The 87th Territorial Cup: Analysis and prediction

Updated: November 29, 2013
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It’s the first time that both teams have had at least seven wins heading into the Duel in the Desert since 1986. There are Rose Bowl implications for the Sun Devils, and possibly Heisman Trophy implications for UA’s star tailback.

This year’s Territorial Cup game is more important than it has been in a long time – longer than most players on both teams have been alive.

Here’s what to watch for as the 2013 Duel in the Desert gets underway Saturday night.

Offense: If ASU tailback Marion Grice is unable to play due to an injury he suffered at the end of the Devils’ win last weekend at UCLA, it evens out the talent level between the two teams significantly. While D.J. Foster and Deantre Lewis are capable backups, they haven’t contributed nearly 2,000 total yards like Grice has. It’s hard to replace that kind of production overnight.

ASU has the better quarterback in Taylor Kelly and the better receiving core, but all-time UA rushing leader Ka’Deem Carey is such an equalizer in this category, and Wildcat quarterback B.J. Denker – who, incidentally, leads all Pac-12 QBs with 811 rushing yards – is coming off a 19-for-22 passing performance against Oregon. Freshman wideout Nate Phillips has emerged as a capable No. 1 receiver and is talented enough to require a great deal of attention from the veteran ASU secondary.

In the trenches, both offensive lines are capable veteran units – and don’t underestimate Carey’s blocking ability, one of the more underrated aspects of his game.

Advantage: ASU (with Grice), even (without Grice).

Defense: With seven senior starters at their disposal, UA head coach Rich Rodriguez noted that the Devils have one of the most experienced defensive units in the country. That experience shone through last weekend as Will Sutton, Carl Bradford and Chris Young were a nightmare for UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley, who was sacked seven times.

In Tucson, UA defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel has done a remarkable job in improving a defense that was ranked in the bottom 10 in the FBS in many statistical categories last season. In fact, the Wildcats have allowed just two more points than the Devils have in Pac-12 play.

With veterans such as safeties Tra’Mayne Bondurant and Jared Tevis in the secondary and Jake Fischer at linebacker, and newcomers such as freshman linebacker (and this year’s Territorial Cup Award Winner for Best Name) Scooby Wright getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks, this battle is closer than it may appear at first glance.

Advantage: ASU. Experience matters, especially in the Duel the Desert.

Special teams: Both units have struggled recently. The Sun Devils’ special-teams unit had an awful day at UCLA, and it almost cost ASU the game, while UA senior kicker Jake Smith missed 2 of 3 field-goal attempts two weeks ago in a loss to Washington State.

The Wildcats are better than ASU in yards per punt and return yards per punt. On the other hand, Smith has made just 12 of 18 field goal attempts this season, while freshman kicker Zane Gonzalez has been phenomenal, connecting on 19 of 22 attempts.

Phillips and fellow UA wideout Johnny Jackson have shared punt return duties, and both have muffed multiple punts. In a game that always features a bizarre special-teams moment, RichRod may be well-suited to instruct his team to let each ASU punt fall to the ground untouched.

Advantage: Even. Neither unit is especially impressive, but ASU would seem to have the edge in a last-second field-goal situation.

Matchups to watch

When UA has the ball: Denker’s newfound ability to complete a high percentage of his passes keeps opposing defenses honest enough to allow Carey to do his thing. Phillips’ emergence in the latter half of the season has had much to do with that.

Phillips will presumably be matched up with senior cornerback Osahon Irabor on Saturday. If Phillips, who has scored a touchdown in six of UA’s last seven games, can consistently shake Irabor (or whoever may be assigned to him), it will add an entirely different dimension to UA’s offense.

Regardless of what Carey does – if the Devils hold Phillips scoreless and under 50 yards receiving, they probably win.

When ASU has the ball: The Wildcats absolutely must find a way to get pressure on Kelly. While the junior can beat you with his feet or with throws on the run to star wideout Jaelen Strong, tight end Chris Coyle and others, he has been known to make bad decisions from time to time, as he’s thrown 10 interceptions this season.

UA must consistently flush Kelly out of the pocket. If he completes passes or picks up first downs on the ground, so be it. But the Wildcats must at least give him the opportunity to make mistakes.

Prediction: There are always two schools of thought when trying to forecast the outcome to any given Duel in the Desert: statistics vs. history. This year, if you go by win-loss records and overall talent, ASU wins; if you go by history – especially recent history – UA wins.

The road team has won the last four Territorial Cup games and 13 of the last 21. The team with the worst record has won each of the last three. The last time that the talent gap between the two schools was this big was in 2004, when ASU was 8-2 and UA (in Mike Stoops’ first year as head coach) was 2-8. The result of that year’s game in Tucson? Wildcats 34, Devils 27.

But the Sun Devils are dialed in on both sides of the ball like they haven’t been since their 1996 Rose Bowl season – and thanks to UA’s pummeling of Oregon last weekend, not to mention Todd Graham’s appreciation of the history of this rivalry, there’s not a chance that anyone on their roster will be taking the Wildcats lightly or looking ahead to next week’s Pac-12 Championship.

It will be a close game, and probably lower-scoring than most people think, simply because these games rarely follow the script that they’re supposed to. But despite the fight that the young Wildcats, led by their workhorse tailback, will put up in Tempe, the home-team Territorial Cup losing streak will officially end around 11pm on Saturday.

ASU 23, UA 20 (on a last-second Gonzalez field goal)

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