The Arizona State Sun Devils (5-6, 2-6 Pac 12) will travel to Tucson Saturday night to take on the Arizona Wildcats (2-9, 0-8) in the 91st annual Territorial Cup. The game will air at 7:30 p.m., Mountain Standard Time on ESPN.
It’s no secret that Rich Rodriguez’s program in Tucson has struggled this year, as the Wildcats have not only failed to win, but even stay competitive in Pac-12 play this year, losing their last five games by a combined 165 points.
Arizona has been hampered by injuries and have many gaping holes even when healthy, but the Sun Devils cannot afford to remain complacent against their cross-state rivals as the Territorial Cup and bowl eligibility both remain on the line.
Here’s what you need to know about the Wildcats:
Not All Cats Have Nine Lives
The Wildcats have struggled mightily at countless key positions this season, and they don’t look to be any healthier come Saturday.
Last week in Corvallis, Arizona was without two-fifths of its starting offensive line, missing sophomore right tackle Gerhard de Beer and sophomore right guard Jacob Alsadek. If both linemen are unable to play this weekend, ASU defensive coordinator Keith Patterson will likely load the box and force young, inexperienced Wildcats to fend off junior Sun Devil linebackers Koron Crump and D.J. Calhoun. This lack of experienced offensive linemen will also hurt the Wildcats’ ability to run the ball, although senior running back Samajie Grant has looked very impressive since taking over for J.J. Taylor, who took over for Nick Wilson. It’s been that kind of year for the Wildcats.
Things don’t look much better on the defensive side. Arizona’s leading tackler, redshirt-junior linebacker Paul Magloire Jr., sat out last week while sophomore linebacker DeAndre Miller has been extremely limited in recent games, and redshirt-senior linebacker Michael Barton has also struggled to stay healthy. The Sun Devils will surely look to take advantage of the Wildcats’ depleted linebacking core with a good amount of draws, run-pass options and plays out of the Sparky formation to force the game to be won between in the trenches. ASU came into the season knowing its strength lies in the running game, and the Devils seem poised to dominate on the ground Saturday.
A Chance at Redemption for the Sun Devils’ Secondary
The Sun Devils have faced some stellar talent at the quarterback position this season both in and out of conference play, but will have a good matchup against a quarterback controversy that has effectively derailed the Wildcats season.
After a career year in his sophomore season, junior quarterback Anu Solomon has struggled mightily to maintain solid playing time or production under center for the Wildcats in 2016. The Kalihi, Hawaii native suffered a knee injury in Arizona’s season-opening loss to Brigham Young, sat out seven weeks, and returned to throw only 31 passes in his last three weeks for a grand total of 252 yards, one touchdown and zero interceptions.
Due to Solomon’s limited availability and production this season, Rodriguez has put the fate of the Arizona offense in the hands of sophomore quarterback Brandon Dawkins. Unfortunately for the Wildcats, however, he has been less than great throwing the ball, something the Wildcats have ended up doing a lot this season as they usually play from behind. In nine games, Dawkins has completed 94 of 173 passes for a 54.3 completion percentage, seven touchdowns and six interceptions. However, he has looked quite impressive on the ground, rushing for 761 yards and eight touchdowns.
Because of this lackluster production at the quarterback position, the Wildcats have remained reluctant to decide on a true No. 1-type guy, as last week’s game against Oregon State saw both Solomon and Hawkins earn nearly equal snaps in a blowout loss to the Beavers. Arizona offensive coordinator Rod Smith will likely employ the same two-quarterback game plan in Tucson this weekend, as his unit will continue to search for answers at such a crucial position.
Rodriguez and the Wildcats have clearly struggled to produce anything positive from their program this year, but the fact that the Territorial Cup is on the line and the notion Arizona is playing with nothing to lose will surely factor into what has developed into a must-win game for the Sun Devils.