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What to watch for when Arizona football visits ASU in Territorial Cup

arizona-wildcats-asu-sun-devils-football-preview-2021-territorial-cup-turnovers-penalties-red-zone Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The first year of the Jedd Fisch has neared its finale, with the Arizona Wildcats visiting ASU on Saturday in the annual Territorial Cup.

ASU (7-4, 5-3 Pac-12) has won four straight meetings, most recently last year’s ugly 70-7 outcome in Tucson. Arizona (1-10, 1-8) hasn’t won in Tempe since 2011. According to DraftKings Sportsbook, the UA is a 20-point underdog.

Here’s what to watch for in the 95th meeting between the Wildcats and Tempe Normal:

(Nearly) all hands on deck

Arizona closed its ranks this week, with Jedd Fisch’s Monday press conference the only media access ahead of the Territorial Cup. That means we won’t know for certain who is going to be able to play until pregame warmups, but Fisch is hoping that everyone who can go will.

He said that the lengths some players will go to in order to be available, despite numerous injuries throughout the season, is a testament to how much they’ve bought in to what he and his staff are trying to accomplish.

“What’s most exciting for me, and our program, is regardless of what our record is at this point in time we have every single player that’s capable of playing, begging, pleading to be able to be on the field on Saturday, and I always think that’s a great sign of a team that’s excited,” he said.

Other than quarterbacks Gunner Cruz and Jordan McCloud, both of whom suffered season-ending injuries in October, the only players certain to be out due to injury are linebacker Jerry Roberts and receiver Tayvian Cunningham. Offensive linemen Josh Donovan and Donovan Laie and wide receiver/QB Jamarye Joiner, all of whom missed the loss at Washington State, are expected to play.

For Joiner, it will be an opportunity to return to the site of his breakout performance in 2019, when in the Territorial Cup he had seven catches for 140 yards—third-most for a Wildcat in the rivalry—and two touchdowns.

In the trenches

ASU averages more than 200 rushing yards per game, with senior Rachaad White pacing that attack with 908 yards and 14 touchdowns. The UA, which averages 136.2 yards per game on the ground, has 890 yards and three scores from its top three ball carriers.

The Sun Devils are fifth in the Pac-12 in run defense, while Arizona is ninth.

Trung Canidate holds the Territorial Cup for rushing yards in a game, going for 288 (on 18 carries!) in the 1998 home win over ASU. ASU’s Eno Benjamin and Demario Richard topped 165 yards in the past two games in Tempe, and White had games of 202 and 184 yards before getting stuffed last week at Oregon State.

Flags and turnovers aplenty

ASU and Arizona are two of the most-penalized teams in the country, with the Sun Devils getting flagged 97 times and the UA 93 times. Combined they’ve lost 1,653 yards because of penalties.

They’re also both among the worst in FBS at taking care of the ball. Each has turned it over 21 times, tied for 8th-most in the country. The Sun Devils have lost 12 fumbles, tied for third-most in the nation, while the UA’s 17 interceptions thrown is tied for most of anyone in FBS and most since the 2003 squad was picked off 23 times.

But while ASU gives it away a lot, it also takes it away a fair amount with 18, including 14 interceptions. Arizona? Only six takeaways, tied for fewest in the country.

“I certainly know we talk about penalties a lot,” Fisch said. “I certainly know we emphasize it. In the same way I don’t know why we don’t take the ball away. We’ve had six takeaways all season, three of which came against Northern Arizona. We talk about it daily, we emphasize it daily, but sometimes it just hasn’t happened yet. The same thing with how we haven’t gotten those penalties down, but we need to.”

Finishing drives

Arizona has the worst red zone offense in the Pac-12, scoring on only 73.5 percent of trips inside the opponents’ 20-yard line. ASU isn’t much better, at 78.3 percent, but the Sun Devils have 30 TDs while the Wildcats have found the end zone only 11 times.

Neither team is good at preventing scores in the red zone, though, so if Arizona can avoid its usual close-to-the-goal-line mistakes it could have its first game with more than two red-zone TDs since the 56-38 home loss to Oregon State in November 2019.