With just over 24 hours to go until the 92nd Territorial Cup in Tempe, we sat down with Ryan Kelapire of AZ Desert Swarm to talk about how the season has gone and how we project Saturday’s matchup will shake out.
Here’s what was said:
House of Sparky asks AZ Desert Swarm
Maxwell Madden: You guys wrote about the Wildcats' defensive line suffering some injuries, specifically to Justin Belknap, Dereck Boles and Luca Bruno. What are their statuses and how will Arizona look to replace them if they can't play?
Ryan Kelapire: We won't really know their statuses until Friday, but I think there's a good chance they will miss Saturday's game. Arizona's defensive line is already its weakest position group (aside from maybe the punters) so replacing the starters, especially Boles, won't be easy. The Wildcats will have to rely on their depth which is almost non-existent to begin with. There was even talk about moving a tight end to the defensive line, so that will be fun (but scary) if it happens.
MM: ASU has a few players on offense that can give the Wildcats some issues defensively, where in that unit are they most vulnerable?
RK: Defensive line, for sure. Arizona is undersized there and could be without a few starters as mentioned above. Opposing teams have been gashing the Wildcats on the ground the last several games and I expect Demario Richard and Kallen Ballage to have plenty of success too. Arizona's only way of getting stops lately is by forcing turnovers, which sometimes come in bunches for these Wildcats.
MM: Who is the most dynamic player on the Arizona offense not named Khalil Tate?
RK: J.J. Taylor. The diminutive running back is averaging over six yards per carry and is a nightmare to take down the open field. He's not that great at running between the tackles, but he's a guy that can turn nothing into something and is always a threat to break off a big gain. Wide receiver Shun Brown is another candidate here as he's easily Arizona's most dangerous threat in the passing game. Like Taylor, he is small, but is capable of ripping off big gains whether it be on catch-and-run plays or passes deep down the field.
MM: After a disastrous year last season and a complete turnaround this time around, where is the UA fanbase on Rich Rodriguez? Do they trust him going forward or do they see the seven wins as a product of Tate's brilliance?
RK: The feeling is that Khalil Tate saved Rich Rod's job, but so did an outstanding freshman class. I'm not sure if people trust Rodriguez moving forward, but because of Tate and the young talent on defense, they are willing to give him at least another year. Before Tate's emergence, that definitely wasn't the case. People wanted RichRod gone.
MM: How do you think this game will play out and what's your final score prediction?
RK: If it's like any other Arizona game lately, it's going to be a high-scoring shootout. I always tend to lean toward the home team in the Territorial Cup so I think ASU will win 38-35. It really all depends on how Tate plays since the Wildcats' defense has been miserable the last several weeks.
AZ Desert Swarm asks House of Sparky
RK: It seems like ASU is an up-and-down team. How would you describe the way the 2017 season has unfolded?
MM: Man, how much time do you have? After the first few weeks of the season the program seemed to be heading in the complete wrong direction, then Phil Bennett and the defense rattled off a few unbelievable defensive performances and it seemed that the Sun Devils had a shot at the South division. ASU got blown out by USC, dashing any of those hopes, and is now beating everyone it should. It's been a wild ride.
RK: What are ASU's strengths and weaknesses this year?
MM: Strength is definitely in offensive versatility. In the past it was solely the run game, but over the last couple of years Arizona State has developed a plethora of receiving options to complement its veteran backs. Look for every pass-catcher to get involved Saturday, from Kyle Williams to Jalen Harvey to -- of course -- N'Keal Harry.
Weakness? You guessed it, the secondary. Bennett has performed admirably considering the departures he's had to deal with and the first-year starters he's had to put on the field for entire games, but it is still not good. Like, bottom 15 in the country not good.
RK: Manny Wilkins' numbers are pretty good this year. In what areas has he improved the most over the course of his career?
MM: Decision-making has been his key improvement here. With the RPO last year he consistently wanted to pull the ball and make huge plays downfield by hurdling defenders and taking on ones he definitely shouldn't. Now, he's an experienced quarterback who makes good decisions and only escapes the pocket when he needs to.
RK: We all remember what happened in last year's Territorial Cup when Arizona rushed for 511 yards and beat the Sun Devils 56-35 without attempting a pass in the second half. Could ASU have similar difficulty stopping Arizona's running game this year?
MM: ASU's rush defense has, somehow, remained near the bottom of the barrel in the conference this year. A turnaround during the moment they need it the most would have to come from linebackers Christian Sam and A.J. Latu, as well as guys on the line in George Lea/Renell Wren and Tashon Smallwood.
RK: Like Arizona, ASU surrenders a ton of passing yards through the air. Why is that?
MM: Inexperience. Neither starting cornerback in Chase Lucas or Kobe Williams had started a game at the position at the FBS level. Lucas was an all-around athlete in high school and Williams played at the junior college level last year.
RK: Will this game actually determine Todd Graham's fate?
MM: I think so. I wrote a column about it here, explaining for the most part that ASU has a history of letting its coaches go when they get into the same kind of three to four-year rut Graham has been in. Another year with no more than six wins and a mediocre bowl game (with a loss Saturday) wouldn't likely convince the administration that that the program is headed in the right direction.
RK: Will the Territorial Cup stay in Tucson?
MM: I don't believe it will. It's about as close to a push for me as I've seen all season, but I'm going to give ASU a 41-38 edge for being at home.