How Kevin Sumlin and the Arizona Wildcats can win the Territorial Cup

Dec 10, 2020, 8:15 PM
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)...
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

The Arizona Wildcats enter Friday’s Territorial Cup rivalry game against Arizona State in search of the team’s first victory of 2020.

The 94th installment of the rivalry pits two winless squads, in an 0-4 Wildcats team and an 0-2 Sun Devils unit that has been beset by the coronavirus pandemic this fall.

Third-year Wildcats coach Kevin Sumlin is still seeking his first win against ASU, after losing to Herm Edwards and company, 41-40 in 2018 and 24-14 in 2019.

The Wildcats enter Friday’s contest on an 11-game losing streak, which is the sixth-longest in conference history.

They have been outscored by double digits in all but one of their games to date and have been outscored by a 129-80 margin this season.

Sumlin and company enter this year’s Territorial Cup as 11-point underdogs, which is 2.5 points less than the spread in last year’s contest.

The two rivals meet up in Tucson for a 5 p.m. kickoff Friday that will air on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.

If the Wildcats are going to earn their first win in the series since 2016, they’ll have to do the following:

Run the ball early and often with Gary Brightwell and Michael Wiley

The Wildcats have been averse to running the football during much of offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone’s three-year tenure in Tucson. Last year’s squad ranked 69th in the nation in rushing yards per game, at 150.7 yards per game, and this year’s roster ranks 67th overall, averaging 161.3 yards per game on the ground.

Arizona has two capable running backs, in senior Gary Brightwell and sophomore Michael Wiley. The two have 4.8 and 8.2 yards per carry, respectively, this season. The duo should be given every opportunity possible to shoulder the load for the Wildcats come Friday night, especially given the Sun Devils’ struggles containing opponents on the ground this year. ASU currently ranks 74th in the nation in rushing yards per game allowed, at 173 yards per game, so Sumlin and Mazzone should feed the ball to both backs early and often on Friday night.

Having QB Grant Gunnell back in the lineup

One of the glaring issues with the Wildcats’ offense over the past two weeks has been the lack of a passing game, thanks to having starting QB Grant Gunnell go down with a shoulder injury. Gunnell’s replacement, in former Gilbert Tiger Will Plummer, has looked overmatched at times in two appearances.

The true freshman has completed a mere 53.4% of his passes so far this season, with no touchdowns and three interceptions.

Gunnell, meanwhile, has completed 68.4% of his passes with six passing touchdowns and one interception.

Sumlin did not directly address Gunnell’s prognosis during this week’s media availability, but hinted that the sophomore might find his way back into the lineup come Friday.

“We got on the practice field last night. Probably know a little bit more today and tomorrow, I’ll just put it that way,” Sumlin said. “He didn’t do anything last week. We’re going to defer to our medical team and see where he is later on in the week.”

The Wildcats will need some semblance of a passing game to stay in the ballgame against the Sun Devils, though their last win in 2016 famously featured zero passing attempts in the game’s second half of the team’s 56-35 victory.

Capitalizing on turnovers

Another sore spot for the Wildcats this season has been their dismal -2 turnover margin, which ranks 100th out of 127 FBS teams.

The Wildcats will have to get more active in trying to disrupt the Sun Devils’ offense on the ground and through the air to boost those numbers this week.

That’s easier said than done, as ASU sophomore QB Jayden Daniels has thrown three interceptions on 396 career pass attempts.

The Sun Devils have had issues with ball control this year, however, committing four fumbles in the team’s two contests to date.

Arizona will have to hope that Daniels and his teammates continue to cough up the ball to better their shot at winning on Friday.

Special teams play

A calling card in this series has been special teams fiascos, like the time Arizona had two extra point attempts blocked in 2010, or when Josh Pollack missed a 45-yard attempt wide right at the buzzer to seal a loss for the Wildcats the last time the series was held in Tucson in 2018.

Fourth-year starting kicker Lucas Havrisik will be entrusted to carry the Wildcats’ special teams unit on Friday night, which shouldn’t be too difficult for the senior, given the lack of issues he’s had kicking the ball this fall.

Havrisik battled through issues revolving around his kicking form early in his career, when he missed 12 of his 28 field goals and four of his 63 extra point attempts.

This year, Havrisik has connected on six of his seven field goal attempts with a long of 51 yards, which should give Sumlin and special teams coach Jeremy Springer peace of mind.

The Wildcats’ punting game has been solid for most of the year, with freshman punter Tyler Loop ranking sixth in the conference in average punt yardage (42.5) and eighth overall in net punt yardage (38.1).

Nailing the team’s kicks and punt attempts is a key component of the game plan if Sumlin and the Wildcats are going to earn their first win over ASU in four years.

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How Kevin Sumlin and the Arizona Wildcats can win the Territorial Cup