For Arizona State, the football season can be broken into four distinct parts: nonconference games, conference games, the postseason, and of course, the Territorial Cup game against the Arizona Wildcats.
Finding motivation to beat a bitter rival is never difficult, especially in the desert where the two most prominent universities in the Southwest have squared off for the rights to the Territorial Cup trophy for more than a hundred years.
This season, Arizona State won't just be playing for bragging rights. The Sun Devils are gunning for a chance to host the Pac-12 championship game while the Wildcats look to play spoiler and finish the season on a high note.
At 9-2, the Sun Devils look like the heavy favorites against a 7-4 Wildcats squad that lost to Washington State at home less than two weeks ago. While the script appears to be writing itself for the Sun Devils this year, the plot is always unpredictable when they square off against Arizona.
To make matters more interesting, the Wildcats are coming off one of the greatest upsets of the college football season because of the style in which they upended the Oregon Ducks. Marcus Mariota and the high-flying Oregon offense came into Tucson as 20-point favorites only to leave on the wrong end of a 26-point loss.
What Wildcat team will show up on Saturday night in the Territorial Cup? A listless group that couldn't take advantage of Washington State mistakes? Or an opportunistic bunch looking for revenge after a late collapse in last season's Cup matchup? Let's meet the Wildcats.
The First Look
Season to Date
Arizona opened its second season under head coach Rich Rodriguez on a tear, but much of the Wildcats' early season success was due to a lackluster schedule. Arizona looked like an SEC team with all of the cupcakes on its nonconference plate as the Wildcats recorded three straight victories over Northern Arizona, UNLV and University of Texas San-Antonio to start the season.
After the real season began, the Wildcats discovered that winning wasn't exactly as easy as they once thought. Arizona met its match in a strong Washington squad that always plays tough in Seattle and the Huskies recorded a 31-13 win.
Then, the Wildcats dropped a 38-31 road contest against the USC Trojans in Ed Orgeron's first game at the helm for an embattled program. When Arizona returned to Tucson, the Wildcats regained their form and rode running back Ka'Deem Carey for 234 yards on 39 carries in a 35-24 victory.
The Wildcats would hit the road for two consecutive weeks but fortunately for Arizona, their opponents in the coming weeks turned out to be the Pac-12's two worst teams. Arizona ran away from the Colorado Buffaloes in Boulder before outlasting the California Golden Bears by a final of 33-28 in Berkeley. That game proved to be the Bears' closest conference game en route to an 0-9 finish, but a win is a win in the Pac-12.
Arizona followed up its trip to California with a home game against another Southern California power in the UCLA Bruins. At 6-2, Arizona knew it would likely need one more win to make a stronger case for a bowl game based on its nonconference wins. Despite an inspired effort, the Wildcats couldn't hold back Myles Jack and the Bruins as Jack's 66-yard touchdown run helped UCLA to a 31-26 win.
The following week, Arizona suffered its worst defeat of the Rich Rodriguez era as the Wildcats couldn't capitalize on countless opportunities in a 24-17 loss to the Washington State Cougars.
Despite losing two consecutive games at home, the Wildcats wanted to send their seniors out with a bang and on Saturday, Arizona accomplished something even the most ardent red and blue fans would have a hard time dreaming of. As 20-point home underdogs, the Wildcats completely dominated the Oregon Ducks from start to finish. Saturday's victory was a dream result for Arizona, and it will look to carry that momentum over to the Territorial Cup this Saturday.
Head Coach: Rich Rodriguez
FBS Coaching Record: 90-57
At West Virginia: 60-26
At Michigan: 15-22
At Arizona: 15-9
Arizona on Offense
The Wildcat offense revolves around one of the greatest offensive players in the history of the school. Running back Ka'Deem Carey has compiled his second consecutive 1,500-yard season and after Saturday's game, he is now the school's all-time leading rusher.
With the graduation of Matt Scott at the quarterback position, the Wildcats have relied on Carey even more heavily this season. The 5-foot-10 junior is averaging more than five yards per carry and more than 150 yards per game and he will almost certainly take somewhere between 35 and 45 carries against the Sun Devils.
Arizona's second leading rusher is dual-threat quarterback B.J. Denker, who practically won the quarterback job by default in the offseason. Denker is not close to being considered one of the Pac-12's best quarterbacks, but against Oregon on Saturday, he had the game of his life. Denker hit on 19 of 22 attempts for 178 yards and added 102 rushing yards in an efficient outing.
Denker has only thrown for 2,066 yards this season, yet he has played mistake-free football for most of the year and tossed just four interceptions. The senior's favorite target in the passing game this year is freshman Samajie Grant, who stands just 5-foot-9 and weighs 171 pounds. Grant leads the Wildcats with 44 receptions.
Fellow freshman Nate Phillips is second on the team with 39 catches for a team-high 486 yards, while redshirt senior Terrence Miler came on strong during the Oregon game with nine receptions for 88 yards and a touchdown.
The Wildcats use a lot of three and four-wide receiver sets in Rich Rodriguez's spread scheme, which means the offensive line has to rely on the help of a running back instead of a tight end in pass protection.
Arizona starts just a lone senior on the offensive line that has paved the way for the nation's 12th leading rushing attack this season. Guard Chris Putton is the only starter who will graduate, as junior tackles Mickey Baucus and Fabbians Ebbele and center Steven Gurrola will all return next season.
The Wildcat front is among the nation's best in pass protection as well, as Arizona has only surrendered 14 sacks through 11 games this year. The Wildcats kept B.J. Denker's jersey clean against Oregon, and they'll be looking for a repeat performance when they set out to stun the Sun Devils on Saturday.
Arizona on Defense
The Sun Devils have faced 3-4 schemes throughout most of the season and on Saturday, they'll face another three-down linemen front. The Wildcats employ Rich Rodriguez's 3-3-5 scheme that operates on deception and speed. Arizona State will look to exploit the Wildcats on the ground this week as the team from Tucson is just 67th nationally in rushing defense.
The Wildcats returned every starter from last season, but they have found a way to make the competition for starting positions competitive and freshman linebacker Scooby Wright is a prime example. The 6-foot-1, 235-pound outside backer is second on the team in tackles with 76 and has stepped up to record a team-high nine tackles for loss. Wright is an excellent run-stopper who holds the edge well in contain.
When Wright flows to the football, opposing backs cut inside and are greeted by middle linebacker Jake Fischer who's a tad undersized at 222 pounds. Fischer makes up for the difference in his work ethic and nose for the football. On the other side of Fischer is linebacker Marquise Flowers who has been all over the field this season as a play-maker.
Arizona's three down linemen aren't overwhelmingly exceptional in the pass rush, but they can get after opposing quarterbacks with regularity and are aided by a blitz package out of a 3-3-5 that many offensive lines aren't used to seeing regularly.
Junior defensive end Reggie Gilbert leads the Wildcats in sacks with 4.0 while defensive tackle Sione Tuihalamaka has 8.0 tackles for loss and 2.0 sacks of his own.
The Wildcat defensive backfield is a strong point for the unit as the team is allowing 232.0 yards per game through the air. Safeties Tra'Mayne Bondurant, Jared Tevis and Jourdon Grandon are all able bodied run stoppers who have the speed to cover a lot of ground in the secondary. Bondurant has 5.5 tackles for loss, four interceptions and nine passes defended this year which leads all defensive backs for Arizona.
At cornerback, Jonathan McKnight and Shaquille Richardson have both been effective in pass coverage. Though each of the corners has just one interception on the season, Richardson's came against Oregon's Marcus Mariota, who has only thrown two picks all year.
Arizona has a veteran group on defense that will play highly motivated against the Sun Devils. The Wildcats know they have the potential to shut down any offense after Saturday, so a battered and bruised Arizona State scheme must bring the intensity and physicality it brought to the UCLA game in order to secure the Territorial Cup.