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ASU expert previews the Arizona game, makes a score prediction

arizona-wildcats-asu-sun-devils-football-pac12-preview-q&a-defense-jayden-daniels-prediction-2021 Rob Schumacher / USA TODAY NETWORK

The 95th edition of the Territorial Cup is on tap for Saturday when the Arizona Wildcats head to Tempe to take on ASU.

The Sun Devils (7-4, 5-3 Pac-12) have won four in a row over the Wildcats (1-10, 1-8) including last year’s embarrassing 70-7 home loss that spelled the end for Kevin Sumlin.

What does ASU bring to the table? While most UA fans might not care much, it’s important to know one’s enemy. To give us insight into the Sun Devils, we reached out to Jack Johnson of SB Nation sister site House of Sparky. Here are his elaborate answers to our basic questions.

AZ Desert Swarm: ASU entered the 2021 season under a cloud of controversy, with accusations of recruiting violations during the COVID-forced dead period. How, in any way, has that affected the team and where do things stand with all of that?

Jack Johnson: “That cloud has hung over the program like a California storm system. I’m sure it has affected the psyche of the team. We just won’t find out that answer for some time because the investigation is ongoing and a lot of those discussions are going on behind the scenes.

“I would say it has impacted their play on the field, starting with their discipline. Arizona State is the most penalized team in the Pac-12, and a lot of those penalties have been head-scratching mistakes that should have been solved in junior varsity football practices years ago. Simple stuff like false starts, of which they had seven last week. Or illegal shifts, illegal substitutions. It’s easy to blame the players, but hard not to point the finger at the coaches.

“Communication has been an issue for the coaching staff, largely due to a few being removed or suspended quietly because of the allegations. There’s been an overall malaise that has festered as the season has gone on, and it seems like only a matter of time before the clouds burst.”

Jayden Daniels had a stellar freshman year in 2019 but it doesn’t seem like he’s improved from that version since then. What’s preventing him from taking that next step?

“There are three factors at play that I like to point toward. First, the receiving corps that was billed as the most athletic and highly-recruited in program history has not come of age like many expected it would in 2021. Second, the offensive coaching staff is playing to its strengths, and right now, it’s the run game with Rachaad White. Third, it’s a simple explanation but not one that gets brought up enough, it kind of seems like Daniels has lost some confidence. He set the world on fire in that ABC primetime game against Oregon, but these days he is missing throws he likely hasn’t missed since high school. The carefree Daniels of 2019 seems to have been replaced by a more skittish quarterback who is trying to force things and quick to rush out of the pocket. His draft stock has declined, and as rumors swirl about the potential for a big-name transfer, I don’t think he has ever felt less certain about his future than he does right now.”

ASU’s offense works best when the run game is producing, and with both Rachaad White and Chip Trayanum it has produced some big numbers. What does each bring to the equation?

“Coming into the season, it seemed like the Sun Devils were going to go akimbo-style with White and Trayanum as they did for much of last year. But as the season has developed, White has separated himself. There’s a few reasons why.

“First, Trayanum has missed three games with injury and has dealt with occasional turnover issues. Second, White is the more dynamic player at this stage. There was a point this season where White was the team leader in receptions. The more I watch White, the more I see Le’Veon Bell in his early days in Pittsburgh. He is so sure-handed and his ability to run and catch the ball makes him hard to take off the field.

“Trayanum has always been billed as the more shifty back, not really the thunder to the lightning, but he is the guy you want one-on-one against a linebacker in space. I just think he’s trying to find his space in the offense again as White has developed his skills to meet Trayanum’s.”

The Sun Devils lead the Pac-12 in total defense. Who are the standouts on that side of the ball that Arizona fans should be paying closest attention to?

Darien Butler, the edge linebacker who is tied for the team lead in interceptions with three. But he was out for the Oregon State game and his status is still TBD for this weekend. After him, I’d turn to Tyler Johnson, the edge rusher who influences more quarterback dropbacks than his stats show. He did have that 2-sack, he-can’t-be-blocked game against Stanford, but for him, it’s all about staying on the field. Lastly, I’d look at someone like Chase Lucas, who has been with the program as a starter longer than anyone in Sun Devil history. He’s an anchor, especially during these turbulent times, and he’s a major reason the team has a top-25 pass defense.

Prediction time. Does ASU win a sixth consecutive game in the series, something it hasn’t done since the early 1970s, or does Arizona cap off its first year under Jedd Fisch with a signature victory and bring the Territorial Cup back to Tucson? Give a score prediction.

“Yeah, Arizona State wins this one. It’s been a rough year but they are the more talented team across the board. Arizona just seems like they’re still two years away from fully shaking the Kevin Sumlin era. So as long as Arizona State doesn’t beat themselves, they’ll win comfortably. Give me Arizona State over Arizona with a final score of 38-13.”

Where should Arizona put its billboard if it wins this game? Or should it just burn down the ASU one?

“My freshman year I lived in a dorm where across the street was a UA billboard that stood for months advertising the medical building in downtown Phoenix. Because of that, I personally loved Tucson getting a taste of my medicine last year. In terms of where? Our light rail system has sponsorship openings on the side of its cars. That would be a good place to stick it to the Sun Devils. Don’t tell anyone it was my idea, though.”