November 30, 2007

Territorial Cup game particularly significant this year

The No. 13 ranked ASU football team could use a convincing win against the University of Arizona in the 81st installment of the Territorial Cup to help secure a potential high profile bowl invitation in the first season of the Dennis Erickson era.

In the first meeting between Erickson, and UA head coach Mike Stoops, both teams are playing with postseason implications on the line and a rivalry trophy up for grabs. The first meeting could be a classic.

The Sun Devils (9-2, 6-2 Pac-10) are playing for much more than the Territorial Cup Trophy, as bids for the Rose, Fiesta and Holiday Bowls can potentially be earned depending on the numerous possible scenarios.

With a win over UA (5-6, 4-4 Pac-10), and an upset by UCLA over No. 8 USC, the Sun Devils will be traveling to Pasadena to play in the Rose Bowl.

If the Trojans win, and ASU wins, the Fiesta Bowl could be a possible postseason destination depending on the outcome of several other games, most prominently the Big-12 and ACC Championship Games.

Worst case scenario, if the powers that be snub the Sun Devils, the Holiday Bowl and a high profile opponent will be waiting following a victory.

UA is playing for a chance to earn their first bowl bid under Stoops; in fact, their first bowl in this millennium.

BCS bids don't come easy, and neither are wins in one of the oldest rivalry games in college football.

In this kind of rivalry, the records can be thrown out the window faster than you can say, "The band is out on the field." In 1986, Arizona Sate was undefeated and had already clinched a Rose Bowl Berth when the Wildcats beat them 34-17. In other years, ASU has been the spoiler.

Though favored by a touchdown, ASU is still licking its wounds after a vicious beatdown at the hands of USC. This team hasn't played particularly well over the last month and with the Wildcats looking to finally be performing at a more consistent level, it's anyone's guess as to what will happen on Saturday.

Senior free safety Josh Barrett is out for the game, nursing a sprained MCL. Senior Rodney Cox will start in his place. Jeremy Payton may see some action as well.

Adding to the walking wounded, senior left tackle Brandon Rodd and his backup, sophomore offensive tackle Richard Tuitu'u are banged up, each with sprained ankles. They practiced on Wednesday and Thursday, however, and should play, though perhaps at less than full strength.

Senior Robert Gustavis, who has not played tackle at this level, will be used at the position if neither Rodd nor Tuitu'u can finish.

Despite the injuries to the offensive line and the absence of Ryan Torain, who was sorely missed against the Trojans, the Sun Devils will try to pick up a third consecutive win over the Wildcats with a physical running game.

They lost the time of possession battle for the first time all season against USC, but should bounce back and control the clock against a passing team that doesn't tend to have long, sustained drives buoyed by their ground game.

With two capable running backs, in junior Keegan Herring and sophomore Dimitri Nance, and a strong commitment to running the ball, ASU should recapture the ability to run inside after struggling against one of the nation's best front sevens on Thanksgiving.

Heading into the game, UA is allowing 141.7 yards against per game, including 19 rushing touchdowns.

While the Sun Devils must establish the run, they also must protect junior quarterback Rudy Carpenter.

ASU has allowed 49 sacks, and there's no doubt UA will be sending multiple blitz packages, a hallmark of it's defensive scheme that features one of the Pac-10's top linebackers, Spencer Larsen.

Another important matchup within the game is how well the secondary of ASU can stop the pass-heavy UA offense.

Under the helm of first-year offensive coordinator Sonny Dykes, the Wildcats are averaging 29 points per game, and have thrown 26 passing touchdowns out of their spread offense.

Junior Willie Tuitama has completed 63 percent of his passes, averaging 310.1 yards per game.

Tuitama's favorite target is Mike Thomas, who leads the Pac-10 with 11 touchdown grabs, and 73 catches. Under Dykes' passing offense, which features a lot of short, quick-hitting plays, Thomas has averaged 12.7 yards per catch.

Senior Justin Tryon has the duty of shutting down Thomas, and will look to rebound after a poor performance against USC.

The Sun Devils haven't handled the bubble screens and other lateral passing plays particularly well all season, choosing instead to focus on stopping the run inside. In this game, as with the USC and Oregon games, look for the Wildcats to attempt to exploit ASU with a lot of screens on the edges of the field.

Both teams feature a different style of attack on offense, but ASU is the more proven of the two on a consistent basis, averaging 20 more yard of total offense per game, and doing so much greater balance.

The Sun Devils feature a physical (perhaps less so without Torain) running game, and a spread passing attack with several talented receivers of their own.

Meanwhile, the Wildcats throw the ball a lot but lack a true commitment running attack. UA ranks last in the conference, averaging under 80 yards per game on the ground, but true freshman starter Nicolas Grigsby has shown that he has a lot of natural talent.

Home field could be huge for ASU, as the game is sold-out. If ASU is able to get a lead in the first-half (unlikely perhaps given the history of this team), the crowd could become an issue. UA has reportedly simulated crowd noise in practices this week.

The Territorial Cup, normally played the day after Thanksgiving, has been moved to the first of the month.

Now the entire student section (which was half-empty against USC) will be full, making Sun Devil Stadium as raucous as ever.

Throw in a possible poor weather conditions, with heavy, sustained rains forecasted between Friday afternoon and Saturday evening, and the 81st Territorial Cup could be one of the most memorable rivalry games in years.

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