By James Romo for DieHardDevil.com
The latest installment of the Duel in the Desert will go down inside Arizona Stadium this evening. The return of the game to the Friday after Thanksgiving is a welcomed tradition that should never be altered. Sun Devil Nation will flood I-10 east throughout the day on their way to Tucson to support their beloved maroon and gold. Fans on both sides will see two teams that are very similar to each other in terms of scheme and philosophy. However, the personnel on each team has dictated a very different emphasis on play-calling and relative success of their offensive game planning. The underdog in this emotional rivalry game has won 7 out of the last 8 meetings, which tells you that the 2012 Territorial Cup will be a another dogfight.
ASU Defense vs UA Offense
On offense, the Wildcats have a dominant rushing attack with sophomore RB Ka’Deem Carey. He currently leads the nation in rushing with 1,585 yards on a 6.3 average yards/carry. He is the rare combination of a fast and elusive back with the ability to run through tackles. ASU will no doubt prioritize bottling him up and keeping him between the tackles. Brandon Magee has been stellar in his run-stopping all season, and I suspect that the emotions of the final regular season game of his career will have him very focused and intent on putting his stamp on this game. The UofA spread option attack keeps opponents off balance with QB Matt Scott who has been both effective running the ball and throwing accurately to a very capable receiving core. ASU will have to be extremely fundamentally sound in their coverage and gap assignments and be able to tackle upon first contact. These teams know each other very well, and will have game-planned against what each team does best. The UofA offense has racked up video game numbers this season, including 588 yards against USC. In addition to handing off to Carey, Scott has formidable receiving targets in Austin Hill and Dan Buckner. ASU will have their Pac-12 #1 ranked pass defense put to the test against UofA’s potent passing attack. They will have to avoid blown coverages, do a good job disguising coverage shells, and recognize and defend what I predict will be a heavy dose of play-action passes. Keelan Johnson will no doubt be looking to carry over his ball-hawking ways after a two-interception game last week. Avoiding the big play will be a major key in preventing huge shifts in momentum.
The ASU defensive front will have to have a big game disrupting plays in the backfield at their mesh point. The strength of the Sun Devil defense has been their ability to create pressure with their front seven, allowing their defensive backfield the luxury of defending quarterbacks throwing under duress. Forced and inaccurate passes leave the door open for the Sun Devil defense to capitalize on the pressure Sutton and company should provide. ASU leads the nation in sacks and is second in the nation in tackles for loss. Will Sutton has made a name for himself nationally as one of the most unblockable interior lineman. I expect that UofA will double team him which should leave Junior Onyeali, Carl Bradford, and Chris Young one-on-one with Wildcat lineman who will be tasked with keeping Sun Devil defenders off of Matt Scott. In what could be an important factor, Scott has suffered what appears to be multiple concussions over the past several weeks. Continued on-field vomiting by Scott will be something to keep an eye on, although he has yet to be pulled from a game for precautionary purposes. Given Scott’s recent health, I suspect that Carey will be given a huge workload on the ground in order to set up play-action for Scott. Containing Carey is the key.
ASU Offense vs UA Defense
On defense, the Wildcats have been far less intimidating, and have relied heavily on their offense to just outscore opponents. They employ a 3-3-5 stack defense that hasn’t stopped anyone all season. They give up an average of 488 yards per game and rank 114th in the nation in total offense allowed. ASU showed more flash in the passing game last week against Washington State, but that was to be expected against a team that has all but packed it in this season. ASU will look to establish an early rushing attack to exploit the Wildcats 11th ranking in the conference against the run. Forcing the Wildcats to bring that third safety into the box and out of intermediate coverage should provide the mismatches that ASU can take advantage of in the short and underneath routes behind the linebackers. Arizona has a few standouts that have shown very good play-making ability. DT Sione Tuihalamaka, LB Marquise Flowers, LB Jake Fischer, and CB Shaq Richardson have all shown flashes of what Coach Rich Rodriguez envisions as a swarming defense that can disrupt plays, fly to the ball, and create turnovers. But UofA has also been susceptible to explosive plays. Only time will tell if the ASU outside receivers can make big plays early and demand vertical coverage help over the top, thereby creating more space for ASU receivers to roam underneath.
ASU has shown an ability to be unstoppable on offense, but it comes down to the Sun Devils executing what they are actually capable of. In past away games, they have sputtered on the road with an inability to run their fast tempo offense with the precision that Coach Graham demands. Keeping the crowd out of the game will go a long way in helping stay out of silent counts and run at the desired tempo. The ASU offensive line should be able to create holes and protect Taylor Kelly. The Wildcats are dead last in the conference in sacks and 11th in tackles for loss which should allow Kelly the time he needs to make good reads and execute the spread option game without the type of pressure that Oregon or USC applied in the backfield. Pounding the UofA front with Cameron Marshall will be a huge factor in owning the time of possession, wearing down a very thin UofA defensive front, and keeping the ASU defense off of the field. The Devils should look for either a big play or creative play calling to jump out to an early lead. Getting behind in a hostile environment will be a difficult hole to climb out of.
Big plays, turnovers, and injuries will be an even bigger factor in the outcome of this game than in most. The two teams are evenly matched, both in relative talent and mutual hatred. The one that gets the lucky bounce or is able to capitalize on their opponents mistakes should gain momentum and ultimately win.
All that being said, you can throw out records, schemes, home field advantage, and predictions. The Dual in the Desert is won on emotion and who can maintain composure while matching their opponent’s intensity level. The Sun Devils have all mentioned their disgust about the Wildcats celebrating their win and planting their flag at midfield last season on Frank Kush Field. There is an element of revenge and the feeling that order needs to be restored in this rivalry. The time has come to bring the Cup back to Tempe where it belongs. There will be a whole caravan of DieHard Devils with you escorting the prize back to its rightful home.