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What to watch for when Arizona football takes on ASU in the Territorial Cup

arizona-wildcats-football-asu-sun-devils-territorial-cup-preview-stats-analysis-pac12 Photo by Carlos Herrera/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It was six years ago this weekend that Arizona was finishing up a horrible season, its worst in five years, when it put it all together and beat ASU 56-35 in a game that saw the Wildcats not need to throw the ball once in the second half.

Why does it seem like we, and many UA fans, constantly bring up that ‘didn’t throw a pass’ note? Because there hasn’t been much to reminisce about since then, both in general and specifically against the Sun Devils.

Arizona (4-7, 2-6 Pac-12) is hoping that all changes on Friday when it hosts ASU (3-8, 2-6) in the 2022 finale. The Wildcats are listed as a 4-point favorite, the first time they’ve been favored this season since Oct. 1 against Colorado and first time in the Territorial Cup since 2017.

Here’s what to watch for when the Cup is up for grabs at Arizona Stadium:

Equally bad defenses, but one that’s getting better

The over/under for this game is in the mid-60s, which seems really low considering how many points Arizona and ASU have allowed. The Wildcats are giving up 39.5 per game in Pac-12 play, while ASU is yielding 34, and both are at the bottom of the league in red zone scoring defense.

That makes for an environment where points could be a plenty, though Arizona’s defense has shown in recent weeks that it isn’t giving them up as easily.

The UA has allowed 104 points the last three weeks, but against Utah the four lost fumbles led to quite a few short fields for the Utes. The Wildcats then held UCLA to a season-low 28 points in that upset victory, then Washington State’s offense managed only 24 (plus a pick-six).

Arizona has ramped up the pressure on defense, too, getting five sacks and 18 tackles for loss the last three games after registering nine and 28 over the first eight, respectively. Per Pro Football Focus, nearly 35 percent of their total pressures for the season have come the last three games.

What’s changed? The Wildcats are playing more guys on defense, and that’s led to fresher bodies throughout the game.

“The growth I think has come from the amount of young players we’re playing in there,” UA coach Jedd Fisch said after the WSU loss. “I think early on in the season, I would say we were probably playing somewhere in the range of 13 to 14 players on defense. And now I think we’re playing up to about 19 to 20 players on defense, so they’re fresher. They’re coming in with more pass rush because they’ve not necessarily been playing 53 reps in a game, they’re playing 32 reps in the game or 34 reps in a game.”

For the season, Arizona has had 21 different players log at least 100 defensive snaps. Only 19 did so over 12 games in 2022.

“We rotate every other series, so we can stay fresh and just go out there and give it our all,” said defensive tackle Kyon Barrs, who has started all 11 games but is averaging 43 snaps in Pac-12 play. “We don’t want to put any bad plays on tape, so that helps a lot.”

Stopping the run

ASU averages only 1.27 more rushing yards per game than Arizona, but the difference between the attacks is in how those carries are distributed. While three Wildcats have carried it 50-plus times, not including Jayden de Laura and his 331 yards on non-sack runs, ASU is heavily dependent on one guy: senior Xazavian Valladay, who has 191 of the Sun Devils’ 295 carries.

Valladay, a transfer from Wyoming, is second in the Pac-12 in rushing with 1,095 yards and tied for the top spot with 14 touchdowns. For his career he’s gained 4,369 yards, which is second-most among active players and 79th in FBS history.

Arizona has allowed three 100-yard rushers this season, most recently when Pac-12 rushing leader Zach Charbonnet had 181 yards and three TDs for UCLA two weeks ago. Six teams have gained more than 200 yards on the ground against the UA, with three going over 300.

Senior swan songs

In addition to the T-Cup, Friday is Senior Day for Arizona and quite a few players could be participating in pre-game ceremonies.

The UA roster only includes six players—offensive linemen Josh Donovan and Paiton Fears, defensive linemen Hunter Echols and Jalen Harris, linebacker Jerry Roberts and safety Christian Young—who are out of eligibility, but Fisch said the Wildcats have about 15 “academic seniors” who have been in school for at least four years and who may opt to walk before the game.

That’s not a guarantee they’re done playing at Arizona, or in college at all, as Harris walked on Senior Day in 2021 and returned.

Among those with eligibility who plan to walk is Barrs, who is in his fourth season at Arizona. Others that may join him include running back Michael Wiley, receiver Jamarye Joiner, offensive tackle Jordan Morgan, cornerback Christian Roland-Wallace, safety Jaxen Turner and punter Kyle Ostendorp.

Other than Echols and Roberts, who were brought in via the transfer portal, everyone else listed above were on the roster when Kevin Sumlin was fired and stuck around after Fisch and his staff came on. Offensive coordinator Brennan Carroll believes that group deserves a lot of credit for Arizona’s turnaround this season.

“They’ve really done a fantastic job of keeping this program afloat,” Carroll said. “When we got here it felt like it could go either way. The seniors, and really all the guys that are here, have done a fantastic job of trusting the process, which we’ve laid out for them. The guys are taking ownership for it. They’ve really done everything that we’ve asked them to do in terms of being accountable, being reliable. I can’t thanks those guys enough.”

Chart climbers

De Laura’s 3,485 passing yards are fifth-most in school history and the most by an Arizona quarterback since Anu Solomon had 3,793 yards (in 14 games) in 2014. He’s not going to catch Nick Foles’ 2011 mark of 4,334 but with 309 he’d pass Solomon to move into second all-time.

He can catch or surpass the school single-season records for TD passes and total TDs if he has one of those bounceback performances he’s seemed to have after every rough outing.

Three TD passes would give de Laura 28, tying the school record held by Foles, Solomon and Willie Tuitama. Four total TDs would match Matt Scott’s 2012 tally of 33.

On the receiving front, Arizona currently has two 1,000-yard receivers (Dorian Singer and Jacob Cowing) for the first time in school history, yet somehow neither made the semifinal cut for the Biletnikoff Award. Singer’s 1,014 yards are currently 8th-most in UA history, with Cowing (1,001) in 10th.

The single-season record is 1,422 by Dennis Northcutt in 1999. A more realistic finish for either Singer or Cowing would be fifth, which is 1,134 yards by Keith Hartwig in 1976.

Cowing has 3,596 career receiving yards, which ranks 58th in FBS history. He needs 39 to crack the top 50, 107 to make the top 40.

Singer, with 1,315 yards in his brief career, is already 30th in school history. He’s 163 behind Stanley Berryhill III for 24th place.

And Wiley, who in addition to his rushing has caught 33 passes in back-to-back seasons, needs 20 yards of total offense to become the 27th player in school history with 2,000 yards of total offense.