Before this week's Territorial Cup, let's dive into some statistics to get a handle on the Arizona Wildcats' chances against the Arizona State Sun Devils.
As usual, we start the preview by looking at Arizona's chances of winning. Per Bill Connelly's S&P+ predictions, Arizona has a 35.4% chance of beating Arizona State. At first glance, that seems like a fair number - Arizona is on the road and has been hit with injuries all year, so a little better than a third chance of winning seems fine.
The more I think about it, though, the more I wonder whether we can put much stock in the advanced statistics. The goal of S&P+ (and any similar analytics, really) is to measure how well a team has played this year and use that to predict how the team will perform in future weeks. With Arizona, though, the inputs are all messed up. Not only has Arizona's performance been inconsistent throughout the season, but it has started multiple quarterbacks, dozens (well, maybe not dozens) of linebackers, and numerous offensive linemen. So when that system has to figure out how well Arizona is going to do this week, it can't adjust to the fact that Anu Solomon might not play, or Nick Wilson might not play, or Jake Matthews is now out for the year.
The number above, then, is far from perfect. It does, though, provide a starting point for expectations going into this game before considering style of play, injuries, and everything else that matters for these two teams.
Fortunately for Arizona, Arizona State's style of play may not be best suited to take advantage of Arizona's defensive deficiencies. Arizona State is ranked sixth in the conference in rushing, averaging a very patriotic 177.6 yards per game on the ground at a rate of 4.4 yards per carry. That's well behind UCLA and Stanford, two schools that ran all over Arizona. Kalen Ballage is good, but he is not Paul Perkins or Christian McCaffrey, and Arizona's linebacking corps and defensive line should have at least a decent shot of containing Arizona State's rushing attack.
On the other side of the ball, Arizona State gets after the passer harder than anyone else in the Pac-12. ASU has racked up 36.0 sacks so far this season, a full 9 sacks ahead of second place schools USC and Oregon.
ASU does this by blitzing like crazy. Oregon's offensive coordinator, Scott Frost, estimated earlier this season that Arizona State blitzes on 55-60% of plays. That is very, very often, and it means Arizona's quarterbacks will need to make quick, accurate throws to avoid the pressure.
It could also put Arizona State in a difficult spot defensively. Right now, Anu Solomon is still questionable for this game. Suppose he doesn't play and Jerrard Randall takes his place. If Randall can get past the blitz on a quarterback draw or the read-option, he'll score a touchdown. That's what he does. To win this game, then, Arizona will need to take advantage of ASU's very aggressive defense either by making quick throws to open receivers or by getting our runners past the initial blitz and into the secondary.
There's no spread on this game, probably because Anu Solomon is questionable. Without Anu, Arizona may struggle to move the ball, depending on what version of Jerrard Randall suits up. Regardless of who plays, though, Arizona's defense will need to hold up enough to allow the offense to pull out the victory.
I don't know if that will happen. Arizona State isn't a great team, but we've struggled this season, too, and they get to play at home. But if ASU can't run the ball consistently against Arizona and if Arizona can take advantage of the aggressive Sun Devil defense, then the Wildcats maybe (just maybe) will be able to sneak a victory over that team up north.