The annual Duel in the Desert, played for the beautiful Territorial Cup, is one of the oldest and most heated rivalries in the West.
Even in a season like this, when Arizona State (7-4, 5-3 Pac-12) has a bowl to anticipate and Arizona (1-10, 1-7) is playing just for pride (and a possible building block into next season), the history and animosity of the Duel make it a great part of Rivalry Week.
Last year's installment stands out as one of the most noteworthy in the 122-year history — and not just because it was played in a mostly empty Arizona Stadium due to a once-in-a-century pandemic. Arizona State's 70-7 rout made history and generated some bad blood with the Sun Devils throwing the ball despite being ahead 63-7.
There are moments more indicative of the hard feelings between the programs, but not many.
Arizona at Arizona State
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 27 at 4 p.m. ET
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Spread: Arizona State -20
When Arizona Has the Ball
The wholesale rebuild of Jedd Fisch and his staff in Year 1 has been most pronounced on the offensive end. Arizona went through a merry-go-round at quarterback of Gunner Gruz, Will Plummer, and Jordan McCloud through the season's first half before McCloud seemed to win the job.
Then, he sustained season-ending right knee and ankle injuries. Plummer reassumed duties and played admirably down the stretch, including leading the Wildcats to their first win in over two years when they beat Cal earlier this month. Fisch joked after the game that Plummer was playing through so many injuries as to be forcibly held upright.
The next week, he played his best game of the season in a competitive loss to Pac-12 South champion Utah. While consistency has been an issue for Plummer, he's shown continuous improvement. Backfield mate and running back Michael Wiley has been solid as both a ball carrier and pass catcher, but the big question ahead of Rivalry Week is the health of wide receiver Stanley Berryhill III.
Arizona's most explosive playmaker quietly ranks in the top 20 nationally for receptions. His availability and that of Wildcat-set quarterback Jamarye Joiner dramatically change the versatility of Arizona's offense.
Arizona State's defense has been Jekyll and Hyde much of the season, swarming to the ball and generating turnovers en masse at times but struggling with gap protection at others. The long touchdown run the Sun Devils surrendered to Oregon State linebacker Jack Colletto on a fourth down at midfield last week was indicative of the critical errors that were at the heart of Arizona State failing to win a wide-open division.
When Arizona State Has the Ball
More so than its defense, Arizona State's offense has been quizzical in 2021. The Sun Devils looked like world-beaters offensively at UCLA and in the second halves of wins over USC and Washington. The multifaceted rushing attack is dangerous and should eat up yardage against an Arizona defense surrendering 4.42 yards per carry.
Arizona State's rotation of Rachaad White, DeaMonte Trayanum, and Daniyel Ngata at running back, with dual-threat quarterback Jayden Daniels contributing liberally to the ground game, can cause defenses fits. In each of the Sun Devils' last three losses, however, opponents loaded up on the run and held Arizona State to fewer than 150 yards.
How Arizona chooses to approach Arizona State's multi-pronged run game in Don Brown's last game as defensive coordinator before starting as head coach at UMass will be interesting. Brown's known for his commitment to the pass rush, but Daniels' evasiveness can leave blitzing defenders out of position.
Arizona ranks near the bottom of FBS in passing plays surrendered of more than 40 yards. Misses on the blitz could open up speedster receiver Ricky Pearsall for deep passing plays. He was a game-changer to that end in Arizona State's win at UCLA.
Arizona State welcomes Arizona to Tempe with decided and apparent advantages that should make this a Sun Devils blowout. A win would mark Arizona State's fifth straight claim to the Territorial Cup, its longest run in the Duel since the Frank Kush days of the '60s and '70s.
However, with the Pac-12 South off the table after a dismal performance in Corvallis, motivation might be an issue. Arizona State's up-and-down play all season makes it a difficult team to get an accurate beat on: The Sun Devils could cruise past the 20-point number our friends in the Mojave Desert set, or they could find themselves in a fight with an Arizona team hungry for a signature win to close out its rebuilding year.
Prediction: Arizona State 38, Arizona 27
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