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ASU expert previews the Arizona game, makes a Territorial Cup score prediction

arizona-wildcats-asu-sun-devils-football-preview-q&a-territorial-cup-herm-edwards-shaun-aguano Joe Rondone/The Republic / USA TODAY NETWORK

The Territorial Cup is one of the oldest rivalries in college football, the trophy dating back to the late 1800s. Yet for Arizona, that cup hasn’t spent more than a few hours in Tucson the last six years.

ASU (3-8, 2-6 Pac-12) has won the last five meetings with Arizona (4-7, 3-5) but this could be the year the Wildcats end the drought. The Sun Devils are in the middle of a rough season, one in which they fired their coach and are facing NCAA recruiting allegations.

To better understand ASU, we reached out to Kevin Redfern of SB Nation sister site House of Sparky for some insight. Here are his splendid answers to our ordinary questions.

AZ Desert Swarm: ASU carried a ton of uncertainty surrounding the program into the fall, then dispatched with the biggest part of it when it fired Herm Edwards after a 1-2 start. Results aside, how has the team changed under Shaun Aguano’s leadership and do you think he’s a legitimate candidate for the permanent job?

Kevin Redfern: “When Shaun Aguano took over as interim head he inherited a nasty schedule to start Pac-12 play. ASU was a punching bag for Utah and USC in his first two games. But the spotlight stayed on Aguano, where he instituted culture changes in the locker room, and repeatedly expressed his interest in making a major overhaul in the program’s in-state recruiting efforts. It was supposedly not that difficult for Aguano to win over the locker room, and the players were all in. But those words only mean so much. We heard a similar tune from Herm all offseason, then they lost 30-21 to Eastern Michigan.

“Aguano set himself up nicely from a PR standpoint by announcing a quarterback change, and taking over play-calling duties in ASU’s 42-34 win at Colorado (makes sense, right?). That maneuver was brilliant at the time, but the Sun Devils haven’t won since. During his introductory press conference, Aguano said he would be making “subtle changes, not drastic ones.” So far, that has been the case. I believed he needed to lead ASU to bowl-eligibility, and make significant strides with the 2023 recruiting class, in order for Aguano to become a legitimate candidate. He’s gotten a few verbals, but most of his big-time offers won’t stick.

“ASU also just hired renowned search-firm head Jed Hughes of Korn Ferry to lead the coaching search. It looks like Ray Anderson and co. are looking to swing big. Will Aguano stay on staff? Unpredictable. A lot of noise is centered around Oregon offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham, but keep an eye on Tom Herman in the meantime.”

The quarterback situation has seemed chaotic from the outside, with Emory Jones winning the job out of camp but walk-on (and Tucson-area native Trenton Bourguet) supplanting him and looking like the better option. What has made Bourguet more effective and how has that changed the offense?

“Offensive coordinator Glenn Thomas was hired in January. Emory Jones transferred in May. That gave Bourguet, who did have a foot procedure in the spring, a 5-month head start on learning the playbook. For a quarterback that is known for his prowess between the ears, I’m sure that went a long way. Against Washington and Colorado, Bourguet combined for 617 yards on a 74 percent completion rate, with six touchdowns and two interceptions. He managed the offense masterfully with quick releases and accurate throws that we had not seen from Jones all year. It was a simple, yet effective upgrade. Bourguet’s pre-snap diagnosis-skills are impressive. He knows where to go with the ball.”

Xazavian Valladay is one of two active FBS running backs with more than 4,000 career rushing yards, topping the 1,000-yard mark last week for the third time in five seasons. How does he fit in this retooled offense and do you expect him to get a bigger load against Arizona’s woeful rush defense?

“If anything, the offense fits around Xazavian, who goes by X Valladay, and that’s why Aguano called him the “heart and soul” of the program. After the Arizona game, it’s possible Valladay (currently 1,095 yards, 14 TDs) may be looked back on as a slight upgrade in the running game over the 2021 iteration of Rachaad White (1,006, 15 touchdowns), at least in the rushing category.

“Though he is a threat through the air too, with 272 yards and a pair of scores. He was a favorite of Jones in the red zone. If the Sun Devils are not playing from two scores-behind, expect Valladay to rush for 20-plus attempts. Aguano, the former running backs coach, adores Valladay, and I’m positive they are making him a focal point of the game plan for the Territorial Cup.”

Linebacker Kyle Soelle leads the Pac-12 with 105 tackles but it looks like his numbers are down of late, possibly due to injury? Will he be 100 percent for this game, and what does he bring to the table when healthy?

“ASU is going all-hockey on us in the Aguano-era, reporting injuries as “upper-body” and “lower-body.” After missing the 28-18 Washington State loss with an “upper-extremity injury,” a shadow of Soelle recorded just four tackles. As a result, he has the ninth-most total tackles in the FBS. His drop-off last week definitely signifies he is not 100 percent, but there was no way that captain Kyle Soelle was going to miss his Senior Say.

“When healthy, Soelle does a fantastic job doing clean-up duty for a struggling defensive line unit. He is their second line of defense, and turns a potential big-play into a minimal game. It is a largely thankless job until everyone looks at the box score postgame.”

Who else on ASU’s defense should Arizona be most concerned with?

“Part of it is injury, but even with a monster 6-foot-3-inch, 210 pound frame as a cornerback, Auburn-transfer Ro Torrence continues to fly under the radar of the national media. The other part is that quarterbacks simply do not target receivers guarded by Torrence at the same rate that they attack other ASU defensive backs. Even so, he has eight pass breakups on the year, and leads ASU corners with 21 solo tackles. Unfortunately, coverage has not translated to pressure up front, and Pac-12 quarterbacks have had success extending plays with their arm or their legs.”

Prediction time. Do the Sun Devils hold onto the Cup for a seventh consecutive year or does Arizona finally keep it in Tucson for the first time since not attempting a pass in the second half in 2016? Give us a score pick.

“The time has come. Jayden de Laura keeps his head on his shoulders and handles the Sun Devils for the second time in as many years, but this time for the Wildcats. Neither of these teams seem to like hitting or covering in the secondary, so take the points. Final score, 41-31 Wildcats.”