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What to watch for in the Arizona-ASU game

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TUCSON, AZ - NOVEMBER 25: The Arizona Wildcats celebrate with the Territorial Cup after defeating the Arizona State Sun Devils 56-35 in college football game at Arizona Stadium on November 25, 2016 in Tucson, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

This is it, win or go home. Or in this case, stay home.

The Arizona Wildcats must beat the Arizona Sun Devils in the Territorial Cup to avoid finishing below .500 and without a bid to a bowl game. That’s only happened once since 2012, the 2016 season that ended with a 3-9 record.

It also ended with Arizona demolishing ASU, 56-35, in a game that saw the Wildcats not attempt one pass in the second half while rushing for a then-school record 511 yards.

Can Arizona do something similar on Saturday afternoon, this time getting the added bonus of a bowl invite for a victory? Or will playing in daylight—the first home day game since October 2016—expose the Wildcats further?

Here’s what to watch for in the Territorial Cup:

Flip the switch

That 2016 win over ASU came after Arizona had lost eight consecutive games, tied for the longest skid in school history. The week before the Wildcats fell 42-17 to an Oregon State team that had lost five in a row.

Yet against the Sun Devils it was like a completely different team was on the field.

Arizona isn’t in as dire a situation as two years ago but it does need to turn things around quickly. The Wildcats were thumped 69-28 at Washington State, ending a two-game win streak and erasing any of the good feelings we had about this team in the process.

All that can be fixed with a win over ASU. Can the ‘Cats flip the switch?

“Everyone’s seen how we’ve played throughout the season,” senior receiver Shawn Poindexter said on Tuesday. “We have a lot of potential in our locker room.”

Stop the stars

To beat Arizona State means you have to deal with arguably the best 1-2-3 offensive combo in the Pac-12.

Senior quarterback Manny Wilkins has thrown for 2,631 yards and 18 touchdowns, with only four interceptions on 331 attempts. His top target is junior N’Keal Harry, who has 69 catches for 1,033 yards and nine TDs.

And the Pac-12’s leading rusher is ASU sophomore Eno Benjamin, who has run for 1,444 yards and 12 TDs. In the Sun Devils’ last four games he’s run for 691 yards on 5.36 yards per carry.

“Those three are three of the better players in the league,” Arizona coach Kevin Sumlin said Monday.

Keep your cool

Arizona was hit with a slew of personal foul penalties against Washington State, many happening early on and giving WSU an extra push early to get its blowout started. Might the emotions of remembering the Wildcats’ 69-7 loss in Pullman two years before had an effect on that?

Who knows, but we do know this: the Territorial Cup is always heated, the trash talking at another level compared to other games, and that means there’s potential for players to say too much and possibly turn that into physical confrontations. That’s the last thing Arizona, the most-penalized team in the Pac-12, can afford to do.

“It’s like that in every rivalry game, emotions run high,” senior left tackle Layth Friekh said. “You just have to keep your cool and know that if you do something stupid it hurts your team.”

Scramble plays

The way the offensive coaches draw up a play isn’t always how it works out. Those pesky defenses not just allowing themselves to be blocked, and what not.

Offensive efficiency is heavily dependent on execution, but that’s not just in terms of planned execution. When things break down, how a team handles that chaos can make or break a game.

For Arizona’s wide receivers, this comes into play quite often thanks to quarterback Khalil Tate’s propensity to scramble and throw on the run. And when that happens, the rules are simple.

“Run downfield and he’ll throw it to you,” senior receiver Tony Ellison said. “If you look, most of our scramble plays have been scoring plays.”

Poindexter said it’s often the receiver who is deepest down field that ends up getting the target but “you never know with that guy. You just want to get in his vision and get open.”

Arizona leads the Pac-12 with 30 passing plays of 30 or more yards, seven more than any other school in the league. That’s tied for third-most in FBS.

Hold onto the ball

Arizona State leads the Pac-12 with a plus-7 turnover margin, giving it away just nine times in 11 games while forcing 16 takeaways. The Sun Devils have lost the turnover battle once this season.

At minus-2, Arizona is near the bottom in the league overall and has lost the turnover battle four times. That includes last week at Washington State where the Wildcats gave it away four times (three fumbles and an interception) and overall fumbled on six occasions.

Arizona has fumbled 20 times this season, losing eight. That’s already seven more than a year ago.