Coming into the 1998 season, Arizona State had set some considerable goals for itself. The Sun Devils were just two seasons and a few yards removed from playing for a national championship, and with preseason Heisman contending running back J.R. Redmond, eyeing a Rose Bowl return -- or perhaps more.
But as the campaign unfolded, it became readily apparent that the Grand Canyon State's gridiron pride was in Tucson. The Wildcats ascended into the Top 25 and its running back, Trung Canidate, became the Pac-10's breakout star.
An atrocious quarter against UCLA spoiled Arizona's conference championship bid, but in the newly formed Bowl Championship Series system, UA still had its first Rose Bowl within reach (curse you, Edgerrin James). Beating ASU was vital to keep that hope alive, and while the Sun Devils were a disappointing 5-5, playing spoiler is a surefire way to salvage an otherwise non-salvageable season.
Thus, A-State was not going to be an easy out. That became apparent from the onset. Bruce Snyder had the Devils ready to play, and perhaps snag a low-level bowl bid to rectify some of the frustration that would lead to his ouster two seasons later.
ASU took an unorthodox approach, attacking the Wildcats' vaunted secondary that included All-American Chris McAllister. Ryan Kealy passed 56 times and racked up over 500 yards. Meanwhile, he two-quarterback system Dick Tomey employed then with Keith Smith and Ortege Jenkins resulted in just 19 pass attempts and eight completions -- Kealy finished with half as many touchdowns.
Though the Sun Devils had struggled in the win column, their offense scored in the top 1/4 of Division I-A. Forcing the Wildcats into a shootout was the strategy, and the Sun Devils mustered what they could with 42 points.
Perhaps it wasn't the best strategy, as it ignited a powder keg.
In a microcosm of the season, Redmond became an afterthought as the Duel in the Desert unfolded and Canidate erupted to the forefront.
The future first round NFL Draft put on what remains one of the greatest individual performances in Wildcat history, a showing 'Cat fans will reminiscent about for generations. With ASU forcing the tempo to its favor, Canidate went into the zone.
The junior carried just 18 times, because that's all he needed to set a program record 288 yards. His three touchdowns were crucial, including the third that sealed win No. 11. It was only fitting that a historic individual showing capped a historic night for the program, as 11 wins remain the regular season benchmark at UA.
While Canidate was the show stopper, others got in the act for UA to roll up its highest output in the Duel since 1954 when the 'Cats notched 54 points. Jenkins and Jim Wendler each rushed for touchdowns and Smith connected with Brad Brennan for another. Jimmy Sprotte's fumble return for a score rounded out the 'Cats' 50 points in what remains one of the most exciting installments the series has seen.