The 2016 Territorial Cup will pit two lowly rivals against each other who have reached their current standing for similar reasons.
The Arizona State Sun Devils’ freefall from a 5-1 start is keyed by schematic flaws and a bevy of injuries, and the same could be said of the Arizona Wildcats.
Rich Rodriguez’s fifth season in Tucson is quite the contrast from his third tenured-year, which landed the Wildcats a Pac-12 South title and Fiesta Bowl appearance. The question: Why are things so different?
Let’s take a look at the Wildcats and identify their strengths and weaknesses on the field.
Head Coach: Rich Rodriguez
Offense: Spread Option
Rodriguez is considered one of the early architects of what’s evolved into the modern run-pass option offense. His up-tempo philosophy is predicated on spreading opponents both vertically and horizontally, and has transitioned into a pass-first attack.
The Wildcats came into the year having lost their best outside receiver in Cayleb Jones, but returners such as quarterback Anu Solomon and running back Nick Wilson offered the offense some promise.
Injuries have decimated any hopes of consistency, as the Wildcats have had to reach deep into the depth chart. Regardless of who’s under center, some aspects of the offense haven’t appeared to change too much: the offense is heavily reliant on the use of RPO/RO plays and play-action passes, while most route combinations challenge secondaries deep.
Where the ASU defense must be careful
The Wildcats’ quarterbacks are athletic. Todd Graham described Brandon Dawkins as a signal-caller who brings the skillset of a running back to the QB position. He’s a superior athlete to Anu Solomon, who has great arm talent, however may miss this year’s Territorial Cup due to injury.
The Wildcats’ offense still has the potential to be dangerous with Dawkins starting. Just ask the Washington Huskies’ defense, which struggled containing Dawkins at times during their bout earlier this year.
The Sun Devil defense must be disciplined and maintain the edge defensively.
Likewise, ASU’s secondary must be wary of the vertical passing game. Watching the Arizona receivers operate, it’s clear the depth of their routes calls for most primary reads to attack deeper areas of the field, with a check down available in the same window or within its vicinity.
This is especially true when the Wildcats’ play-action game calls for the quarterback to roll out of the pocket, allowing Dawkins to buy time, begging Sun Devil defensive backs to try and stick receivers for extended periods of time.
Where the ASU defense has the advantage
The Arizona offensive line seems unable to generate much of a push against opponents at the line of scrimmage.
The ASU front four should be able to have a significant on the game, and out on the edge defensive end JoJo Wicker and Devilbacker Koron Crump should be able to affect the game in similar fashion to former Sun Devil Antonio Longino in last season’s matchup.
The Wildcats’ defense lines up in a base 3-3-5 formation, but flashes different fronts to initiate pressure from different areas along the line of scrimmage.
Arizona’s secondary appeared to play mostly off-man coverage with a Cover 2 shell, meaning two deep safeties, asking defenders to guard receivers man-to-man .
Where the ASU offense must be careful
Arizona’s defense will bring pressure mostly off of the edge, forcing opponents’ tackles and guards to work in unison to prevent any miscommunication.
The Wildcats’ veteran group of linebackers is a unit to keep an eye on, though it may be without Paul Magloire, Jr.
Where the ASU offense has the advantage
As aforementioned, the Wildcats utilize plenty of off-man coverage, and just last week it was Oregon State’s talented outside wideout Jordan Villamin who took advantage, hauling in six catches for 124 yards and a touchdown against Arizona. ASU’s true freshman star, N’Keal Harry, has a chance to replicate that sort of success riding the back of two straight 100-yard performances.
In fact, the Sun Devil passing game as a whole has a chance to be unleashed in facing a secondary that’s made just as comical, miscommunication-rooted errors as ASU’s back unit.
ASU will also have an advantage in the run game. Offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey has favored the inside-run throughout this year, and the Wildcats’ smaller defensive front hasn’t been up to the challenge of shutting it down, even while featuring a talented player like Parker Zellers.
One look the Arizona front seven will line up in pits three of the four players at the line of scrimmage on one side of the formation, with the lone fourth player standing up playing 9-technique off the edge, like in this situation against Brigham Young.
This leaves the interior of the formation vulnerable. The play from the above photo resulted in a seven-yard gain. In other situations, opposing offenses can rip off long runs, like Washington did here:
Even without a fully healthy offensive line, expect the ASU running game to find success—and eventually break off a big play or two—rushing up the middle of the Arizona defense.
Games Watched: Arizona @ BYU (2016, full), Arizona vs. Washington (2016, full), Arizona @ Oregon State (2016, Highlights)