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What to watch for when Arizona battles ASU in Territorial Cup

arizona-wildcats-asu-sun-devils-preview-odds-tv-channel-kickoff-odds-draftkings-pac12-2021 Photo by Carlos Herrera/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Remember back in August, when there was so much promise for this Arizona Wildcats team? Or at least a decent hope they could get to a bowl game in Kevin Sumlin’s second season? Yeah, those were good times.

Flash forward three months and 11 games and Arizona (4-7, 2-6 Pac-12) is staring at another losing record, regardless of what happens in its final game. But being able to knock off the archrival Arizona State Sun Devils (6-5, 3-5) would at least somewhat soften the pain of what happened before that.

The Wildcats are on a six-game losing streak and haven’t won at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe since 2011, losing the last three by an average of 21.3 points.

Here’s what to keep an eye out for when the Territorial Cup is a stake on Saturday night:

Finishing on a high note

Arizona’s six-game losing streak is its longest since 2016, when the Wildcats dropped eight in a row during a 3-9 season. That skid ended with a 56-35 win over ASU, a game in which UA famously did not attempt a pass in the second half.

Ironically, Arizona has won three of the last four meetings with ASU when nothing was at stake beyond bragging rights. Since 2004 the Wildcats have entered the Territorial Cup knowing they would not play in a bowl afterward on four occasions, and topping ASU in 2004, 2011 and 2016.

Arizona’s current senior class has only one win against the Sun Devils, that 2016 triumph. Giving the likes of cornerback Jace Whittaker, offensive guard Cody Creason and running back J.J. Taylor a second victory would make for a heck of a sendoff.

Milestones to be made

Taylor entered this season 10th on the school career rushing list, and if he had a big 2019 he might have challenged UA record of 4,239. Injuries early on, as well as Arizona going with a rotation in the backfield, derailed any hope of Taylor getting to the top spot prior to 2020.

And now that Taylor has announced he’s leaving school after this season, most likely to enter the NFL Draft, it’s all about seeing where he’ll finish.

Taylor heads into his final game with 3,215 rushing yards, good for fifth in school history. If he were to go for 167 yards against ASU he’d pass Art Luppino for fourth place.

At 4,630 all-purpose yards, Taylor is seventh and needs 126 combined rushing, receiving and return yards against ASU to pass Bobby Wade for sixth.

Quarterback Khalil Tate is firmly locked into third place in school history in passing touchdowns (55) and fifth in passing yards (6,090), while his third-place spot in total offense (8,297) looks set unless he somehow manages to amass 431 yards through the air and on the ground against ASU.

Also worth following: Whittaker needs one pass breakup to tie Kelly Malveaux for third in school history at 35, while junior linebacker Colin Schooler is 1.5 tackles for loss shy of tying Bill McKinley for fourth place with 45.

How the line … lines up

Arizona started the same five guys on the offensive line during the first five games of this season. Not coincidentally, the Wildcats averaged 37.2 points and 519.2 yards per game as well as 7.01 yards per play while going 4-1.

Then left guard Robert Congel missed the Washington game, starting a revolving door of linemen that aligned with the six-game skid. Each of Arizona’s last six games have seen a completely unique starting five in the trenches, with nine different players starting over the last three contests.

And just as unsurprisingly, Arizona has averaged 20.5 points and 367 yards per game, its per-play average dipping to 5.09.

Sumlin said there was a possibility that one or more of the injured lot that includes Creason, center Josh McCauley and tackles Paiton Fears and Jordan Morgan could return for the finale. If Creason or McCauley were to return that would be particularly helpful to a unit that’s allowed 32 sacks in 11 games after yielding 20 all of last season.

Not holding back

During his Monday press conference, Sumlin was asked how much he considered going for it on fourth down deep in his own territory during the second quarter against Utah. He said he gave it a lot of thought, ultimately opting to punt.

Asked if he’d be willing to take more chances against ASU, knowing it wouldn’t have any effect on bowl eligibility, Sumlin didn’t completely shut down the idea.

“We went for it on 4th and 10 one time (against Utah), actually, maybe 4th and 11,” he said. “We’re trying to win a game. Every game is mutually independent. As a coach we’re trying to give our players the best chance to win.”

For the season, Arizona is 13 of 19 on fourth down, a 68.4 percent success rate that’s third in the Pac-12.

If it comes down to a kick ...

(For those that may have PTSD from last year’s game, or even farther back in the Territorial Cup history, please skip this section)

In addition to blowing a 19-point fourth-quarter lead at home against ASU in 2018, Arizona had a chance to win at the end but Josh Pollack missed wide right on a game-winning field goal as time expired. Sadly, that wasn’t the first time the Wildcats fell short against the Sun Devils because of a missed kick.

The 2009 Territorial Cup, which went to two overtimes, ended when Alex Zendejas had an extra point blocked in the second OT of the 30-29 loss. Zendejas, whose uncle Max Zendejas is Arizona’s career leader in field goals (79) and kicking points (360), had two PATs blocked in that game.

And as fate would have it, ASU’s kicking duties are handled by sophomore Cristian Zendejas, Max’s nephew and Alex’s cousin.