We’re just one day away from the biggest game of the season, as the 2017 Territorial Cup has far more on the line than just bragging rights for next year.
Arizona Heisman hopeful Khalil Tate will look to help the Wildcats run all over the Sun Devils, ASU coach Todd Graham may be fighting for his job against UA’s Rich Rodriguez and plenty of Arizona State players will be taking the field in Tempe for the final time.
Our staff writers in Blaine McCormick, Mathew Tonis, Dan Karl, Austin Burnett, Josiah Destin, Maxwell Madden and Ethan Gaines take you through how they feel about these storylines and plenty others during our Territorial Cup Roundtable:
1. No one has truly figured it out, so what is your secret formula to stop Khalil Tate?
McCormick: Since his rise to fame, it was the Oregon Ducks who were the only ones to cage the animal that is Khalil Tate. Oregon did it by adding pressure, especially on the far right and left sides. Sending that extra man on the blitz might be risky, but it could pay off if the Sun Devils want to stop him.
Tonis: I'd probably tell him the game is at 6:30, to be honest. But actually, try to keep him in the pocket and make him one-dimensional, like you try to do with any running quarterback. ASU couldn't do it with Brandon Dawkins last year, but with Christian Sam in the lineup, the linebacking corps is that much better, which could make all the difference.
Karl: I think the Oregon Ducks did a great job of stopping Khalil Tate last week, as they only held him to 32 rush yards of 14 attempts. If the Arizona State front seven can establish their run defense early and force Tate to throw the ball, the Sun Devils should be able to force some turnovers and hopefully convert those chances into points. In the only two games in which Tate threw 30 or more passes, he threw at least two interceptions. Expect to see Chase Lucas making some big plays for the ASU secondary.
Destin: Stop Dillon Sterling-Cole in practice and you’ll stop Tate. Oregon used fourth-string quarterback Demetri Burch in practice in the wildcat position and it seriously gave them a great look at Tate. Don’t believe me? I’m not joking.
Madden: It’s going to have to be a collective effort within the front seven, because if Tate gets into the open field its curtains for the Sun Devils. Smallwood and Lea need to get penetration on the inside and Christian Sam/J’Marcus Rhodes need to have patience on the outside to see if a run from Tate develops.
Gaines: If the Sun Devils want to shut down the dynamic Khalil Tate, then they just need to watch Arizona’s game against Oregon from last week. The Ducks did a fantastic job against Tate, holding him to 32 yards rushing on 14 carries. They were able to do so by sealing the edge and keeping Tate contained on the inside. Oregon bottled up Tate and forced him to run inside the tackles, which greatly hindered his ability to make plays in space. If ASU can put that same emphasis on containing Tate, they might have a chance of limiting his impact, especially since he has not shown himself to nearly as effective when forced to mainly pass
2. What Arizona players do you have your eyes on (outside of Tate) that could make an impact?
McCormick: Watching the Wildcats this season, Colin Schooler is one to look for. He may not stand out in the stat books but he was the sole reason that Cal did not win the game in double overtime when they played Arizona. Schooler's physical jab deflected the game-winning two-point conversion for the Golden Bears and he's also had a pick six this season. Plus, he's got nice hair, ultimate X-Factor.
Tonis: Senior running back Nick Wilson rushed for 178 yards against the Sun Devils as a freshman in 2014, earning the Bob Moran MVP for his performance. He was hobbled for the game in 2015 and did not play a season ago, giving him one more chance to prove himself against ASU. Getting Wilson going early will take some pressure off Khalil Tate, giving the Arizona offense the ability to control the pace of the game.
Karl: Outside of Tate, Nick Wilson, U of A's senior running back has a chance of making an impact against the Sun Devils. In recent years, Arizona has been very deceptive with their quarterback option which allowed Tate to break out this year using his speed and athleticism to create space and average over 10 yards per carry. If the Sun Devils start to bite on the option early in the game and start guessing, there will be huge running holes for Wilson to exploit and dominate.
Destin: It looks like J.J. Taylor is the got to guy behind Tate. While Tate’s 10.2 yards per carry is absurd, Taylor is the Wildcats’ next greatest threat. He’s averaging 6.1 yards per carry and has racked up 754 yards. Arizona has the No. 2 rushing offense in the nation and it’s for good preseason.
Madden: I’ll go with freshman defensive back Lorenzo Burns. Burns leads the team in interceptions and is the lone bright spot in a terrible Arizona secondary. I don’t like using this phrase, but the Wildcats secondary is extremely “opportunistic” and will likely be extremely aggressive in forcing Wilkins to turn the ball over.
Gaines: Tate is by far the best weapon the Wildcats have on the offensive side of the ball but on the defensive end, redshirt freshman corner Lorenzo Burns is one to watch for. He is tenth in the country with four interceptions and has 67 total tackles, good for fourth highest on Arizona’s roster. Manny Wilkins will have to keep Burns on his radar when trying to air out the ball against the Wildcats.
3. What ASU player do you think people have slept on this year that can change the game Saturday?
McCormick: Everyone in Tempe has talked about Manny Wilkins, N'Keal Harry, Demario Richard etc. Do not sleep on Kyle Williams though. He's had three receiving touchdowns in the last four games the Sun Devils have played and has accumulated 288 yards over those four games as well. He may not be a constant target, but he's there if you need him.
Tonis: I don't know if they've been "slept on" per se, but Tashon Smallwood and JoJo Wicker need to control the line of scrimmage for ASU to win this game. ASU's defensive line has struggled at times with giving up space up front, especially against dynamic backs, but that needs to change Saturday. The Arizona offense is most effective when it can run the ball and the Wildcats are 0-4 when rushing for fewer than 300 total yards on the ground. That means the Sun Devils need to do one thing most of all; win the point of attack. If Tate, Wilson and redshirt freshman J.J. Taylor can find room to run, it may be a long day for ASU.
Karl: Despite the two-headed senior backfield of Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage, I believe Eno Benjamin will continue to get more touches and quietly produce for the Sun Devil offense this week. Since the Utah game on October 21st, Benjamin has registered at least one touch in the five games, including a five rush, 52 yard performance and a beast mode like touchdown run over Colorado. If ASU wants to upset, yes I said upset, the Wildcats, they will need to constantly switch up the pace of the game and utilize all three backs.
Destin: Outside of the media, it seems no one can really take Manny Wilkins seriously. The guy has been phenomenal this season: 2,755 yards, 14 touchdowns and four interceptions. He’s bound to have a great game against an Arizona defense that ranks dead last in the Pac-12 and 126th of 130 in the nation.
Madden: I truly believe J’Marcus Rhodes is going to be the difference maker come Saturday afternoon. He’s ASU’s best open field tackler and has consistently bailed out both the front seven and the secondary when they miss tackles. Rhodes is up for his biggest challenge of the year — and possibly his career — in Tate, though.
Gaines: While N’Keal Harry has definitely been the star of ASU’s receiving core this season his partner across the field, Kyle Williams, has quietly put together a solid season himself. With 636 yards receiving and five touchdowns the sophomore wide receiver is tied with Harry in touchdowns and has 55 receptions to Harry’s 69. With so much attention on Harry every game, Williams has been able to take advantage of the weaker coverage and turn himself into a legit number two receiver. Williams should look to have a similar impact Saturday when he faces an Arizona defense that is giving up 278.3 passing yards per game.
4. If Graham loses the game, do you think firing him would be the best decision for the Sun Devils?
McCormick: I'm indifferent on this question. If the Sun Devils lose, I can see why Graham could be ousted but there's so much hurt to that too. There's the process of finding a new head coach and a new identity along with that. He's established a good presence, in my opinion, in Tempe and it's tough to keep that going if a new guy comes in. It sounds cliche but we'll have to wait and see.
Tonis: I've never advocated for Graham to be let go and I'm not going to change my stance here. Todd Graham is one of the most successful coaches in program history and has done an even better job of helping off the field. ASU is better off with him here than the average replacement coach that will likely be on the market this offseason. I know the back-to-back 10-win seasons in 2013 and 2014 feel like a long time ago, but it takes time to build a program into a consistent winner, especially one that hasn't been that in over 40 years.
Karl: Even if Arizona State loses to the team down south this week, I do not believe Todd Graham should be fired, no matter what the boosters, alumni and students say. If the Sun Devils do in fact pull the trigger and fire Graham, who will ASU bring in as an upgrade? Chip Kelly will make his decision between Florida and UCLA some time this week and Les Miles has no interest in coming out west. In addition, Graham's buyout clause is $10.25 million, a number that certainly makes an impact on the athletics budget. To me, firing Graham does not make sense right now due to the upgrades going on at Sun Devil Stadium and future plans to renovate Wells Fargo Arena. Now, if the Sun Devils lose to the Wildcats AND their bowl game against a more than likely inferior opponent, I would understand Graham being relieved of his duties.
Destin: No. He’s done so much for the program (Tonis) and that’s not including the moving practice to an earlier time to up the GPA to above 3.0. There’s a ton of money to buyout (Karl) and then there’s “the process” (McCormick) or finding a new coach. Lastly, the Sun Devils were projected to finish fifth in the Pac-12 South... They’re on the brink of being second. However, if he does get fired after a loss on Saturday I wouldn’t be surprised.
Madden: I’m not entirely sure, there’s just so much that goes into developing a winning program beyond the head coach. If ASU wants to stay in the heat of the Pac-12 South and possibly compete for a division title for the next couple years -- this would require a large amount of belief in Graham -- they should hold on. If they want to start building from scratch with a new hire that has a higher ceiling — but struggle the next couple years — they should move on. It’s a tough call to make.
Gaines: It really depends on how the Sun Devils loose. If they loose a hard-fought, close game then I would say no. He will still qualify for a bowl game and had wins over two ranked teams including that huge upset over Washington. If they get blown out, then yes. That would mean a huge loss in two straight years to ASU’s biggest rival and Graham has done little this season besides beating Washington to combat such a devastating loss. The Sun Devils do have to take into account paying off the rest of Graham’s massive salary, and that He is still in the middle of recruiting his 2018 class.
5. Give us your prediction for how the game will play out, plus a score:
McCormick: This will be a running-man's game. Expect to see a lot of rushes and not just from Khalil Tate. I believe Richard and Kalen Ballage will get a bulk of the carries because of how distraught the Wildcats' defense is but expect many passes from Wilkins. For the Wildcats, just look for Tate. The end zones will be worn out by the end of this game because of how both team's defenses have struggled this season. Final score: 44-41 Arizona State.
Tonis: The Sun Devils have scored over 50 points in each of the last two Territorial Cup games played at Sun Devil Stadium, but I think it's a bit of a stretch to assume that continues. However, I do think this is a high-scoring affair. Both defenses have struggled at times this season and both offenses have the propensity for scoring outbursts. As for the result, I've been going back and forth all week, but I'm officially locking in a 41-37 win for Arizona with more struggles for ASU inside the red zone.
Karl: Like many previous Territorial Cups, this one will certainly be a battle. If Arizona State's defense can return to their mid-October form when they upset then #5 Washington and demolished Utah on the road, they should have what it takes to halt Tate and come out victorious. On the other hand, if the same defense that showed up two weeks ago against UCLA, Tate will have a field day against the Sun Devils. The way this roller coaster season is going, I think ASU finishes on a high note by defeating the Wildcats on a walk-off field goal by Brandon Ruiz, 31-28.
Destin: This will definitely be high scoring. If the Sun Devils can’t stop No. 14 then it may be something like 49-35. If the Sun Devils can somewhat stop No. 14 let’s say ASU wins 38-31.
Madden: I think the Sun Devils pull it off, though this is as close to a push as I’ve ever covered. Both teams have similar strengths and weaknesses, so it should come down to the wire. I have a strange feeling the ASU defense shows up on a couple key drives down the stretch, so I’ll take Arizona State 41-38.
Gaines: I absolutely think ASU can and will win this game. They are more balanced talent-wise on both sides of the field and while they don’t have a Heisman contender like Khalil Tate, they have a plethora of skilled players. I think Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage both have big games on the ground and the Sun Devils have over 250 yards rushing for the fourth straight game. Tate will have a good game, but ASU will run up the score with their explosive offense, forcing Tate to throw the ball a bit more where he will be out-dueled by Manny Wilkins. The final score: 38-31.
Territorial Cup Quick Questions
|Over/Under 180 yards for Khalil Tate||Under||Under||Over||Under||Over|
|Over/Under 300 yards for Manny Wilkins||Over||Under||Under||Over||Under|
|Over/Under 1 TD for Harry||Push||Push||Over||Over||Over|
|Over/Under 2 FGs for Ruiz||Over||Over||Over||Under||Over|
|4 straight 100 yd games for Richard?||Yes||Yes||Yes||No||No|
|Most suprising impact player?||J'Marcus Rhodes||Michael Sleep-Dalton||Chase Lucas||Eno Benjamin||Kyle Williams|
|Graham out?||No||Yes||No||No||Win:No Loss:Yes|