The Territorial Cup is just hours away but there's still plenty of time to learn about the 2013 Arizona Wildcats.
Dropping by to drop some knowledge on us is Kevin Zimmerman and Jason Bartel of Arizona Desert Swarm:
Q: First off, on behalf of all of Arizona State, we'd like to get this started with a great big thank you for last week's upset of Oregon. Now, can you share with us what you learned about the Wildcats from that game?
Kevin Zimmerman: In general, I think we learned Arizona is motivated. Personally, I didn't think the Wildcats would be very good this year, though bowl eligibility seemed likely considering the schedule. When the Cougars dropped Arizona in Tucson two weeks ago, that theory seemed correct, until the Wildcats walloped the Ducks, who didn't look like themselves on Saturday. Anyhow, I think in reality, the median is obviously in between. They're better than we thought.
Jason Bartel: I learned that this defense has some real potential moving into the future. I don't think I've ever seen an Arizona team execute as well as they did on Saturday, and I think a lot of that has to do with gaining confidence in the new systems on offense and defense. The game showed that Rich-Rod's offense and Jeff Casteel's defense has the possibility of working in Tucson.
Q: Speaking of life lessons, what did you all learn from last year's Territorial Cup matchup?
KZ: I actually thought last year's game said a lot of both Todd Graham and Rich Rodriguez. For some reason it felt like one of the most fluid games between the two teams and despite the six combined turnovers, one of the most watchable from a pure football perspective. I think that's why both teams meet this year with decent teams -- that statistic about both team having seven wins for the first time since 1986 is mind blowing.
JB: That it's never over until it's over. And that being the home team is way overrated in this matchup.
Q: Have you noticed any improvements from the best running back in the country, a.k.a Ka'Deem Carey? Are there any areas in which he has taken a step back at all or can you think of any aspects of his game where he still has some room to grow?
KZ: I don't know if you call it room to grow, but he's not quite a breakaway threat. That might have to do with defenses keying on him this season rather than worrying a lot about downfield passes, but it's also that he's not exactly a speedster. That doesn't really matter though -- he's still a fine all-around back who, as last week showed, can take 40-plus carries and still be running strong. He gained a little weight between last year and this one, and can pack a little more punch.
JB: Yes, I think he's become a better blocker this year, and somewhat better at catching the ball. Like Kevin said, he's gained a little weight this year, and I think he runs over more people this year than he did last year. He certainly hasn't taken any steps back in anything, he's just getting better as an all-around football player. I'm shocked that he's been able to carry the ball so many times this year and not have any injury problems at all. You usually hear about a running back wearing down after getting the ball so often, but not the case for Ka'Deem.
Q: What can you tell us about Arizona's offensive line? How are they able to keep B.J. Denker's pocket so clean and do you believe they'll be able to find the same success against ASU's stout front-seven?
KZ: Let's just say there's not much of a pocket. Denker is short as is and looks to get the ball out quickly on most plays. On those, he generally is rolling out of the pocket as well. Occasionally, Arizona will drop Denker back and take a reasonable shot downfield, but between his arm-strength and his running abilities, there's not much reason to have him hold the ball between the hash marks too long or too often.
JB: I wouldn't say they've kept the pocket clean this year. The Oregon game was easily the best job they've done. A lot of those guys have a ton of game experience though, so the big stage probably doesn't get to them like it does some of the more inexperienced guys on offense. It's been very hit-and-miss with them this season, so they'll either dominate ASU up front, or Denker will get hit often. Probably no middle ground.
Q: Paint us a picture of what Arizona's offense would look like Saturday if everything worked perfectly in the Wildcat's favor. Now, with a worst case scenario in mind, what would the offense look like?
KZ: I'll just cite the Oregon game as a good example. It's no secret Arizona has to get its run game going, and I wonder how that'll go against Will Sutton, etc. I think they will be able to move the ball at times, but Denker has to be throwing bullets, OK, short bullets, and becoming a threat to run himself. Then, Carey can start pounding away. I know neither team likes to think about ball control, but the Wildcats can get caught up in a big-play, back-and-forth with ASU considering the Sun Devils have that much better of a passing game.
Worst-case, Carey's 100-yard game streak ends and Taylor Kelly starts picking on Arizona's secondary. Arizona contained a running quarterback in Marcus Mariota last week, but it's pretty obvious the guy was injured.
JB: Yep, Oregon is best case scenario. Denker not making any mistakes, completing a high percentage of passes, mostly short dunks that the small receivers like Nate Phillips and Samajie Grant can just do all the work themselves. And Carey getting the ball somewhere around 40 times, averaging somewhere around five yards per carry. The third down conversions were a big part of the Oregon game (Wildcats converted their first seven third downs). I think that'll be a factor again this time.
Worst case: The offensive line lets ASU guys get to Denker without any problem at all, Denker gets flustered and throws a couple of picks, and Ka'Deem has rushes for negative yards. Negative yardage plays kills this offensive system, so keeping the ball moving forward is certainly crucial.
Q: We at House of Sparky are huge fans of the work Greg Byrne has done for UA's program. Just so we can keep day-dreaming about him coming back to his alma mater to replace Patterson, can you share your impressions of Mr. Byrne?
KZ: Ha! I probably should I have written something about that when you lost Patterson. If I did, let's just say it would cause some panic. Byrne has been tremendous with his recruiting of boosters, he really started the funding for the North End Zone project and with pushing the envelope in terms of marketing. He has invested a lot of money on digital publicity, which has been good for branding, obviously. Really, Byrne has become a face of the program even though Rich-Rod and Sean Miller are pretty widely known in their own regard. So yeah, we're cool with Bryne.
JB: Same impressions here. The guy's really turned around the athletics program, and the marketability of it. Not only with the football facilities, but somehow he's changed the face of the baseball program, gotten people to turn out for soccer and volleyball games. Hugely impressed. And there's no better AD on Twitter than Byrne.
Q: After seeing what the Wildcats were able to do against Oregon's similar spread-it-out, tempo-based offense, we must admit it sent shivers down our spines. From what you observed, why do you think Arizona matched up so well and how were the Wildcats able to execute so flawlessly?
KZ: Was it a fluke? Maybe, but maybe not. Oregon looked sluggish and I think Arizona really attacked Marcus Mariota, who was not wanting to run the ball himself one bit. Offensively, Denker was on point and making quick decisions in both the zone read and passing situations. On both sides of the ball, the most obvious thing was that Arizona was executing well and has pretty good speed. In the second half, the Ducks had a three-and-out by going to De'Anthony Thomas three straight times, and all three plays ended in a loss of yardage; that tells me Arizona was in the right place and able to chase down a fast dude, then tackle him.
JB: I think the athleticism of the offense and defense showed up against Oregon. The defense is by no means big, so I think the quickness at linebacker and safety is what helped contain the passing offense. Scooby Wright has been amazing playing as a true freshman at linebacker, and Tra'Mayne Bondurant and Jared Tevis have been great at safety. The speed and ball skills finally worked all around against Oregon.
On offense, is was all about converting third downs to keep the Oregon defense on the field. With the fast-paced RichRod offense, converting third downs is the only way to hold on to the ball longer, and that happened over and over Saturday. And somehow the receivers got open often last week. Hadn't seen that before either.
Q: What's the one aspect that worries you the most defensively in this particular matchup?
KZ: Taylor Kelly's big-play ability. He can hit some big passes down the field and break Arizona, which doesn't have much of a defense in terms of containing or pressuring quarterbacks. In terms of containing him, Todd Graham said it in the coaches teleconference: ASU hasn't lost in a game Kelly has rushed for 50 or more yards.
JB: Yep, containing Kelly. The defensive line has been the weakest part of this defense all year.
Q: As of late, special teams has seemed to play a big role in the Territorial Cup matchups. This season, the Sun Devils have been sloppy on both kick and punt coverage. How sharp have the Wildcats been and do you think they'll be able to take advantage of ASU's special teams miscues?
KZ: Field goals have been spotty for the Wildcats and Jake Smith, who has a leg but hasn't been consistent with it. The punting game has come along really nicely in the last several weeks, so I wouldn't have a lot of worries there. Coverage-wise, they've been solid. It's been worse in the past, if you haven't guessed.
JB: Fun fact: I went to high school with James Brooks, so those blocked PATs in 2010 hurt that much more.
Kick and punt coverage have been really good this year. No one's been able to break one free on Arizona yet. The Wildcats return game has been nothing special. It's sort of been a work in progress with all the return guys getting rotated out.
Kicking is always bad in Tucson. I definitely do not trust Jake Smith to make a PAT late in the game this week. Drew Riggleman has definitely improved throughout the year with punting, but he still has his moments where he shanks one, or like against Washington State when he just flat out didn't kick the ball at all.
Q: Okay, it's prediction time. Give us your final scores and tell us how you see this one playing out.
KZ: I will admit the Sun Devils are the better team on paper, if their record didn't say that already, but I'd be crucified if I picked them. Because the Duel in the Desert never makes sense, I think I can justify choosing Arizona, no? UA looked good last week anyway, so let's go with 38-35 Wildcats.
JB: Since the game's in Sun Devil Stadium, the Wildcats win. I'm going to go 34-31 with a B.J. Denker rushing TD late in the game sealing the Arizona victory.