Remember how much of a struggle the 2021 season was for Arizona, with a first-time head coach and a roster that had to be completely rebuilt? That’s what ASU is going through this year under Kenny Dillingham.
The Sun Devils (3-8, 2-6 Pac-12) are headed for back-to-back losing records for the first time since 2015-16, and a loss in the Territorial Cup will give them consecutive 3-9 campaigns. Not that any kitty is gonna give pity for those woes.
To better understand the current squad that Arizona will be facing on Saturday in Tempe, we reached out to Andrew Lwowski of SB Nation sister site House of Sparky. Here are his firm answers to our unstable questions.
AZ Desert Swarm: ASU is in the first year of trying to rebuild what Herm Edwards demolished, and the overall results are not dissimilar to what Arizona went through in 2021 under Jedd Fisch. All things considered, has this first season gone about as expected?
Andrew Lwowski: “Yes…. and no. It was expected Dillingham would have his fair share of struggles with a roster that isn’t his, and it takes years to establish a culture in a new program. Dillingham understands the growing pains of establishing and building a new program, he’s cited his experiences in Florida (he was Florida State’s offensive coordinator in 2020-21) through the season. The no to this answer is that injury factor. ASU has had upwards of 30 players miss time, including running down to only six offensive lineman on scholarship, which hampers the offense greatly. Regardless, it was expected Dillingham would experience some struggles this season, but he has the support of the fans and the players are buying in.”
The Sun Devils have played four different quarterbacks, not including using a tight end and running back in that position. How difficult has it been for the offense to have any rhythm or consistency with all that change?
“Having inconsistency with the starting quarterback has absolutely had an effect on the playcalling and effectiveness of the offense this year. A lot of hope was freshman Jaden Rashada to light it up with Dillingham’s offensive mindset, but that will have to wait until next year (or maybe this week). Veteran Trenton Bourguet has been in the system and has the ability to perform, but the potential star power Rashada holds is something the Dillingham offense is looking for for the future. The biggest hindrance to the offense this season has been the injury bug that’s plagued the line. While holding a lead over Washington in Seattle, Dillingham said he did not have the personnel to kick a field goal, and a few plays later, Washington took the lead off a pick-six.”
Injuries seem to have played a huge role in ASU’s season. Who are some of the guys whose absence has had the most impact, and which fill-ins have done the best job?
“Bourguet has played most of the season with Rashada being sidelined with a lingering injury. It’s hard to tell exactly how different the season would have gone with Rashada under center instead, but the veteran presence and ability of Bourguet has guided ASU this season. True freshman Sean Na’a has stepped up in his role on the O-Line, even though it lost Isaia Glass via transfer, and Emmit Bohle and Cade Briggs to injury. Overall, it has been a massive collective effort. Dillingham has compensated for the quarterback situation by running the Hellcat (tight end Jalin Conyers direct snap) and Wildskat (Cam Skattebo wildcat) to keep the opposing defense honest and take ease off the offensive line.”
ASU’s defense has put together some pretty impressive performances, including holding unbeaten Washington to zero offensive TDs and making several big stops in the win at UCLA. What’s been the key to that side’s success, and who are the top playmakers?
“The edge pressure has been the driving factor for ASU’s defense this season. BJ Green and Prince Dorbah have been amazing at getting around the edge and making the opposing quarterback uncomfortable. That, of course, feeds into Dashaun Mallory and Caleb McCullough, who are able to generate sacks from teamwork. The Sun Devils’ linebacking corps has been stretched thin this year, but transfer linebacker Tate Romney has been valuable, both physically and as a leader. In the secondary, Ro Torrence and Jordan Clark have been steady in keeping receivers in check. They have been put to the test against the receiving corps of Washington and Oregon, however. Overall, it’s been an incredible team effort with energy from each level feeding into another.”
It’s way too early to really judge if Kenny Dillingham is the right guy to turn things around in Tempe, but so far what’s your impression? Is he doing and saying the right things?
“Kenny Dillingham has been emphatic all season that ASU fans activate the valley and support his program, and rightfully so. It takes years to build and establish winning and culture – Arizona football is an example of this. Every week Dillingham takes accountability and responsibility for his team’s shortcomings and credits players for stepping up and winning when due. His players are buying in and that’s the most important step in his debut season. After all, he is doing as much as he can with as little as he has. When he took over offensive play calling weeks into the season, the creativity and performance has improved each week. ASU’s win over UCLA was purely coaching, and it’s a sign of what is to come when he has time to build his own roster.”
Prediction time. Does Arizona win consecutive Territorial Cup games for the first time since 2008-09—and possibly try to atone for that 70-7 debacle three years ago—or does ASU pull off the upset? Give us a score pick.
“Roles are reversed from that lopsided win for ASU years ago. Arizona has developed into a tremendous program with flashy players under Jedd Fisch while ASU is finding its feet. Dillingham, Trenton Bourguet and Jalin Conyers shared their personal thoughts on hAte week after the Oregon game, saying this week is its own season. We fully expect ASU to come ready and with a game plan and energy, but Arizona secures its second straight cup.
“With that being said, Arizona is ranked No. 15 for a reason and deserves its respect. I believe ASU makes it competitive early, but Arizona will take control late and run up the score 46-24.”