Stakes high for ASU, Arizona

November, 26, 2013
11/26/13
12:00
PM ET
In terms of general bitterness, the Arizona-Arizona State rivalry over the Territorial Cup is pretty darn underrated nationally. That's understandable, though, because the game rarely has much national relevance. One team can be up or down, but it's been rare that both are good and playing for more than state pride.

[+] EnlargeTodd Graham
Gene Sweeney Jr/Getty ImagesTodd Graham (left) and Taylor Kelly are directing one of the Pac-12's best offense, but will be missing their top rusher.
That’s why Saturday’s meeting feels a bit different. For the first time since 1986, both teams enter the game with at least seven wins. Most notable: Arizona State needs to beat the Wildcats to secure home-field advantage for the Pac-12 title game against Stanford on Dec. 7.

How much does that matter? The Sun Devils are 6-0 at home this year with an average margin of victory of 26.8 points per game, including wins over two ranked teams, Wisconsin and USC, as well as a blowout victory over Washington. They are 3-2 on the road, with a 42-28 loss at Stanford, a game that was 39-7 entering the fourth quarter.

The Wildcats are trying to upgrade their own bowl prospects while playing the role of spoiler. And Arizona fans, who have never experienced a Rose Bowl, want to make it as difficult as possible for the Sun Devils to get to the Granddaddy for a third time.

Both teams are coming off the biggest victories their second-year head coaches have produced. Todd Graham and the Sun Devils captured the South Division crown with a win at UCLA last weekend. A road win like that -- over a quality foe with high stakes -- is something that has been tough to come by for ASU through the years. Rich Rodriguez and the Wildcats ended No. 5 Oregon's Rose Bowl hopes with a shocking 42-16 blowout win.

The game sets up to be hotly contested. Seven of the last nine matchups have been decided by a TD or less. The past four games have been decided by a total of 15 points. And home field often doesn't matter. The visiting team has won eight of the last 13 matchups, including the last four.

“I don’t worry about all that stuff,” Graham said. “I don’t think what happened last year has anything to do with this year. People have a whole bunch of time in their hands to spend analyzing stuff. We don’t overanalyze it.”

Despite that harrumph, Graham probably feels pretty good about what happened last year. His team won 41-34, overcoming a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit in front of a stunned Tucson crowd.

But the typically loquacious Graham might have been grumpy Monday during his news conference because his star running back Marion Grice is highly questionable with what appears to be an ankle injury he suffered in the fourth quarter at UCLA. Grice has been a TD machine this year, leading the Pac-12 and ranking fifth in the nation with 10.7 points per game. Grice also ranks first in the Pac-12 and fourth nationally in all-purpose yards with 176.5 per game.

QB Taylor Kelly is the Sun Devils second-leading rusher, though Deantre Lewis and D.J. Foster are capable backup running backs.

The most obvious personnel change between these two teams compared to last year is Arizona replacing QB Matt Scott with B.J. Denker. The Wildcats are scoring just five fewer points per game than in 2012, but the more notable development is the Wildcats dramatic defensive improvement, something that should put coordinator Jeff Casteel in line for the Broyles Award, given annually to the nation's top assistant coach.

The Wildcats are yielding nearly two fewer touchdowns per game this year compared to 2012 (21.6 points per game versus to 35.3 ppg in 2012). They are giving up 100 fewer yards per game (399 vs. 499) and nearly 40 fewer yards rushing per game (206.2 vs. 166.6). They've risen from ninth in the conference in pass efficiency defense to fourth. And they just held Oregon to its lowest point total of the season.

[+] EnlargeJeff Casteel
AP Photo/John MillerRich Rodriguez (right) has a signature win at Arizona after defeating Oregon, but it's been the play of Jeff Casteel's defense that has been surprising.
Of course, the Sun Devils are no slouch on defense either. Playing against a tougher schedule than the Wildcats, they've yielded the same total on yards per play -- 5.2 -- and rank second in the conference in total defense and third in run defense.

"They have nine seniors starting on defense and five senior backups," Rodriguez noted. "That might be the oldest defense in college football.”

It's actually seven senior starters, but Rodriguez's point is it is a veteran unit. The Wildcats start five seniors.

While the game has more tangible meaning for Graham and Arizona State, it might have more intangible meaning for Rodriguez. For one, it would be fair to say he and Graham don't have a terribly warm relationship. And in a battle for state supremacy, Rodriguez doesn't want to find himself in a 0-2 hole against Graham as they battle for state supremacy. So, yeah, this one is important for myriad reasons.

Said Rodriguez: “You’d have to be living under a rock if you play for Arizona and don’t realize how important the ASU rivalry is.”

Ted Miller | email

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