ASU and UA both have plenty of momentum in their respective corners. ASU’s 53-24 romp over No. 20 Washington on Oct. 19 was its best performance of the season, and the same could be said of Arizona’s 34-21 victory over Utah later that evening, followed by a 44-20 win at lowly Colorado last Saturday.
But at the season’s midway point, how do the Sun Devils and Wildcats stack up against each other in five key categories? Here’s an attempt to break it down.
The Wildcats have shown more improvement on offense than ASU, but they’ve had a lot more room for it.
With eight touchdowns (six passing, two rushing) and just one turnover in his last three games, UA’s B.J. Denker finally looks like a viable Pac-12 starting quarterback. Star tailback Ka’Deem Carey has picked up where he left off last season, racking up 236 yards in UA’s 34-21 home win over Utah and scoring four touchdowns the following week at Colorado. His 924 rushing yards are good for second in the Pac-12 and 11th in the FBS, despite being held out of the first game of the season.
The downside: a wide receiver core – which is missing last year’s 1,000-yard wideout, Austin Hill, due to a season-ending injury – doesn’t have a single player in the Pac 12’s top 30 in receiving yards.
In Tempe, after a 53-24 pasting of previously-ranked Washington, the Sun Devils are clicking on all cylinders. Quarterback Taylor Kelly is fourth in the conference in passing yards, and has seven touchdowns of his own (four passing, three rushing) and just one interception in his last two games.
Sophomore wideout Jaelen Strong is fourth in the conference in receiving yards and has over 100 yards in 5 of 6 games, and tight end Chris Coyle has over 300 receiving yards of his own. The Devils have four players in the top 30 in the conference in yards through the air.
On the ground, senior running back Marion Grice leads the nation in scoring with 15.4 points per game, while backups D.J. Foster and Deantre Lewis have also been consistent contributors.
Advantage: ASU. Despite Denker’s improvement, how could you not go with the Devils after their performance against the Huskies? ASU simply has more weapons, including a go-to wideout (Strong) and tight end (Coyle) that the Wildcats lack.
After yielding over 500 yards of total offense at USC, the Wildcats responded by coming home and making one big stop after another against a Utah team that was fresh off an upset over previously-undefeated Stanford – despite losing perhaps its best defensive player, junior safety Tra’Mayne Bondurant, to an injury in the first quarter. Their performance against the Buffaloes on Saturday (349 yards allowed) was good enough.
ASU’s rushing defense was its top concern after the Trojans ran for nearly 250 yards on the Sun Devils several weeks ago. But there has been steady improvement ever since, culminated by an are-you-kidding-me kind of performance on Oct. 19 against Washington tailback Bishop Sankey, who came into the game as the FBS’s rushing leader, limiting him to 22 yards on 13 carries.
Advantage: ASU. A week ago, this category would have been marked as even. But holding the NCAA’s (former) leading rusher to under two yards per carry is a statement. Clearly, defending the run has been a focal point in practice in recent weeks, and it has paid off.
Simply stated, UA doesn’t have an adequate punt returner – or, more specifically, an adequate punt catcher.
In the Wildcats’ home opener, freshman Nate Phillips muffed two punts. His replacement, sophomore Johnny Jackson, then muffed two of his own against Utah. Also, senior kicker Jake Smith (5 of 8 on field goal attempts this season) had an extra point blocked against the Utes.
ASU had a PAT of its own blocked against Washington, but freshman kicker Zane Gonzalez has otherwise been sensational, connecting on all 11 of his field goal attempts in the Devils’ last four games.
Advantage: ASU. The Sun Devils have a fantastic freshman kicker, and the Wildcats don’t appear to have anyone who can catch punts. End of story.
The tricky thing about going for it on fourth down: When your team converts, you look like a courageous genius; when it doesn’t, you look reckless and foolish. Against Utah, UA coach Rich Rodriguez looked more the latter, as the Wildcats were 0 for 3 in this category. (They were 1 for 1 on fourth downs at Colorado.)
Nonetheless, Rodriguez’s commitment to a simple game of feeding Carey (who had 40 rushing attempts against the Utes) and limiting Denker to mostly short passes was effective against Utah and Colorado. Defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel deserves a great deal of credit for the marked improvement of the defense in his second season.
ASU coach Todd Graham’s obvious commitment to improving ASU’s rushing defense has paid off in a much bigger way than even most hardcore Devil fans could have hoped. Its decision-making on special teams has also been better in recent games.
Advantage: Even. Denker has made Rodriguez look very smart for sticking with him when many Wildcat fans were calling for a change after his awful performance five weeks ago in UA’s loss at Washington. Graham and his staff coached a brilliant game on both sides of the ball against the Huskies, but will move ahead of RichRod in this category only when the Sun Devils win a game away from Tempe, which they have yet to do.
The Wildcats are yet to host a marquee home game this season, but will have a couple of real opportunities at sellouts with UCLA and Oregon visiting Tucson in November. In the meantime, UA saw nearly 51,000 fans – an unexpectedly high number – come out for its first conference game of the season, a little over 5,000 short of capacity.
ASU has more seats to fill at Sun Devil Stadium (about 71,000 total), but it was still disappointing to see over 11,000 seats unoccupied for ASU’s game against a ranked Washington team. Still, with an oversaturated Phoenix sports market and a student section that stays loud and engaged throughout the game, the support from Sun Devil Nation has been solid this season.
Advantage: Even. ASU is known as more of a football school than its counterpart down south, but hasn’t sold out a game (or even come seriously close) despite the hype and big-name opponents that have already come to Tempe this season. Meanwhile, over 50,000 fans isn’t a bad turnout for a game featuring a home team that was 0-2 in the conference at the time and was facing an average conference opponent – and to its credit, most of UA’s ZonaZoo student section stuck around for the entire game.
Shane Dale is the author of, “Territorial: The History of the Duel in the Desert.”
Comments are closed.