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Treat Every Play Like It's A Play Against Arizona State

Rich Rodriguez knows what beating Arizona State means to the University of Arizona.

Christian Petersen

"Treat every play like it's a play against Arizona State."

Rich Rodriguez said the above this summer, before he had coached a game at Arizona. He studied his new team's performance in the 2011 Territorial Cup and saw potential.

In an otherwise dismal season, the Wildcats salvaged the year somewhat with an inspired performance at Arizona State. The intensity UA exhibited in its 31-27 victory gave Rodriguez an idea of what it would take to get the most out of the 2012 Wildcats.

Treat every play like it's a play against Arizona State.

The Duel in the Desert is special. The football teams from each university have met almost every year around this time since 1899, 13 years before Arizona gained statehood. From Wild West to sprawling metropolis, the Duel has been a constant institution of the Grand Canyon State.

With the oldest trophy in college football on the line, as well as bragging rights for an entire state, the players both in red-and-blue and maroon-and-gold know what's at stake.

"I don't worry about getting our guys fired up for that game. Hell, if you can't get fired up for a rivalry game, something's wrong with you," Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez has succeeded in getting this team to buy into that mindset of playing each down as if the Sun Devils are on the other side of the ball. Beating Utah last Saturday improved the Wildcats to 7-4, sewing up a spot in the postseason for the fourth time in the last five years and moving UA within one win of the program's season high since 1998.

The 2012 installment ushers in a new era with each program featuring a new head coach. Rodriguez and first-year Sun Devil leader Todd Graham both have their teams headed to bowl games, but success in Year One might truly be defined by Friday's outcome.

Rodriguez knows the importance of rivalry games well. He was involved in two of the most heated before arrivinag at UA, most recently leading Michigan against Ohio State. As head coach at West Virginia, Rodriguez's teams ended each season locked up with Pittsburgh in the Backyard Brawl.

"At West Virginia, Pitt was so close, a lot of the same people saw each other. A lot of the players knew each other, and you've got the same case with us and ASU," Rodriguez said. "The players know each other, and you've got a lot of [UA] folks in the Tempe area."

To that end, the Graham-Rodriguez era of the Duel began in earnest well before Friday.

The sizable presence of Arizona alumni in the Phoenix metro region prompted the Wildcats to hold practices therethis spring. That, coupled with billboards declaring the state Wildcat Country on every border along the interstates, expanded the Duel to a full-fledged turf war.

And much like UA took credit for the state, ASU gave Graham credit for West Virginia success. Graham was briefly an assistant under Rodriguez at WVU.

Graham's tenure at West Virginia included the 2001 season, Rodriguez's first and one of three his Mountaineers lost the Backyard Brawl. A Rodriguez-coached team has never won its rivalry game in his first season.

After a campaign coaching the Wildcats to treat each play like it's opposite Arizona State, Rodriguez's next challenge is taking that mindset to the next level.