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

arizona-wildcats-football-asu-sun-devils-territorial-cup-pac12-preview-revenge-2020-2023 Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Depending on which school you believe, Saturday’s matchup between Arizona and ASU will be either the 97th (correct) or 98th (wrong) in the series. According to the UA, it holds a 50-45-1 edge over the Sun Devils, but since both teams entered the Pac-10 Conference in 1978 it’s been dead even.

Twenty-two wins for Arizona, 22 for ASU and a tie back in 1987.

The teams will continue to meet annually starting next year in the Big 12, but this one is to determine which school won the Pac-10/12 series. A win for Arizona (8-3, 6-2) would be it first in Tempe since 2011, and mark its first consecutive Territorial Cup victories since 2008-09.

Here’s what to watch for when the Wildcats and Sun Devils battle up north:

A Year Zero of a different color

The last time Arizona played at Sun Devil Stadium—technically, Mountain America Stadium—in 2021 it was finishing its first year under Jedd Fisch. That season has been referred to by everyone connected to UA as “Year Zero” because of the foundation building that was necessary after the program cratered under Kevin Sumlin.

ASU is in its own Year Zero, with Kenny Dillingham inheriting what Herm Edwards left behind. Not surprisingly, the Sun Devils (3-8, 2-6) have struggled mightily. But Fisch isn’t keen on considering both situations the same.

“I think our Year Zero was different when you’re coming off of a 9-touchdown defeat versus a team that’s been to bowls four of the last five years,” Fisch said, referring to the 70-7 home loss to ASU to end the 2020 season. “We were on a 12-game losing streak here when we got here, it was a little bit different situation.”

Lock the swinging gate

One big similarity between ASU’s 2023 and Arizona’s 2021 has been the impact injuries have had on each team’s offense. Arizona had two quarterbacks suffer season-ending injuries that year, while several offensive linemen missed starts along the away, and ASU has had to start four different players at QB behind an O-line that at one point was down to six healthy scholarship players.

The UA averaged just 17.2 points per game that season, and ASU is at 17.3 this fall.

To compensate for those offensive limitations, the Sun Devils have gone the gimmick route the last few games. In their 17-7 win at UCLA two weeks ago they ran nearly 20 plays out of a “swinging gate” formation, one in which lineman are split out wide in one or both directions in order to draw defensive linemen away from where the ball is being snapped.

ASU also used both running back Cam Skattebo and tight end Jalin Conyers as passers, as well as in direct snap situations. It confused UCLA but a week later Oregon had no problem with it in a 49-13 win, and Arizona likely looked at both sets of film to see how best to deal with those oddities.

“I think what you got to do is you got to be able to align to execute,” Fisch said. “If they’re going to give you unique formations, or be able to … try to find mismatches, which is what those formations try to do, you need to align to execute your defense. And that means you’ve got to find who’s eligible, who’s not eligible. Who could go out and around, who can’t. What plays they run through those formations. What’s the best way to match up in those formations and make sure that you keep everything in front of you? The biggest concern you have is when plays go behind you.”

All business

There are 13 UA players remaining from the 2020 team, and winning the Territorial Cup last season no doubt meant a lot to them. But it probably didn’t completely make up from that embarrassing result three years ago, and with Arizona 15th in the College Football Playoff rankings and ASU finishing a second straight losing season the motivation may be to run up the score.

Treydan Stukes, who made his first career appearance at cornerback in that 2020 game, was asked as much on Tuesday, but he didn’t take the bait.

“I just want to have us play our best game,” Stukes said. “I won’t worry about running up any scores or anything, we just got to play our best game as a team and that should be enough.”

Fisch discussed Monday the need to keep emotion out of the game as much as possible, particularly considering there is at least one more contest left this season. But Wednesday he noted that practice so far this week had been “very animated, very heated” as the rivalry game inched closer.

Being overconfident is also something Arizona will want to avoid, Fisch said, though that hasn’t been a problem during the 5-game win streak.

“There’s no overconfidence with this team,” he said. “There’s not a lot of people out there that talk about our program, not a lot of people out there that talk about our team. Our guys are just scrappy and hard-nosed, got passed over by a lot of programs to come here. And we like it that way. So we’re gonna continue to live in that world, remind ourselves of that, and do everything we can to get to this next win. For us, it’s just a matter of always remembering where we came from.”

Milestone watch

Last November, Michael Wiley ran for a career-high 214 yards with three touchdowns on just 12 carries, the first 100-yard rushing game for a UA player in nearly two years. Jonah Coleman twice this season, including a career-best 179 at Colorado.

Another big game for Coleman will put him over the 1,000-yard mark, which no Arizona running back has done since JJ Taylor had 1,434 in 2018. Coleman needs 166.

Receiver Tetairoa McMillan only needs 24 yards to get to 1,000, a milestone only achieved 10 previous times in UA history. Two of those were last year when Dorian Singer (1,105) and Jacob Cowing (1,034) got to quadruple figures.

Cowing is also one off tying the single-season school record for TD catches, with 11. That’s happened six times, most recently by Shawn Poindexter in 2018. McMillan isn’t far behind, at nine, and the UA has never had multiple 10-touchdown receivers in a season.

Arizona had never had two quarterbacks with 10 or more TD passes until Jayden de Laura tossed his 10th of the season at the end of the Utah win. Noah Fifita has 18 and T-Mac threw one against Utah, and that total of 29 is one off the school record of 30 from 2012 when Matt Scott had 27 and BJ Denker tossed three.

Cowing’s career yardage total is up to 4,168, which is 19th-best in FBS history. He’s tied for 19th in career receptions, with 300, and reach the top 15 in both categories with five catches and 82 yards.