Arizona is trying to play its way into a bigger bowl game. Arizona State wants to secure home-field advantage for the Pac-12 championship game against Stanford.
Those are the stakes, not that any are needed beyond the season-long Territorial Cup bragging rights.
It’s Wildcats and Devils tonight from Tempe (Pac-12 Networks, 7:30 p.m.).
It’s Rich Rodriguez vs. Todd Graham, Round 2.
It’s an Arizona team coming off a win over fifth-ranked Oregon against a team that coming off a win at UCLA that clinched the Pac-12 South.
Should be a blast at a sold-out Sun Devils Stadium.
Here are five things to watch:
1. Stopping Ka’Deem
Can anyone do it? If so, are the Sun Devils that team?
Graham stressed run defense as much as anything in the offseason, which looked like a fruitless effort until ASU got past the power trio of Stanford, Wisconsin and Notre Dame early in the season. ASU hasn’t allowed a 100-yard rusher in any of the past eight games.
Now, the Devils are 21st nationally against the run, allowing 123.4 yards per game, led by interior lineman Will Sutton, freakishly athletic linebacker Carl Bradford and a front seven that Rodriguez calls “very mature.” Overall, ASU has 12 seniors on the defensive two-deep.
As for Sutton, Rodriguez said: “What concerns you is that very few people can block No. 90 one-on-one for a consistently long period of time.”
Arizona’s Ka’Deem Carey has rushed for at least 119 yards in 14 consecutive games, and he needs to pick up those four, five, six yards on first down for the Cats to be able to do what they want on offense. Moving the chains and picking up tempo is key to the offense.
Big problem: Arizona State leads the nation by forcing 70 three-and-outs, which accounts for 46.2 percent of opponents’ drives.
2. More Ka’Deem
Let’s stick with the Ka’Deem theme for a moment.
He’s not going to win the Heisman, and, heading into the regular-season finale, he’s still on the wrong side of the cut line for getting an invite to New York City for the ceremony. Five players are likely to be invited, and the running back who has moved into the discussion is Boston College’s Andre Williams, not Carey.
But with a big game, Carey can:
– Lock down consensus All-America honors again.
– Put himself in great position to be Arizona’s first Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year.
– Give himself a fighting chance to overtake Williams for the Doak Walker Award and a Heisman invite. (Williams finishes his regular season at Syracuse on Saturday.)
3. Special teams
The Territorial Cup often spins on special teams plays, often bizarre and usually late, including ASU blocking a Kyle Dugandzic punt in last season’s fourth-quarter comeback.
These names mean something, good or bad, depending on your point of view: Alex Zendejas, Kyle Williams. Terry Richardson. Jon Prasuhn. Jon Baker. Mike Schuh. Max Zendejas.
Who has the edge this season?
Arizona State’s weakness is punting, having auditioned a few players for the role without a solution. ASU ranks last nationally in net punting at 30.8 yards per attempt. Freshman Zane Gonzalez has made 15 consecutive field goal attempts, the caveat being he hasn’t been good from beyond 41 yards all season. And the Devils figure to be without standout running back Marion Grice, who also returns kicks.
Arizona doesn’t have much to brag about in the return game; just catching every punt without drama would be considered a victory. In the kicking game, it’s impossible to know what to expect. Punter Drew Riggleman and kicker Jake Smith are good enough to be heroes, but their inconsistency won’t ease anyone’s heart rate if they are in the middle of a big fourth-quarter moment.
4. Playing clean
Arizona did just about everything right last week against Oregon — won the turnover battle, including getting one on the first play from scrimmage; converted third downs at a high rate; made stops in the red zone; didn’t hurt itself with penalties.
They methodically built momentum on top of momentum, avoiding negative plays. All that will be hard to do two weeks in a row.
Give Graham and ASU credit. The Devils usually help themselves in most of those categories just mentioned.
Arizona State is the fourth-least penalized team in the country (3.64 per game). It is tied for 12th nationally in turnover margin at 0.9 per game and has forced at least one turnover in each of Graham’s 24 games as coach.
ASU is 10th nationally in red-zone offense, converting 92.1 percent of the time. The Sun Devils’ aggressive defense forces 7.0 tackles for loss per game, the second-best mark in the conference. They will come hard after quarterback B.J. Denker and test his quick-twitch mental muscles.
Bottom line: The Sun Devils are good in the areas in which you want to be good.
“This is the kind of team that if you make mistakes and don’t play well, you will get, you will get beat badly,” Rodriguez said.
There’s good emotion and bad emotion, and this rivalry has seen its share of both. Arizona, in particular, can’t be so hyped up that it leads to mental mistakes or foolish flags.
“You want to use emotion in a positive way,” Rodriguez said.
“Some guys go overboard with it. You can have too much and have it be counter-productive. There’s a difference between emotion and intensity. I just want intensity.”