Analysis: Three keys to an Arizona victory over ASU

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Rebecca Noble and Rebecca Noble | The Daily Wildcat

Arizona wide receiver Abraham Medivil (84) kisses the territorial cup after Arizona's 56-35 win against ASU in Arizona Stadium on Friday, Nov. 25, 2016.

Arizona and ASU have traded victories over Thanksgiving weekend for the last five years. In the previous three matchups, the team with fewer wins entering the game has prevailed. Trends aren’t always significant, but in a rivalry game as heated as the Territorial Cup they often, at the very least, dictate each team’s mindset ahead of the opening kickoff. 

On Saturday afternoon, the Wildcats will host the school from up north, where they’ll look to extend two of the rivalry's most recent trends. Kevin Sumlin’s team enters the game with five wins, compared to the Sun Devils' six. The ‘Cats are in hot pursuit of bowl eligibility, and notching their sixth win of the season versus their in-state rival would also mean erasing the memory of last year’s 42-30 loss at Sun Devil Stadium. 

In order for Arizona to finish its first season under the tutelage of a new head coach on a high note, a number of things will have to go right for the Wildcats. Here are my three keys to victory for the ‘Cats in the 2018 Territorial Cup: 

1. Minimize mistakes 

Dating back to 2013, Arizona has turned the football over eight times in its three losses to the Sun Devils. During that same time span, the ‘Cats have committed just three turnovers in its two wins. Takeaways are instrumental to a game’s outcome, as they’re capable of swinging momentum in the blink of an eye and giving one team an advantage while also putting the other team in a hole. 

In a rivalry game, turnovers tend to take on an even larger role. Interceptions, fumbles and even game-changing plays like sacks and failed fourth-down conversions all make an impact that is typically too debilitating to overcome. That’s why it is of the utmost importance for Arizona to take care of the football for all four quarters Saturday afternoon. 

As long as the ‘Cats don’t shoot themselves in the foot – they also have to play smart and limit self-inflicted wounds like penalties – by turning the ball over, they’ll find themselves in position to compete for the entire game. Arizona hasn’t been as efficient protecting the rock lately as it would like, but Saturday’s game has the chance to be the Wildcats' last opportunity to make the most of an overwhelmingly lost season. 

2. Take away a star  

ASU poses several serious problems for the Wildcats. Defensively, the Sun Devils boast one of the conference's top rushing defenses. ASU's front-seven has routinely shut down opposing run games and have been increasingly more active in the backfield as the season has worn on.

On Saturday, running room likely won’t come easy for Arizona’s ground game. J.J. Taylor was held to just 69 yards rushing in last week’s blowout loss in Pullman. Last year in Tempe, Taylor logged 74 yards on only 12 carries. The ‘Cats should expunge every effort to get Taylor and company going in this one, but the results may not be as successful as Arizona needs. There will be plenty of extra pressure on quarterback Khalil Tate to finally get his wheels churning and contribute in a way that simply hasn’t been present since last season. 

On the other side of the ball, ASU is unequivocally more talented. Receiver N’Keal Harry – who has already been labeled the nation’s top-rated receiver prospect for next April’s NFL draft – has been problematic for opposing defenses all season long. 

His infinite catch-radius and ability to gain yardage after the catch is more lethal than any other player the ‘Cats have faced this year. In its backfield, the Sun Devils feature arguably the most refined runner in the Pac-12 in Eno Benjamin. Compared to Arizona’s top rusher, Benjamin is a completely different back. He’s durable between the tackles, deceptively fast in the open-field and makes a living out of making defenders miss before and after initial contact. 

It’s highly unlikely that Arizona manages to eliminate both players from the Sun Devil's offensive game plan, but to prevent a shootout, the ‘Cats will need to shut down at least one of them. There may not be a defensive back capable of sticking with Harry on Arizona’s sideline, but there are a number of disguised coverages and defensive packages that could confuse Arizona State’s passing game.

Benjamin, on the other hand, may pose problems all game long for the ‘Cats' front seven. Unless defensive coordinator Marcel Yates has a secret weapon, suddenly ready to be deployed, Arizona doesn’t stand much of a chance defending the Sun Devils' run game. ASU is 3-0 in Territorial Cup games in which they’ve rushed for 200 yards in the last five years. 

3. Play to your strengths 

Arizona’s offensive play calling has been inconsistent since the first week of the season. Whether or not that changes for the most important game of the 2018 campaign remains to be seen. But one thing is for certain: If Arizona is going to have any chance to win on Saturday, offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone and Tate will have to be in sync. 

That means Arizona has to play to its offensive strengths. Establishing the run game, or at the very least trying to, will be key for the ‘Cats passing attack. Tate has evolved into a more consistent passer between the hashes and down the field in his first season under the guidance of Mazzone and Sumlin. 

Much of that success, however, has been the result of a successful run game. Once the ‘Cats began pounding their opponents between the tackles, Tate’s confidence distributing the football soared to a new level. The effect of establishing the run game to draw defenders up near the line of scrimmage works vice versa for Arizona’s offense.

There have also been times during the season when Tate’s ability to stretch the field has forced defenses onto their heels, thus creating plentiful running lanes for Taylor and fellow ball carrier Gary Brightwell. 

Unfortunately, Arizona’s most obvious offensive deficiency throughout the season has been Mazzone’s sporadic play calling. There has simply been too many instances when the ‘Cats should have passed the football on third and long, only to run up the gut instead. The poorly timed play design hasn’t been a one-time thing, either. 

Arizona’s offense did itself a great disservice on a number of occasions earlier in the year, wasting short yardage scenarios by throwing fade routes into the corner of the end zone or, even worse, out of bounds completely. Mazzone won’t be able to make up for a season full of missed opportunities in one game, but he does have another chance to dial up a handful of successful scoring drives. Being on the same page with Tate and calling a smart game may very well be the difference-maker for Arizona in this year’s Territorial Cup. 


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