The hatred is building. The tension is rising. The battle for the state of Arizona will soon begin.
To get you ready for this Friday's Duel in the Desert between Arizona State and Arizona, we talked to Kyle Kensing, editor of AZDesertSwarm.com, to get an insider's perspective on the Wildcats and what to expected during the game.
With just one game to go, how would you evaluate Year One of the RichRod era?
Given this was a rebuilding project, 7-4 (and a couple plays from 9-2) with a bowl bid sewn up is a resounding success. Rodriguez and his staff have done a nice job compensating for some glaring flaws, particularly on the defensive side. I was leaning 5-7 before the season; 6-6 with the right breaks. Obviously the chance to win eight regular season games surpasses my expectations. What has been most impressive is just how fluid the offense has performed.
There were similarities between the system Sonny Dykes introduced and Rodriguez', but I doubt anyone would have predicted as successful a transition as Rodriguez has overseen.
Matt Scott has had a great year, but seemed a bit off his game on Saturday coming back from the concussion. How do you think he'll perform against the Devils?
Scott's health is definitely concerning, especially playing opposite a guy like Will Sutton this week. Keeping him contained is the most crucial aspect of this game for the Arizona offense, and will determine how UA fares. Should B.J. Denker have to play, he brings mobility and played great against Colorado but...that's Colorado. Obviously Scott is the engine of this offense, and keeping him upright and in the game is crucial.
Oregon and UCLA have the most obvious blueprints for slowing Arizona, although each did so differently. UA had opportunities against Oregon, but the Ducks stiffened in the red zone. UCLA blitzed aggressively, which would seem to be ASU's best course of action with a rusher like Sutton on its line. Scott is effective at getting the ball away quickly, and Carey needs only small gaps to break through to the second level (and beyond). Stopping plays quickly in the backfield is the key to disrupting UA.
While the new offense has worked well, the defense has had it's struggles. How should the Sun Devils attack the 3-3-5 scheme?
Teams that have had the most success against this defense have come aggressively with the rush early. I've been surprised that Cameron Marshall hasn't factored into the offensive game plan more prominently, particularly given how Todd Graham's staff used Ray Graham at Pitt, but I imagine on Friday he'll play a critical role. Arizona is allowing 183 yards per game, and opponents have rushed against the Wildcats 457 times. The yard per carry output isn't astronomical -- 4.39 -- but because UA is so thin on defense it can be susceptible to big gains.
The 3-3-5 has done well containing swing routes and shorter passes to the outside, but Jamal Miles in slant seams could pose huge problems (see: Lee, Marqise). And Arizona's cornerbacks are good for at least one huge deep ball along the sidelines per game.
Who are some under-the-radar players that could play a critical role on Friday?
Daniel Jenkins was used frequently against Utah and made a real impact. Obviously, the running game is all about Ka'Deem Carey, but the added dynamic of an effective Jenkins takes some of the burden off Carey. That means a fresher Carey, but Arizona still moving the chains when he takes breathers.
I don't know how under the radar he can be considered, but Marquis Flowers' ability to break through on blitz packages is critical to the Arizona defense. Because UA gives up so many points, the Wildcats are reliant on a few big defensive plays per game. Flowers is almost always involved in those. He has to be able to disrupt Taylor Kelly a few times to give UA a chance at slowing what is a very good offense.
How do you see the Duel in the Desert playing out?
These are two very evenly matched teams, and as is often the case (except when John Mackovic was in Tucson) I suspect this comes right down to the wire. Both offenses should put points on the board, which makes those aforementioned big defensive plays all the more vital. Turnovers are going to be of paramount importance on Friday.
I'm no soothsayer, so I'll refrain from picking a winner, but I will predict a single digit differential between winner and loser.
Thanks again to Kyle for the insight. For more great coverage of our rivals, head over to AZDesertSwarm.com.