Arizona State Sun Devils plan to keep Territorial Cup in Tempe
TEMPE, Ariz. — And now there is just one.
One game. One opportunity.
And it’s a big game. With still a big opportunity within reach.
This is what remains for the Arizona State Sun Devils this season: beat rival Arizona, keep hold of the Territorial Cup and become bowl eligible; the latter of which would provide ASU the hope of finishing 2016 with a winning record.
But, first things first.
Friday in Tucson, the Sun Devils renew their rivalry with the Wildcats in the 90th edition of the “Duel in the Desert.”
“This is always an exciting week for us, and the most important week that we emphasize with our players,” head coach Todd Graham said at his weekly Monday press conference. “Our total focus is on keeping that cup here in Tempe.”
Aside from bragging rights, which is always important, and perhaps the most important aspect of the rivalry, there is not much on the line when the Sun Devils and Wildcats meet to close out the regular season.
Both teams have had disappointing campaigns.
ASU (5-6, 2-6) has lost five straight after a 5-1 start, while UA (2-9, 0-8) hasn’t visited the win column in more than two months.
The Sun Devils’ current losing streak is the longest since Graham’s arrival in 2012, and the Wildcats have dropped eight in a row since beating Hawaii on Sept. 17.
Two years ago, these teams battled for the South Division and a spot in the Pac-12 Championship Game.
“Obviously, our program is always going to be about competing for championships, but this is one of those must-wins on your schedule,” Graham said. “You can throw all the records out. It doesn’t matter.”
Recent history favors ASU in the series.
The Sun Devils have won three of the past four matchups, with the one defeat coming on their most recent trip to Tucson in 2014, when the Wildcats won 42-35 to claim the school’s first-ever conference title game appearance.
“It’s the most intense rival game that I’ve been a part of,” Graham said.
A victory on Friday would make ASU bowl eligible, something Graham has referred to as the minimum expectation for his program.
Still, a sixth win and the Sun Devils are postseason bound for a school-record sixth straight season. That would slot them in the Motel 6 Cactus Bowl, the seventh of the seven Pac-12 bowl arrangements. The only problem, or potential problem, is that ASU played in the Cactus Bowl a year ago, losing to West Virginia at Chase Field.
Of course, UA would love nothing more than to solve that perceived problem with its own win this week.
“I always get a lot of emails and messages this week, and I’ve already gotten quite a few, just saying, ‘don’t worry about anything in the past, just go win this game’ so it’s a very, very important game. It’s very passionate (with our fans),” Graham said.
— Asked for an injury update on his team and Graham quipped, “How much time we got?” He did rule out offensive lineman Zach Robertson, wide receiver Cam Smith and reserve defensive end Jalen Bates for this week. Bates got hurt during pregame warmups at Washington.
Graham added he expects safety Marcus Ball and cornerback De’Chavon Hayes to return, while he remains hopeful on the availability of defensive lineman George Lea, wide receivers Frederick Gammage and Jalen Harvey plus offensive linemen Sam Jones and Stephon McCray.
— In the past two weeks, ASU has been penalized 17 times, including a season-high nine last Saturday. Graham takes great pride in having a disciplined program, yet recently there have been too many flags thrown on his players.
“Nothing that I really want to say,” he answered when asked for an explanation.