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Arizona State Sun Devils vs. Arizona Wildcats Prediction and Preview

Arizona State Sun Devils vs. Arizona Wildcats Prediction and Preview

Arizona State Sun Devils vs. Arizona Wildcats Prediction and Preview

Arizona gained statehood in February 1912. That's 12 years (and two months) after the first football game between Arizona and Arizona State, hence the name of its trophy, the Territorial Cup.

Dating back to 1899, the annual rivalry has had plenty of time to cultivate animus between the two programs. That's also ample opportunity to create memorable moments — like this year's 20th anniversary of the 50-42 shootout in 1998, which helped elevate Arizona to its best season in program history; or Arizona State's 18-17 win 40 years ago in 1978 to earn a bowl berth in its first season of Pac-10 membership.

Sometimes called the Duel in the Desert, this series features equal parts hate and history, two necessary ingredients for a great rivalry. In 2018, it features two first-year head coaches looking to put an important stamp on their debut campaigns.

Arizona State at Arizona

Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 24 at 3:30 p.m. ET

TV: FS1

Spread: Arizona State -2

Three Things to Watch

1. Big-play receivers

Arizona State's N'Keal Harry came into 2018 already recognized as one of the best wide receivers in college football. He's lived up to his billing, boasting 1,033 yards on the season, with at least 91 yards in each of the Sun Devils' last five games. More of a secret heading into 2018 was Arizona's Shawn Poindexter, but it's hard to overlook his production now. Poindexter differs from Harry in that Arizona State quarterback Manny Wilkins targets the latter frequently as a possession receiver; Arizona's Khalil Tate typically finds Poindexter on explosive plays of the scoring variety. He has a remarkable string of four consecutive games with two touchdown receptions, and all his catches in the last three games have gone for scores.

2. Big-play backs

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Among Pac-12 ball carriers, Arizona State's Eno Benjamin ranks first in runs of 40-plus yards. Arizona's J.J. Taylor ranks third. Taylor is tied for the conference lead in rushes of 50-plus yards. With their explosive ability, it's no surprise Benjamin and Taylor are two of the nine most productive rushers in all of college football.

Saturday's contest may come down to which running back springs one of his signature long runs first — or last, as the case may be. On the flip side, the onus will be on both defenses to slow the other.

In the case of Arizona State defensive coordinator Danny Gonzales, his unit has allowed more 10-plus-yard carries than all but one team in the Pac-12. However, the Sun Devils have been excellent at not allowing those to turn into 20-yard gains or more. A young, active linebacker corps is adept at tracking down ball carriers, paced by freshmen Merlin Robertson and Darien Butler.

Marcel Yates' Arizona defense has been more vulnerable in allowing 10-to-29 yards on carries. That's where Benjamin typically makes his bones for the Sun Devils. Both defenses tend to be feast or famine on the line, racking up tackles for a loss but surrendering long runs when the stifling play fails to develop.

3. Surprises in the works?
Arizona stunned Arizona State two years ago when the Sun Devils last visited Arizona Stadium, going almost exclusively run (the Wildcats did not attempt a pass in the second half) en route to 511 yards. The Arizona win denied Arizona State a bowl bid and allowed the Wildcats to avoid the first 0-for conference season at UA in more than 70 years.

It's the host Wildcats playing for bowl eligibility this time around, and coach Kevin Sumlin can set a positive tone for 2019 by earning those extra practices — not to mention winning the Territorial Cup. Some previously unseen wrinkles in the offense should be expected; Noel Mazzone, whom former UCLA coach Jim Mora once referred to as a "mad scientist," has proven willing to tinker.

Likewise, look for Arizona State to introduce some new looks, particularly from the innovative Gonzales on defense. While the Sun Devils have already sewn up bowl eligibility in coach Herm Edwards' first year, they still have plenty of reason to empty the playbook. Denying the other side a bowl in the Duel is almost as big of a deal as gaining postseason eligibility from it.

Final Analysis

This first installment in a new chapter in the rivalry brings some intrigue. Expectations were high for Arizona coming into the season, the result of quarterback Khalil Tate's meteoric rise a season ago and coach Kevin Sumlin's track record at previous stops. The Wildcats struggled early but have come on late to position themselves for a bowl berth. Tate looks more comfortable in the offense, Taylor's an emerging star, and Yates' defense has some of the big bodies on the line necessary to succeed — games on the Palouse notwithstanding.

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Arizona State's expectations were decidedly low, but the Sun Devils almost immediately shattered all preconceptions about the New Leadership Model. Wilkins has been a steady leader, Harry is a star, and Benjamin has broken out as arguably the best running back in the Pac-12. The youth of the defense provides a key reason to expect big things out of the Sun Devils in 2019. The Territorial Cup will be crucial in setting the offseason expectations, for both programs.

Prediction: Arizona 38, Arizona State 35

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Kensing is publisher of TheOpenMan.com. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.