This Friday, the Arizona Wildcats and the Arizona State Sun Devils face off in the least meaningful Territorial Cup since at least 2011 (the year Mike Stoops was fired) and maybe since 2003 (the year John Mackovic was fired).
The Wildcats are playing for pride, trying to salvage a Territorial Cup win after losing every conference game so far this season. The Sun Devils are playing for pride, too, but they’re also playing for bowl eligibility, trying to scrape their way to six wins so they can secure a trip to whatever marginal bowl game will take them.
Before this week’s game, we took a look at the advanced statistics to figure out if the Wildcats could pull off a win.
38.4, 38.6 - points per game allowed by the Sun Devils and Wildcats, respectively
Both defenses in this game have been torched all year. The Sun Devils have given up 38.4 points per game, which ranks 118th in FBS, and their defensive S&P+ - which is geared towards efficiency - ranks 108th. Somehow, the Wildcats are even worse! They give up 38.6 points per game (119th) and rank 111th in defensive S&P+.
The ways in which these defenses are terrible differ slightly. The Sun Devils have a propensity for giving up big plays, while the Wildcats give up terrible field position (putting the offense in a hole even when they generate stops). Both teams, though, let their opponents finish drives when they get inside the 40.
The offenses might not be able to take advantage of these defensive deficiencies - they’re not great, either - but both of these defenses could give up a ton of points on Friday.
7.33 - Brandon Dawkins’ yards per pass attempt
The Wildcats and the Sun Devils have both dealt with significant injury issues at quarterback this season. The Wildcats suffered injuries to Anu Solomon and Brandon Dawkins, forcing them to burn Khalil Tate’s redshirt. The Sun Devils, meanwhile, suffered injuries to Manny Wilkins and Brady White, forcing them to do the same to Dillon Sterling-Cole’s redshirt. With these problems at quarterback, I thought I’d take a look at how good the quarterbacks for these two teams have been this season.
Brandon Dawkins’ 7.33 yards per attempt is the highest for any quarterback on either team so far this season. That’s right — Brandon Dawkins, arguably the third best passer on the Wildcats — averaged more yards per attempt than Anu Solomon, Khalil Tate, or any of ASU’s quarterbacks. To be clear, 7.33 yards per attempt is well below average (Solomon averaged 8.1 yards per attempt last year), but it speaks to the difficulty both of these teams have throwing the ball.
The obvious solution when your quarterback can’t throw the ball is to run the ball, but no one seems to do that particularly well, either. Arizona’s starting running back is still wide receiver Samajie Grant, and for all the acclaim Kalen Ballage and Demario Richard received early this season, neither is a particularly effective rusher: Richard averages only 3.8 yards per carry while Ballage averages only 4.4. Really, the rushing threats to worry about should be Dawkins and Wilkins, but Wilkins has a high ankle sprain, so he’ll probably be limited running the ball, too.
My fear, from an Arizona perspective, is that the Sun Devils will find a way to get the ball to N’Keal Harry. They’ll run a reverse, they’ll get it to him in space, or maybe they’ll just throw it up for him to grab. But Harry is the best player on the field for either team. He terrifies me. He should terrify the Arizona defense, too.
39% - the Wildcats’ chances of winning this game
The advanced statistics have been rightly skeptical of Arizona all year. As a team, the Wildcats are ranked 109th in S&P+. That puts them behind 5-7 Hawaii. It puts them behind every major conference team except Rutgers, Kansas, and Purdue. It puts them behind 4-7 UNLV, 2-9 Virginia, and 3-8 Utah State.
The saving grace for Arizona - and the reason why S&P+ gives the Wildcats a decent chance to win - is that Arizona State is also bad. There are a few major conference schools that are better than Arizona but worse than Arizona State - Maryland, Illinois, Virginia, Syracuse, and Texas Tech - but the Sun Devils are probably the second worst team in the conference, 5-6 record notwithstanding. In a way, this year’s Arizona State team is a lot like last year’s Arizona team, with an on-paper record that masks how deeply flawed the roster really is.
In fact, there's a certain beauty to how similarly these two teams have performed in the past five years. Both Rich Rodriguez and Todd Graham were hired in 2012. Both the Wildcats and the Sun Devils have been bowl eligible every one of those seasons until now. And both teams have won the South once, only to be blown out in the Pac-12 Championship game. Now both teams enter this game below .500, both with bad defenses and shaky quarterback situations, both desperate to salvage something from an otherwise forgettable year.
A win fixes nothing, but it would feel good, for a little while. That’s the best we can hope for this season.