By Juan Roque for DieHardDevil.com
Without question, the 2011 Arizona State Sun Devils football season has been an emotional roller coaster for the alumni, fans and the team itself. This season brought thrilling wins against USC and Missouri followed by mind boggling and frustrating let downs at Illinois, UCLA and Washington State. During this up and down season one thing is for sure; the Sun Devils have definitely not lived up to the hype that was circling them throughout the preseason. They have not delivered what many thought would be a dominant campaign in 2011 while on the march to win the new Pac-12 South Division. After ten games they are at 6-4, unranked, inconsistent and need to win their last two games in order to have an opportunity to realize their goal of advancing to the title game. After a heart breaking loss to Washington State last week in Pullman, and UCLA losing at Utah, the Sun Devils still have an opportunity to realize this goal. Despite the roller coaster ride, they still have a chance. They will need to take care of business the last two weeks of the season and need help in the form of a UCLA loss to earn a trip to the title game.
But this week that will be the last thing on the Sun Devils’ minds.
This is the week the Sun Devils face their hated rival Arizona Wildcats on the gridiron. This is the week that fans on both sides of the rivalry have circled on their calendars every year. This is the week that divides families and friends and neighbors turn on neighbors. This is the week where lines are drawn in the sand along Interstate 10 and the cities of Phoenix and Tucson face each other on the battlefield. Throw the records out the window right now. Throw out the talk of titles and rankings. None of that matters this week. What matters is that one of College Football’s oldest and most contentious rivalries is renewed. This is a battle for not only state bragging rights but for the Territorial Cup. This is a battle that gives the winner 364 days of pride and gloating. This is what it’s all about for ASU and U of A fans. And there are no games other than this one that will be played on November 19, 2011.
On one sideline will be the Arizona State Sun Devils. The best word to describe them is schizophrenic. The Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde ASU team has had moments of greatness followed by moments of sorrow all in one dramatic season. Without question, this team is one of the most talented in the conference on paper. Unfortunately paper players and statistics don’t win football games. After two disappointing losses in a row, ASU now enters it game against U of A with more questions than answers. The biggest questions are circling around ASU’s head coach Dennis Erickson and whether or not he will survive after this season much less earn an extension. There are questions about the team’s resolve and character after an uninspired effort in Pullman. There are questions as to whether this team is capable of winning consistently when they are the favorites. Mix all this into a pot, stir it up and what you have is a monumental football mess. With so many questions off the field,this game comes at the right time in the season for ASU. If they want to regain some form of control into what is quickly becoming a full blown nuclear meltdown, they will need to play their best game of the season Saturday.
On the other sideline will be the hated Arizona Wildcats. The Wildcats have their own storm raging in Tucson. As recently as last year, the 2-8 Wildcats were considered one of the top programs in the league. Two years ago they were being mentioned as one of the conference’s best after beating ASU and USC in consecutive weeks. The Wildcats then went to the Holiday Bowl where they were demolished and shut out by a Ndamukong Suh led Nebraska team 33-0. Looking to rebound and compete in 2010, the Wildcats got off to a fast start going 7-1. They were supposed to be the hot team in the old Pacific 10 and many wondered if that would be the year they finally ended their Rose Bowl drought. They would be very wrong. After losing five straight games including the double overtime loss to ASU, and an embarrassing Alamo Bowl loss to Oklahoma State 36-10, the writing was on the wall. In 2011 after beating NAU, the Wildcats lost five in a row costing Mike Stoops his job. Since then, the Wildcats have been 1-3 and were run over last week by a fired up Colorado team 48-29.
While both teams have a lot of subplots going on, make no mistake about it, come Saturday none of this will matter. When the two teams take the field they will be focused on one thing only…winning the 2011 Territorial Cup. The Cup is a magnificent trophy that was reactivated as the prize for the winner of this game in 2001 when former ASU president Lattie Coor signed an executive order bringing the trophy out of retirement in the ASU archives. Before then, the teams traded an ugly bronze monstrosity called the “Victory Scultpure” that was made by artist Ben Goo in honor of the many different sports. For those that may remember that trophy, it was not pretty. The Cup is much more appropriate as a symbol of the history of this great state as it pertains to football. ASU will be fighting to keep the trophy home and Arizona will be looking to take the Cup back to Tucson. Rest assured, the intensity on the field and in the stadium will be increased ten-fold on Saturday night.
Meet the Wildcats on offense
The unquestioned star of the Wildcat offense is senior quarterback Nick Foles. Foles is an exceptional player who possesses the necessary skill set to earn an opportunity to play in the NFL. The one time Dirk Koetter recruit took a roundabout way to Tucson. After breaking his commitment to Arizona State, he went to Michigan State and then transferred to Arizona. The move was well thought out as Foles is now Arizona’s all time leading passer with 9,573 yards. With two games to play, the scrappy Foles will be looking to add to that record. On the season, Foles has been the bright spot on a team that has not had much to celebrate. He has completed 319 of 466 passes for 3,612 yards, 23 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. His interceptions have been higher this season because Foles has been forced into mistakes by a porous offensive line that has allowed 20 sacks. Despite the struggles, he still boasts a 144.27 Passer Rating and is vying for All-Conference recognition behind Stanford’s Andrew Luck and USC’s Matt Barkley.
At the skill positions the Wildcats have one of the league’s best in senior wide receiver Juron Criner. Criner is Foles’ favorite target who will get a long look by NFL scouts and will be playing on Sundays next season. Criner is tall, fast, athletic and can embarrass a defender with his abilities. On the season,the 6’4” 215 pound Criner has 57 catches for 693 yards and eight touchdowns. Despite being double covered or bracketed in zone coverage by the opposition in an attempt to stop him, he still averages 77 receiving yards per game. Against Colorado, he snagged seven passes for 84 yards. Opposite Criner is Gino Crump. While Crump does not have Criner’s gifts, he makes plays and led the team last week catching 10 passes for 95 yards. On the ground, the Wildcats feature Keola Antolin who is a very good runner between the tackles and also has the speed to turn the corner on the perimeter. Unfortunately for Antolin, the Wildcats abandon the run often as they fall behind but his talent is unquestioned. In 2011, he has 98 rushes for 517 yards, three touchdowns and averages 6.0 yards per carry.
The offensive line for the Wildcats is big but they have struggled in 2011 giving up 20 sacks. The two best players they have are at the tackle positions which is surprising given they are both redshirt freshmen. Left tackle Mickey Baucus is huge at 6’8” 305 pounds. He moves well but can play high at times. He is slow to react to pass rush moves, but because he is so big, he can compensate and get his hands on defenders. In the run game he can maul his opponent. Right tackle Fabbians Ebbele is equally huge at 6’8”305 and will develop into a dominant player as his career develops. He is athletic and plays physical in the run game, however, his pass blocking needs to improve.
How ASU matches up
This game is simple. For ASU to win they need to make Foles and Criner non factors. If those two players are eliminated from the offense by coverage and pressure the Wildcats are doomed. For that to happen the most important aspect in this game is pressure. Last week the ASU defense sacked Cooper Halliday one time the whole game despite his throwing 37 passes. That cannot happen this week. This is a game where the defensive line and linebackers have to help the secondary by pressuring Foles. They need to blitz him, hit him, sack him, harass him and make him pay every time he throws the ball. If Foles gets into a rhythm it will be another long day for the defense. The best way for the defense to pressure is from the inside because the Wildcat interior line is suspect. They give too much ground and do not react well to the blitz or line movement. This is a game where Will Sutton and Bo Moos need to push the pocket and allow the defensive ends to get to Foles from the outside. By keeping the corners outside short and collapsing the pocket inside it will keep Foles honest, not allow him to buy time and find the open receiver. In the ASU secondary, this week is their opportunity to show the last two weeks have been flukes. This is a game where they need to get back to form and be the bunch that forces turnovers and smothers opposing receivers. It is vital that this group have a great game if the Sun Devils are to win.
Key Matchup: Juron Criner vs. ASU DBs
Meet the Wildcat defense
This unit has been the whipping boy in 2011. After strong showings in 2009 and 2010, the Wildcats have been porous this season. Through ten games, they are giving up an average of 36.1 points per game, 5.0 yards per rush, 179.8 rushing yards and 277.2 yards per game. Without question this is a unit that hasn’t stopped anybody this season, save for UCLA who they blew out 48-12 at home. Since that game in Tucson, the Wildcats have been dominated losing the next three games by an average score of 41-27 to Washington, Utah and Colorado.
The strength of what is an otherwise weak defense is the linebackers. U of A has two that can make plays and do damage when given the opportunity. Senior Paul Vasallo is a beast who plays hard, is strong and tackles very well. He is the leader of the defense, plays with a lot of raw emotion and is the team’s leading tackler with 66. He also makes plays on the ball having five tackles for loss, a sack, a pass break up and a fumble recovery. Joining Vasallo at linebacker is senior Derek Earls. Earls is also a playmaker who is second on the team in tackles with 60 along with two pass break ups and six tackles for loss.
On the defensive line the Wildcats are thin. Their best player, CJ Parish, did not play last week due to an ankle injury but is expected back Saturday. Parish is their best pass rusher and although he has only two sacks he can be disruptive and make life miserable for offensive tackles. Parish has 30 tackles in 2011 and has recovered a fumble. Opposite Parish is 6’3” 280 pound Kirifi Tuala who is improving each week. Tuala has made 20 tackles in 2011 and is tough to move out of the way in the running game.
In the secondary, the Wildcats lack speed but they have two players who stand out. Free safety Marquis Flowers has everything you need. The 6’3” 220 pound Flowers is built more like a linebacker than a defensive back. In 2011 he has 60 tackles, three for loss, a sack, a pass break up and an interception. He is all over the field and must be accounted for on all plays. Cornerback Shaquille Richardson is the Wildcats best cover man with three interceptions to go with his 41 tackles and three pass breakups.
How ASU matches up
Arizona has a hard time stopping teams on the ground. Last week ASU had trouble running the football. This is one of those games where it’s anyone’s guess how ASU Offensive Coordinator Noel Mazzone will attack the defense. Last week against Washington State where the weather was cold and wet, ASU aired it out by throwing 44 times. With more favorable weather conditions in Tempe Saturday, expect Mazzone to do the opposite and take the terrestrial approach. Expect to see Cameron Marshall get the ball often to force the Wildcats to commit seven to eight men to stop him. For this to be successful, it’s all relying on the offensive line. This unit was manhandled in the run game last week and must rebound with a strong performance against the Wildcats. They need to get movement off the ball and open those lanes up for Marshall so that he can do what he does best… gash the opposition and get big yards on each run. Once this is established, Brock Osweiler will pretty much have his pick of who to throw to in the passing game. U of A does not have the personnel required to stop the ASU air attack. By establishing a strong ground attack, it will open the secondary up and leave them man to man against Gerrel Robinson and Mike Willie. Once that happens, Osweiler can throw it up and allow his big receivers to make plays on the ball. Without any help over the top, it can mean huge yardage for ASU. But it all comes down to the line. They need to play their most physical game of the year, period.
Key Matchup: Mike Willie and Gerell Robinson vs. U of A defensive backs
This game is the moment of truth for ASU. After the loss last week, many wrote the Sun Devils off, others called for the firing of Dennis Erickson and some even renounced their loyalty to the program. Emotions run high after such an abysmal performance, but this is a new and important week. It’s the Territorial Cup, there will be a Black Out and sold out Sun Devil Stadium with over 12,500 ASU students in the stands. The environment cannot be any more favorable for ASU to come out and make the statement of the season on Saturday. This is exactly the type of moment when they need to step onto Frank Kush Field and get back some of the respect that they lost the last two weeks. If ASU comes out Saturday and plays like their lives depend on it, they fly around, make plays, create turnovers and play smart, then they win this game easily against a subpar Wildcat team. However, if they display the bad game hangover like they did last week, Nick Foles and the Wildcats will be more than happy to leave Tempe with the Territorial Cup in hand. Make no mistake about it, this is the biggest game of the year. On Saturday night, the Sun Devils will decide whether or not 2011 will go down as a marquee year or a failed campaign that cost a man his job. The emotion will run high and the intensity will be fierce. I am expecting ASU to come out of the Tillman Tunnel angry, focused and ready to protect their home turf. The Arizona Wildcats will have to wait until 2012 to get a chance to take the Cup home.
Comments are closed.