It’s Territorial Cup week for the Arizona Wildcats, who play host to ASU on Friday night with both teams searching for their first win of the season. It’s also the last scheduled game of 2020 for the UA, though the Pac-12 intends to have all non-championship game participants play once more on Dec. 19.
This will be the third Duel in the Desert for Arizona coach Kevin Sumlin, whose team blew a 19-point fourth-quarter lead at home to ASU in 2018 and fell by 10 to the Sun Devils in Tempe last year.
Below are his thoughts on the rivalry, how his team is preparing for it, and other assorted topics.
On the Territorial Cup: “It’s a rivalry game, that’s the first thing. One of the oldest, if not the oldest in the country. Along those lines, we’ve got a number of new players who don’t understand it. Unless you’ve been in it, you don’t have a feel for the intensity. The first year, we missed a field goal to win the game. A back and forth game last year up there. The intensity level in the game, I think it’s widely publicized before the game a couple years ago, the pregame, we had some issues before that, which changed some rules in college football, actually, for warmups. A lot of guys know each other. It’s intense. Between players and coaches. It’s a pride situation. For our fans and alumni, their fans and alumni it’s a big deal in this state. We’re both coming into this thing looking for a win. I think that actually raises things up a little bit even more. We’ll see what happens after this game, with what’s gonna go on with whatever the Pac-12 decides with games down the road, but obviously this one is impactful for a number of reasons. The intensity level does get raised another bar.”
On treating ASU like a bowl game since it could be the last contest of 2020: “We’re approaching it as a rivalry game, it’s been on the schedule. There’s no time for that because we’re on a short week. We’re playing Friday night. We were on the field last night after playing Saturday night. There’s no time for that. I think what’s more important is for our guys to feel what the tradition, what the rivalry is. I had Chuck Cecil talk last night after practice, just about his experience, what it means to him. There will be a number of people around the program this week, just to make sure that some of the young guys and some of the transfers understand the importance and the tradition of this football game. Obviously (Chuck) is a very passionate person, and emotional. I thought it was a great way to kick off the week.”
On what he learned from Chuck Cecil’s talk to the team: “Chuck said that one year they kidnapped a couple, three guys. I didn’t know that part. I don’t know if that’s true, he might have just been getting them fired up.”
On making sure players understand the rivalry: “It’s not unique to the Territorial Cup, because you’ve got guys at all kinds of schools that are playing at rivalry games that may not be from that state or that area. But once they walk onto the field and they’re wearing that particular university’s logo and uniform, they figure it out pretty quick. Our guys get it. I thought it was important to kick off the week with guys who’ve been involved in it … for a long time, and really express the intensity level of this game.
“Wherever you go, there’s always going to be that game. And when you’re in it, that’s when you have the appreciation for it. You can look at it from afar and say man, this is intense, but not until you’re in it do you really get it. As a player, every game is important, for our fans every game is important, but rivalry games just mean more. I’ve been a part of a bunch of them. Whether it’s the Red River Shootout, Old Oaken Bucket, Paul Bunyan’s Axe, you name it. Little Brown Jug. I’ve seen a bunch of them. But until you’re in it you don’t understand the significance of what that means to a lot of different people besides the guys that are on the field.”
On avoiding distractions leading up to the ASU game: “There’s no such thing as distracted from a rivalry game. It’s business as usual for preparation. The think the intensity level during a game, that’s where it can be one way or another. The preparation piece is still going to be the same. Once you get to the stadium, once you start getting dressed, once you walk out there and warm up you start warming up, and then how you channel those emotions become important to how you be successful.”
On Arizona reportedly only having 55 available scholarship players vs. Colorado: “That is a situation that I think a lot of people are dealing with, and those numbers got out. It’s day-to-day, it’s week-to-week. I think you’ve seen it with a lot of programs across the country in different games they’ve played without people. From the No. 1 team in the country to everybody else. Where those numbers are, they fluctuate during the week. Obviously we’ve played four games, and other people (in the Pac-12) haven’t played that many. You’ve got a combination of COVID, a combination of injury, just a number of different things, to be able to play the games is really important. Our guys understand that. Those numbers have fluctuated week to week.”
On Grant Gunnell’s status: “We got on the practice field last night. Probably know a little bit more today and tomorrow, I’ll just put it that way. He didn’t do anything last week. We’re going to defer to our medical team and see where he is later on in the week.”
On Will Plummer’s play vs. Colorado and if a QB change was considered: “I thought out issues were not related to the quarterback position Saturday. As you watch the game, as you watch what happened, we had issues in protection. I thought that Will’s ability to use his legs got us out of some thing. I say it all the time, the quarterback, like the head coach, you get too much credit when things are good and you get all the blame when things don’t go well. He understands that. As I said Saturday night, there’s 10 other guys on the field. One interception was a poor route, the ball was tipped and it was a poor route. Protection was an issue, obviously. Game plan-wise, us being able to run the ball, which we did effectively by numbers but not by, as I say real game time. Third downs and staying on the field. That’s our challenge, the third and medium area, where we need to stay on the field. That’s not just the quarterback.”
On why redshirt sophomore QB Kevin Doyle has yet to play in two-plus seasons: “Everybody has an opportunity during practice, as I say, to prove to the other players and to the coaches that you’re going to be able to perform and do those things. It’s not just a guess, or just pick a guy. Throughout preseason practice, Will moved up the chart by doing the things that he’s done. Those spots are earned and not given away. We’ll make changes, as we’ve done, since we’ve been here. You saw changes in the offensive line last week. You saw changes in the defensive line, playing some younger guys, getting guys back in there. Even on defense, with (Isaiah) Mays playing a bunch last weekend at safety. All those things are earned in practice and they’re evaluated in practice. There’s a lot of things that go into that. Those evaluations are daily, not just from the preseason practice but daily. I think you see a number of guys on the team moving up and down the depth chart, trying to get the best people on the field and people who, during practice, give us the best chance. There’s no agenda. Our agenda is to win. As I’ve told other guys on the football team, coaches, players, everybody else, we’re going to put the guys that our there that give us the best chance to win, based on their day-to-day performance in practice and how they do in practice.”
On getting WR Jamarye Joiner more involved: “He had a, what, 30-yard punt return. We got it to him the last week, two weeks ago. Sometimes the ball finds you, based on coverage. We didn’t really get anything out of (Brian) Casteel two weeks ago, but we got something (Saturday). You need depth there. We had two running backs run for over 100 yards apiece. There’s only one football. Our guys understand it, based on what we’re getting in coverage. What our game plan is, certainly Jamarye is a big part of what we’re doing. Casteel came on last week, which we needed him to do. He didn’t play the first game against SC, he’s a dynamic player as well.”
On Casteel’s over-the-shoulder catch: “He’s a really good football player. He didn’t play against SC, in a man-to-man coverage game that’s really his deal. And Stanley (Berryhill III) has had some moments against man-to-man. We’ve got some guys out there that can run, particularly against press coverage … because that’s what we’re seeing.”
On LB Anthony Pandy’s two-interception game: “I thought Anthony Pandy being able to practice for the last week was big, and I think it showed up in his performance. With his tackles, with how physical he was, how he ran to the ball. Good things happen to people who play hard, and good things happen to teams that play hard. I thought that was one of Pandy’s best performances since we’ve been here. That kind of effort and energy is contagious. We need him to continue this week, during practice, just to set the tone and pick up where he left off Saturday night.”
On ASU’s offense: “They’ve only played a couple games, but obviously coming into this season Jayden Daniels is a very, very talented player, and can do things with his legs, do things with his arm. They’ve got some real good skill players for what they do, RPO stuff. Obviously he can operate at a high level when he gets going.”
On the Sun Devil defense: “You look at their defense, Herm’s known for that. They’ve got one of the best players in the league, I think, in Evan Fields. What’s he got, 11 tackles a game in two games. And (Merlin) Robertson … you’ve got 20 tackles per game between those two guys. Obviously we’ve gotta know where those guys are and block them. They’ve been pretty dynamic defensively.”
On now not having fans will affect the Territorial Cup atmosphere: “Coming into game 5, really four games without fans, our guys … they’ve been through it before and understand what that looks like, what ambient noise looks like, or sounds like. In the end, just like when you’re a little kid, you didn’t have 50,000 people at a game. You played the game because you loved the game and you played hard because you wanted to win. It’s disappointing for our fans, it’s disappointing for a lot of people. But in order to move forward with the football season that’s where it is right now. It’s 2020. There’s a lot of things that are different for these young guys, from grab-and-go food, different places and hotels. Social distancing, meeting on Zoom. Everything’s different. You embrace playing because … a good friend of mine, as a coach, they’ve had six games canceled this year. That’s tough on guys, too, to practice all week and get games canceled. Everybody’s got challenges right now. It just gets back to you’re playing a game.”