A lot has happened since the last time Arizona State’s rival visited Tempe in November 2019. Most notably, a global pandemic, a 70-7 Arizona State drubbing in Tucson last year, NCAA recruiting allegations, and two disappointing seasons in two different ways.
But on Saturday afternoon, the Wildcats will return to Tempe, and both programs will have the opportunity to put much of those events behind them with a victory in the Territorial Cup. Here is the first look at Arizona.
An Improved Defense under ‘Dr. Blitz’
The 70-7 game in December 2020 was as satisfying a defeat of a rival opponent as there has been in college football in quite some time. For those hoping for a repeat in 2021, the odds have decreased. Not dramatically, but the appointment of former Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown to the same role at Arizona has resulted in the best Wildcats defense since 2010.
Brown’s affinity for dialing up high pressure on opposing quarterbacks has earned him the moniker of ‘Dr. Blitz,’ which, aside from being one of the best nicknames in all of sports, has consistently provided his defenses with an edge as sharp as an obsidian knife.
This season, the defense is ranked 61st in the nation in total defense, its highest ranking since 2010. The passing defense is also third place in the Pac-12, which again is the best it has been in a decade.
At Michigan, Brown’s defenses had the talent and the speed to suffocate predominantly lesser skilled opponents. Arizona doesn’t have the athletes to run with, say, Oregon or USC, or on a good day, Arizona State, and as a result, it has been exposed several times.
The sword that slays this dragon is crossing routes combined with some well-timed deep shots against frequent one-on-one coverage. One would think that would not be much of a problem for the Sun Devils, but this passing offense has become ghastly in recent weeks, as Jayden Daniels hasn’t thrown for over 200 yards in over a month.
As a footnote, Brown will not return to this rivalry for the foreseeable future after this week. He has accepted an opening to be the new head coach at UMass starting next season.
Revolving Door of Quarterbacks
Arizona has had five players attempt a pass this season. Three of those five have attempted over 70 passes. Gunner Cruz began the season as the starting quarterback, and played very well in the Week 1 loss to BYU.
But head coach Jedd Fisch wasn’t ready to hand Cruz the keys to the offense. Second-year freshman (you know, because of COVID-19) Will Plummer (no relation to Jake) also played extensively in the team’s third game at San Diego State. Even sophomore Jordan McCloud has seen action this year, but he went down with season-ending knee and ankle injuries against UCLA.
The next week, Cruz suffered a season-ending injury of his own, this one to his thumb. By process of survival, Plummer has been the starting quarterback since then.
Like much of the Wildcats offense, the performance from Plummer this season can be characterized mostly with an apathetic shrug. He is 127 for 229 with eight touchdowns to five interceptions. He has eclipsed 250 yards passing just once, against USC.
There is a small dual-threat element to Plummer. In the last three weeks, he has carried the ball 27 times for 122 yards and one touchdown. But UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson he is not, and the Sun Devils will likely have enough speed to contain him in the pocket.
The Thrilling Stanley Berryhill III
If there is a bright spot for this Arizona offense, it has been the play of wide receiver Stanley Berryhill. When Southern California’s Drake London was healthy, there was a lot of discussion about how big the divide was between London and the next-best Pac-12 receiver.
Well, standing on the other side of ravine, waving over at us this whole time has been Berryhill. He is second in the Pac-12 in receptions per game with 6.6, a number that is also good for 17th in the country. He is the first Arizona wide receiver since Cayleb Jones in 2014 to catch 70 passes in one season.
Arizona has had several games with prolific fourth-down attempts, and currently sit at 11th in the nation for fourth-down conversions. No player has been trusted more in those do-or-die scenarios than Berryhill, who has converted three of the 14 fourth-down plays.
He might have a big game, the Sun Devils are depleted on the back end, and somebody needs to catch passes for Arizona.
If the Sun Devils can keep the ball in front of them and make Arizona work for their yards, which they have done most of the season against all their opponents, this won’t be too difficult of a matchup. But let the Wildcats break a few big ones, and the home team, whose confidence is already on thin ice, may crack.
Otherwise, Arizona State will win their fifth straight, the most for the Sun Devils since the 1970s.