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Wednesday, September 5, 2012
ASU, Arizona aim to make early statements

By Ted Miller

Arizona and Arizona State are bitter rivals, but they also have a lot in common at present.

Both were severely disappointing in 2011. Both have new head coaches as a result. Those new coaches, Rich Rodriguez at Arizona and Todd Graham at Arizona State, know each other well. They both are somewhat controversial for various reasons. Both run up-tempo offenses that looked pretty good in week one. And both won.

Further, both will be home against major-conference foes on Saturday. Both teams lost on the road to those foes last year.

Of course, the parallels are not exact. Arizona is a double-digit underdog to No. 18 Oklahoma State, while Arizona State is a slight favorite over Illinois.

The Wildcats are playing the Cowboys for a third time in 15 months. Both previous meetings were blowout defeats. But these aren't the same Cowboys who nipped Stanford in the Fiesta Bowl. They lost quarterback Brandon Weeden and wide receiver Justin Blackmon and welcome back just 12 starters. Their new signal-caller, freshman Wes Lunt, will be making his first road start after receiving no challenge at all last weekend against a dreadful Savannah State team.

Todd Graham
ASU ran roughshod over Northern Arizona in Todd Graham's debut; Illinois presents a stiffer test.
"They could have scored 184 by halftime if they'd kept their starters in," Rodriguez said of the Cowboys' farcical 84-zip victory.

Illinois beat the Sun Devils 17-14 last year, but those programs' seasons were notably similar. Both Arizona State and Illinois started fast, earned national rankings, then cratered. And, therefore, fired their coaches.

Another tie that binds: New Illinois coach Tim Beckman coached Toledo, the team Arizona beat last weekend, for three years before arriving in Champaign, losing at home to the Wildcats in 2010.

Still, while everyone will know each other in points central and south in Arizona, there are plenty of unknowns. Last season's game films shouldn't be too revealing for anyone.

"We watched it a whole bunch looking at the personnel," Graham said. "I think it helps us evaluate their personnel but their defense is different, their offense is different. It's all new coordinators so from a schematic standpoint it didn't help us at all. From a personnel standpoint, studying their personnel, that is what we mostly used it for."

And even that is a bit confusing. Veteran Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase is decidedly questionable after hurting his ankle during a 24-7 win over Western Michigan. The Sun Devils might be facing a dual-QB system with Reilly O'Toole and Miles Osei.

That would be a big advantage for the Sun Devils, though Graham said he's preparing his team as if Scheelhaase will play. On defense, the Illini are stout. It should give Graham's up-tempo offense and new starting QB Taylor Kelly a far bigger challenge than Northern Arizona did in week one.

Still, the Sun Devils appear far more likely than the Wildcats to improve to 2-0 and generate further positive momentum for Graham.

The Wildcats have a puncher's chance for an upset, but their defense is going to have to catch a few breaks. The unit played fairly well against Toledo, at least based on low expectations entering the game. But Oklahoma State, the defending Big 12 champion, is not Toledo. Even with some new players in key positions, the expectations for a lot of points will continue in Stillwater. The Cowboys have been consistently good on offense under coach Mike Gundy.

“It’s an opportunity for us to play a ranked team," Rodriguez said. "I told our team there’s not a lot of people who talk about Arizona football in certain circles, and if you want to become more relevant, the best way to do it is to beat a ranked team. It’s a great challenge but also a great opportunity."

Arizona and Arizona State are constantly trying to one-up the other, and it will be popular to compare the records Rodriguez and Graham produce their first seasons. While both are ultimately trying to build programs that consistently compete in the top half of the conference, the competition and rivalry will be present each step of the way.

So fans of both programs are hoping, with considerable zeal, that they don't share anything in common at the stroke of midnight on Saturday.