The 92nd edition of the heated rivalry commences in Tempe
The silver trophy given to the winner of the annual Arizona-Arizona State football game, nicknamed the Territorial Cup, is the oldest rivalry prize in college football. Other programs have played more games than the two Grand Canyon State programs' 91 prior meetings, and some series date back further than the 1899 first installment. The Cup itself, however, is the oldest in the sport.
That trophy provides a fitting centerpiece to a rivalry that measures up to the most acrimonious in college football. Arizona and Arizona State have a deep-seated hostility that makes the Duel in the Desert special, even in seasons when the Wildcats and Sun Devils struggle.
In 2017, both Arizona and Arizona State have exceeded preseason expectations, already locking up bowl eligibility. Both missed the postseason in 2016 — although Arizona's surprising 56-35 blowout of Arizona State in last year's Duel denied the Sun Devils a bid. The Wildcats rushed for a then-program-record 511 yards, completely abandoning the pass in the second half en route to victory.
Arizona since broke that record — just two weeks ago, in fact, when it tallied 534 rushing yards in a rout of Oregon State.
A revitalized Arizona State defense under first-year coordinator Phil Bennett aims to slow Arizona, coming off a physical loss at Oregon. The Wildcats will try to keep the Territorial Cup in back-to-back years for the first time since 2008-09.
Arizona at Arizona State
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 25 at 4:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: Pac-12 Network
Spread: Arizona -2.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Slowing the run game
Surrendering 511 yards rushing to Arizona in 2016 was a decided low point for an Arizona State defense that struggled most of the previous two seasons, no doubt providing motivation for Phil Bennett's defense this season. Slowing the Wildcats in 2017 is a difficult proposition, however. They rank third in the nation at 331.64 rushing yards per game behind the explosive improvisation of quarterback Khalil Tate (above, right).
Tate took over on Oct. 7, igniting Arizona through a 5-2 run over the past month and a half. He's had plenty of help, though, with running backs J.J. Taylor, Nick Wilson and Zach Green all playing significant roles in the midseason turnaround. Oregon was the most effective defense against Arizona since Tate took over, holding the Wildcats to 171 yards on 3.8 yards per carry last week.
However, Jim Leavitt's Oregon defense came in ranked in the top 25 nationally against the run. Arizona State is No. 109 in yards allowed per carry at 5.11. Despite Tate getting slightly banged up in Eugene, stopping the most explosive ball-carrying quarterback in the Pac-12 will be a tough task. It will be critical for Sun Devils defenders Christian Sam and JoJo Wicker to get into the backfield and disrupt option reads.
2. Manny to N'Keal
Arizona second-year defensive coordinator Marcel Yates has seen significant improvement from his unit compared to 2016, but a young Wildcats defense still has its issues — namely, denying the passing game. Arizona ranks dead last against in the pass among Pac-12 defenses at 287.3 yards per game.
Arizona State can capitalize with the pass-catch tandem of quarterback Manny Wilkins (right) and wide receiver N'Keal Harry. Wilkins has a rocket arm, capable of game-changing completions. To that end, Arizona State ranks No. 17 nationally in passing plays of 50 yards or more. Harry is the perfect big-play receiver, too, combining size, speed and an uncanny knack to go over the top of defensive backs to snag jump balls.
Arizona's tendency to give up passing yards leads opponents to throw — a lot. Only five teams in FBS have seen more pass attempts against them than Arizona. The Wildcats have used that opportunity to pick off 17 passes, tied for second-most in college football. They'll need a complete effort to slow the Sun Devils, starting with a consistent pass rush.
Freshmen Kylan Wilborn and Tony Fields II have been transformative in giving Arizona a more consistent rush than it had a season ago, and they're up against an Arizona State offensive line that has allowed 34 sacks on the year. Only Washington State has given up more among Pac-12 teams.
3. The emotional game
Arizona led Oregon in the first half of its loss last week in Eugene and had a pivotal touchdown overturned when defensive back Dane Cruikshank was penalized for taunting just before scoring on a pick-six. That play embodied an ugly performance for Arizona, in a game in which the Wildcats were flagged seven times for 84 yards. Several Arizona recruiting commits flipped to Oregon last winter, facilitating some bad blood on the two sidelines that spilled over into the game.
The Wildcats' emotions took over in the loss. Now, they're facing the most emotional game on the schedule, so that could once again be a factor. If it is, the advantage lies firmly with the Sun Devils.
Head coach Todd Graham took over a program that routinely led college football in penalties under former head coach Dennis Erickson. Graham made cleaning that up a top priority, and the Sun Devils routinely set the Pac-12 pace for fewest penalty yards.
The battle for the Territorial Cup may not garner considerable national attention, but those who understand the underpinnings of this series know its illustrious history, and its hatred rivals any rivalry in college football. With the Wildcats and Sun Devils appearing so evenly matched on paper heading into this year's installment, a competitive game befitting the hostility in the crowd should ensue.
Arizona players talked at times this season of seeking revenge for losses in a dismal 2016, which manifested in lopsided victories over opponents like UCLA, Washington State and Oregon State, all of which blasted the Wildcats a season ago. The tables are turned this time, with the Sun Devils out to even the score for last year's defensive debacle.
Arizona State has motivation, to be sure. Both teams also have strengths that can exploit the other side's weaknesses. This year, the last possession wins it in a truly classic Duel in the Desert. Assuming that it's Khalil Tate with the opportunity for some more magic, Arizona will complete its second-best regular season under head coach Rich Rodriguez.
Prediction: Arizona 45, Arizona State 42