns, but the Sun Devils have a stock of capable backs behind him.
But while D.J. Foster and Deantre Lewis could be in line for more action, they still haven’t been tested as every-down backs in their career. Foster has been used more like a receiver and Lewis has seen limited action in his junior season.
3. Don’t get greedy
Arizona State’s offense has made its living this season by sustaining long drives and taking whatever the defense is giving it. Whether it’s a run, short pass or home run play, Kelly has been able to stay within the offense and take what’s there.
But if ASU gets antsy for whatever reason and tries to make something big happen, that could open a window for the opportunistic Arizona defense to make a game-changing play.
Keys for Arizona’s defense:
1. Slow down Strong
ASU quarterback Taylor Kelly has shown that he can stand in the face of pressure and make tough throws without getting rattled — at least at home. So the next-best thing the UA defense can do is to slow down his No. 1 target, sophomore wideout Jaelen Strong.
Strong is fifth in the conference with 65 catches and third in receiving yards per game with 84.1. The 6-foot-4, 205-pounder has the type of size and athleticism that can be a nightmare for defenses. But Arizona has a pair of tall, lengthy corners in Shaq Richardson and Jonathan McKnight that can at least negate some of Strong’s physical advantage and force Kelly to work his way through progressions.
2. Force turnovers
Turnovers are key to any upset, and that remains the case for Arizona on Saturday. But ASU typically does a fantastic job taking care of the ball, and the Sun Devils have the best turnover margin in the conference.
So the onus will be on the UA’s defense to make something happen. The Wildcats’ defense has been an opportunistic bunch, forcing 19 turnovers. Something will have to give Saturday, whether it’s ASU’s ability to protect the ball or the UA’s playmaking skill on defense.
3. Bend, don’t break
Arizona’s defense has given up its fair share of yards this season, but it’s typically found a way to keep opponents out of the end zone. The Wildcats have the conference’s No. 4 scoring defense despite giving up almost 400 yards per game.
While ASU has home run threats on offense, most of its drives are steady marches down the field. The Sun Devils will get their yards, but the Wildcats’ defense can keep the UA in the game if it can hold the Pac-12’s top red zone offense to field goals instead of touchdowns.
Keys for Arizona State’s defense:
1. Limit big plays
While Arizona’s offense has shown itself capable of putting together lengthy drives, it’s at its most effective when it creates big plays. Arizona’s run/pass options can be dangerous if a defense falls asleep, as they take advantage of positioning and aggressiveness.
But while ASU struggled with defensive positioning early in the season, it hasn’t been much of an issue of late. Arizona will probably need to score a lot to have a shot at a win, and its best chance of doing that is creating big plays. If Arizona State can limit those plays and not let the Wildcats get rolling, it should get enough defensive stops to build a lead.
2. Wrap up Carey
Perhaps Carey’s greatest asset as a runner is his ability to run through tackles and the determination with which he runs. One tackler is rarely enough to bring him down, and he has a knack for avoiding solid contact to gain another two or three yards.
But Carey also has tremendous balance — something that can help him keep his feet after contact and break a big run. Most of his big plays this season have resulted from missed tackles near the line of scrimmage, and a big part of slowing down the UA’s offense is limiting Carey’s yards after contact.
3. Get after Denker
While Denker has proven a capable runner, the majority of his successful attempts come in the form of designed plays rather than quarterback scrambles. Denker has shown that he’ll get panicky in the pocket if he’s repeatedly pressured, though he’s also shown flashes of the ability to stand in and make big throws.
But ASU’s best chance at keeping Denker from having a productive game is to pressure him in the pocket. While much of Arizona’s passing game is in the form of rollouts, ASU’s defense is good enough to force some second- or third-and-long situations in which Denker will be forced to drop back. That’s when the Sun Devils can’t afford to let him get comfortable.