Intense rivalries are one of the things that make college football worth watching each fall. Nothing can beat the excitement and passion poured into each rivalry game. The outcome of a rivalry game defines an entire season for countless teams and gives the winning fans a year’s worth of bragging rights.
From Alabama vs. Auburn and Ohio State vs. Michigan, to Oklahoma vs. Texas and Army vs. Navy, college football’s oldest and most storied rivalries capture the attention of the nation’s sports fans like few other athletic events.
Here in the Southwest, we’ve got our own little college football rivalry — and few people outside of the State of Arizona know much about it. Since the first game in 1899, the Arizona State vs. University of Arizona match-up has been an annual rite of passage for desert dwellers. The “Territorial Cup” is one of the oldest trophy rivalry games in the NCAA and the trophy itself has been certified as the oldest of its kind in college football.
Most local observers agree this game is one of the nastiest, most intense gridiron classics anywhere, and it typically produces surprises and controversies that are debated by fans of both schools throughout the year.
The 2012 ASU-Arizona game will break new ground on the 113 year-old rivalry. That’s because both teams have new coaching regimes, new outlooks, and for once, winning records. Arizona State head coach Todd Graham will bring his 6-5 (4-4 Pac-12) Sun Devils to Arizona Stadium in Tucson to face off against Rich Rodriguez’s 7-4 (4-4 Pac-12) Wildcats. As is often the case in this game, the outcome will have significant bowl implications, with the winner expected to receive the more favorable invitation to post-season play.
In some past Arizona State-Arizona contests, the Sun Devils have been guilty of mental mistakes and costly penalties that turned the tide of the game. Things may change this year: six of the team’s top-10 least penalized games since 2006 have come under Graham’s leadership this season. ASU fans are now enjoying a disciplined, motivated approach that has the Sun Devils contending for a win almost every week. Another year of tough love and strong recruiting could do wonders for the program.
Graham built his coaching reputation on defense, and Arizona State currently ranks among the nation’s best in this category. Prior to last Saturday’s Washington State game, it was second nationally in sacks, fourth in pass defense and 29th in total defense. The Sun Devils have had mixed success implementing Graham’s “High Octane” offense. Despite eye-popping scoring totals in early games, the team unfailingly ran out of fuel before halftime versus UCLA, Oregon State and USC. ASU has relied heavily on a ground game headlined by the running back trio of Cameron Marshall, D.J. Foster and Marion Grice.
Meanwhile, in the “Old Pueblo,” Rich Rodriguez has made significant progress with a team full of inexperienced and undersized players. Rodriquez force-fit his spread-option style of offense into the roster left behind by previous coach Mike Stoops, and the result is a dynamic attack that has produced a 3,000 yard passer (Matt Scott), an 1,000 yard rusher (Ka’Deem Carey) and an 1,000 yard receiver (Austin Hill).
For all of his achievements on the offensive side of the ball, Rodriquez’s 3-3-5 defensive scheme has been a major disappointment. In short, teams have run all over Arizona. UCLA ran for 308 yards and seven scores on the way to a Pasadena shellacking, and even Colorado put up 224 on the UofA in Tucson. The Wildcats surrendered 1,872 yards of rushing through 10 games this season.
Picking a winner in the “Dual in the Desert” is always a dicey proposition, since the game consistently defies logic and produces all sorts of strange and unexpected happenings. The Wildcats have won three of the last four after the Sun Devils won four of five in the middle of the decade. Arizona prevailed 31-27 last year in Tempe.
This season, Arizona’s offense is a force to be reckoned with on its home field, whereas Arizona State’s defense can play havoc with opponents thanks to the skills of standout players like Will Sutton, Brandon Magee and Carl Bradford. The Sun Devil pass defenders have also proven to be a stout bunch. One concern is ASU’s susceptibility to big plays; during its recent four-game losing streak, it gave up at least 36 points and 420 yards per game.
The productivity of Arizona State’s offense, lead by sophomore QB Taylor Kelly, is a huge question mark on the road. Kelly has had some very good games and some rather rough outings. He’s thrown 25 touchdowns with nine interceptions on the season, and is coming off a near-perfect performance against Washington State. When Kelly is hot, he is one of the Pac-12’s best young quarterbacks. His favorite target to date has been junior tight end Chris Coyle.
According to the Las Vegas betting line, the Wildcats have opened as a field goal favorite over the Sun Devils. In the end, however, we think ASU is long overdue for a big win in defiance of the odds-makers.
Devils In Detail.com Prediction: Arizona State: 36, Arizona: 34