With bowl eligibility on the line in addition to the added stakes of such a fierce rivalry, the Arizona Wildcats (5-6, 4-4) play host to the Arizona State Sun Devils (6-5, 4-4) on Saturday afternoon. Both Herm Edwards and Kevin Sumlin will be coaching their first Territorial Cup, and the winner will probably be playing in the Cheez-It Bowl or some other low-level game.
With such an important game upcoming, here’s a look at the most important Sun Devils for this weekend’s game.
Manny Wilkins, QB
Wilkins, much like ASU as a team, has swung from a pleasant surprise to disappointing at a moment’s notice all season long.
Wilkins has served as the most important bridge between the Todd Graham era and Edwards’ tenure, finishing his third year as starting quarterback and playing in his second-to-last game as a senior. He has remained shockingly consistent each year, posting completion percentages of 63.3, 63.4, and 63.3 in his three starting seasons. His yards per attempt has remained between 7.5 and 8.0 in all of these seasons as well.
Luckily for the Devils, the one thing Wilkins has improved throughout the years on is his turnovers. He went from 12 touchdowns and 9 interceptions in 2016, to 20 and 8 last season, to 18 and 4 through eleven games this season. While Arizona State hasn’t been a consistently ranked program since 2014, Wilkins has provided a sense of stability as they continue to rebuild under Edwards.
Eno Benjamin, RB
Seemingly out of nowhere, Benjamin has surged to become one of the nation’s best backs, and has helped keep the Arizona State offense potent all year.
Benjamin’s surprising emergence is made even more promising for ASU considering that he is only a sophomore. Last season, Benjamin barely ran, running just 23 times in 13 games. Nevertheless, he was able to amass 142 yards, good for 6.2 yards per carry. This year, he’s gained 1,444 yards in just 11 games. He’s also proven to be a capable receiver out of the backfield, with 31 catches for 214 yards. Benjamin has also been directly responsible for 14 touchdowns this season, providing the key difference in the many close games the Devils.
Benjamin will likely be the single most important player for Arizona to stop on Saturday, as the running defense has proven to be a defense this season and Benjamin is a very close match to JJ Taylor’s output for the ‘Cats.
N’Keal Harry, WR
Last season, Harry emerged much like Benjamin: out of nowhere in his sophomore season. Now, Harry is widely seen as one of the most dangerous receivers in the entire nation.
Eclipsing 1,000 receiving yards in 2017, with a total of 1,142, Harry surprised everyone by averaging a stunning 13.9 yards per catch. With eight touchdowns, it wasn’t too long before defense knew to lock down on Harry as a weapon, but that still didn’t stop him. The same has occurred this season, with Harry’s numbers barely slowing down despite facing lockdown corners all year. He’s recorded 1,033 yards on a very nice 69 catches so far, and has reached nine TDs as well.
Harry has sometimes been frustrated by Wilkins and Edwards not always targeting him. If ASU decides to make Harry a key cog of their attack on Saturday, UA will have its hands full.
Merlin Robertson, LB
While the Arizona State defense has been as wildly inconsistent as both the team as a whole and Arizona’s own offense, Robertson has been the one consistently strong presence.
In just his freshman season, Robertson has become the leader for the ASU defense with a team-leading 72 tackles, including 8.5 of those being for loss and five being sacks. He’s also proven himself to be capable of producing takeovers, with an interception, forced fumble and a fumble recovery. Patrolling the middle of the field, Robertson is playing well above his years, helping usher in a new defensive era for the Sun Devils.
Khalil Tate and the rest of the UA offensive attack will absolutely need to keep Robertson’s magic in mind when trying to move the ball down the field.
Aashari Crosswell, S
Another stud freshman playing above his years and producing takeaways, Crosswell has been pivotal in keeping ASU’s pass defense stable.
Considering his different position on the field, Crosswell’s numbers may be even more impressive. His 36 tackles are seventh on the team, but he’s also recorded two interceptions, returning them for a total of 97 yards (but no pick-sixes). He’s defensed seven passes as well, and also recovered a fumble. Again like Robertson, it’s hard to believe that Crosswell is a freshman from watching him play. He roves the backfield for ASU, and oftentimes finds himself with a huge play to potentially turn the tide of the game.