Sputtering rivals try to end the 2016 regular season on a high note
Two years ago, when Arizona last hosted rival Arizona State, the annual Duel in the Desert became the de facto Pac-12 South championship game. The Wildcats' thrilling, 42-35 win sent Rich Rodriguez's Wildcats to the Pac-12 Championship Game, one year after Todd Graham's Sun Devils hosted the winner-take-all round.
The reversal of fortunes in such a short time is rather jarring. Arizona is winless since Sept. 17, last beating a struggling Hawaii team. The Wildcats face the prospect of their first conference slate without a single victory since joining the former Pacific 8 nearly four decades ago. In fact, one has to go back beyond even Arizona's Western Athletic Conference tenure to its last winless league season, to 1957 and the program's time in the Border Conference.
Things may not be as dire for Arizona State, which can still finish above .500 with a win its bowl game. Having that opportunity rests on the Sun Devils first winning Friday night, however, which would snap a five-game losing streak — the longest of Graham's tenure in Tempe.
Struggle as both programs may, ending a disappointing regular season with the Territorial Cup in hand would give 2016 something of a silver lining — literally. The trophy is made of silver, first commissioned in 1899 by Reed and Barton. It's the oldest rivalry-related prize in college football.
Arizona State at Arizona
Kickoff: Friday, Nov. 25 at 9:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Arizona State -3
Three Things to Watch
1. A Black Friday Special on Defense?
Fans and alumni of Arizona and Arizona State may not be quick to admit any similarities, but there's no arguing that both owe much of their teams’ 2016 struggles to porous defense.
In fact, a mere 0.2 points per game separate them in season-long average. The Sun Devils have surrendered 38.4 per, the Wildcats 38.6. They rank No. 119 and No. 120, respectively, in the FBS.
The results haven't always been there this season, but both programs specialize in high-tempo, high-scoring offense. This could be the week both come alive, given the weaknesses of the defenses. Unless one side finds a solution for the other, Rich Rodriguez and Todd Graham's teams could combine for a score Arizona and Arizona State basketball coaches Sean Miller and Bob Hurley will be hard-pressed to match when their teams meet in January.
2. Patch-Work Rushing Offenses
Another shared attribute contributing to the struggles both the Wildcats and Sun Devils have endured: inconsistent rushing offense. The root cause differs for each, however.
Arizona's gone through a full stable of running backs this season due to injury. That's forced slot receiver Samajie Grant to move to the backfield. The Wildcats are still averaging nearly 210 rushing yards per game despite losing Nick Wilson, J.J. Taylor and converted receiver Tyrell Johnson, but establishing the run with enough consistency to go on long scoring drives has eluded Arizona.
Arizona State's had running backs Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage available most of the year, but the Sun Devils can attribute a No. 113-ranked rushing offense to quarterback injuries, instead. A revolving door behind center has left Arizona State vulnerable, which opposing defenses have exploited with eight-man defensive fronts.
The game plan is often the same: Sell out on the ball carriers and make the Sun Devils throw, and that strategy has led to as many turnovers (13) as scores.
3. A Quarterback Must Step Up
Another similarity between rivals: Wildly inconsistent quarterback play, the result of season-long injuries. Arizona State's Week 1 starter, Manny Wilkins, has been in and out of the lineup for much of the campaign, though mostly in over the last month.
The Sun Devils are better with the more experienced Wilkins than with freshman Dillon Sterling-Cole, but far from perfect. Wilkins has thrown eight interceptions on the season to just nine touchdowns, and he's averaged just 7.7 yards per attempt.
Arizona's Brandon Dawkins has traded the job with Anu Solomon throughout an injury-plagued season for both. Just as Solomon started to show a glimpse of his 2014 self against Oregon State, the redshirt junior again went down. That leaves the offense in Dawkins' hands.
Dawkins' statistics look very much like Wilkins, with the young Wildcat averaging just 7.3 yards per pass attempt, and throwing almost as many interceptions (6) as touchdowns (7).
Both are dual-threat playmakers, and may need to make big plays with their feet to keep their offenses from stalling.
The 2014 Arizona vs. Arizona State matchup seemed as though it should mark the dawn of a new era in the Duel in the Desert, one in which the two programs were routinely playing for conference championships. That could still come to pass — Todd Graham and Rich Rodriguez have far more success in their résumés than failure, and 2016 should be just a temporary detour. Both rosters are loaded with young players.
Still, heading into the offseason with a losing streak of either six games should Arizona State lose, or nine if the Wildcats fall, make focusing on the future difficult. Much like two seasons ago, both Graham and Rodriguez really need this win — just for much different reasons.
Home-field advantage and a matchup that may finally give Arizona hope could translate to a Wildcat victory.
Prediction: Arizona 41, Arizona State 40