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What to watch for when Arizona battles ASU for the Territorial Cup

arizona-wildcats-asu-sun-devils-preview-daniels-gunnell-rushing-red-zone-territorial-cup-2020 Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

It’s time for the big one.

The Territorial Cup is up for grabs, and the Arizona Wildcats haven’t been able to carry it off the field since 2016. Laying claim to college football’s oldest rivalry trophy would be extra sweet for Arizona this season, since it would also signal the end to its program-record 11-game losing streak.

Arizona (0-4) and ASU (0-2) are both winless heading into the 94th game of this series, which the UA leads 49-43-1 but where the Wildcats have only won three times in the past 10 meetings.

Here’s what to look for when the Duel in the Desert goes down on Friday night at Arizona Stadium:

Quarterback play

For the second year in a row, we have no idea who Arizona plans to start at quarterback for the Territorial Cup. Last year it was because coach Kevin Sumlin kept flip-flopping between Khalil Tate and Grant Gunnell—Tate went the whole way—while this time it’s because Gunnell is dealing with a shoulder injury.

True freshman Will Plummer has taken all but one snap the past two weeks, and the numbers haven’t been great. He’s only completing 53.7 percent of his passes, averaging only 4.6 yards per attempt, with no touchdowns and three interceptions, though he has run for 78 yards despite being sacked seven times.

There’s no uncertainty at the QB position for ASU, where sophomore Jayden Daniels is firmly entrenched as the starter even though his passing this season has been spotty. In the Sun Devils’ opener at USC he was only 11 of 23, then after the long COVID hiatus he had a bad interception in the loss to UCLA.

Daniels only threw for 104 yards against Arizona last year, adding 62, but didn’t need to do much since ASU ran for 234 yards.

Who runs over whom

Speaking of rushing …

Arizona ran for 268 yards against Colorado last week, its most since last September, with senior Gary Brightwell and sophomore Michael Wiley both topping the 100-yard mark. But the Wildcats’ rushing production was massively overshadowed by their defense allowing 407 yards on the ground, including an opponent-record 301 from Jarek Broussard.

Enter ASU, which in its two games has displayed a formidable 1-2 rushing combo in true freshman Chip Trayanum and junior Rachaad White. Trayanum is a 230-pound bulldozer, while White is 6-2 and has both speed and power.

It’s the big runs that have been the issue for Arizona. Opponents have gained 30 or more yards on a single rush eight times, twice as many as any other Pac-12 team, and the five runs of 50-plus the Wildcats have yielded are only two fewer than the other 11 league members combined.

The dreaded red zone

Arizona has scored nine touchdowns in three games, with more than half of those TDs coming on plays of more than 20 yards. But when it comes to producing in the red zone, that’s where the Wildcat offense goes to die.

Eleven red zone possessions this season have produced a mere 40 points, with only four TDs and four field goals along with three scoreless drives. Two of those goose eggs came last week against Colorado, when Plummer was intercepted at the goal line on one drive and the Wildcats turned it over on downs on another despite having 1st and goal from the 5.

The only team with a worse red zone TD production in FBS is Bowling Green, which has five TDs in 15 trips (and has also been outscored 225-57 in its five games).

Arizona has allowed 13 TDs in 22 red zone possessions, with 10 of those scores coming via the run.

The numbers game

According to the final box score released by Arizona’s sports information department, the Wildcats only used 42 players in last week’s home loss to Colorado. Only 34 were scholarship athletes, and during the broadcast on Fox Sports 1 it was reported the Wildcats only had 55 scholarship players available for the game.

Since then, redshirt freshman offensive lineman Jamari Williams entered the NCAA transfer portal, marking at least the third player to leave the program this season. At least 11 others have either opted out, suffered season-ending injuries or are suspended.

Arizona has only played 54 scholarship athletes at one point or another this season.

For ASU, which played 52 guys against UCLA, its numbers situation is more related to which players are allowed to compete based on COVID-19 protocols. The Sun Devils had such a bad outbreak they were forced to cancel three consecutive games before returning to play last week.

Ending those streaks

Arizona’s 11-game losing streak is tied for the second-longest active skid in FBS, behind only Kansas (13). Louisiana-Monroe, Massachusetts and Old Dominion have also lost 11 in a row.

Maybe more upsetting is the Wildcats’ current losing streak against ASU, which stands at three. That may not seem long, but for Arizona it’s the worst run against the Sun Devils since dropping three in a row from 2005-07. Another loss to ASU and it will be the longest skid since losing four straight from 1975-78.

Arizona hasn’t lost consecutive Territorial Cup games at Arizona Stadium since 2000 and 2002. The 2000 setback proved to be the final game for program wins leader Dick Tomey.