Expect the unexpected this year in the Duel in the Desert
Victorious members of the Arizona football team hoist the territorial cup into the air in celebration after Arizona's 56-35 win against ASU in Arizona Stadium on Friday, Nov. 25, 2016.
With Thanksgiving this week, it’s time to hang out with family, eat turkey and think about what you’re grateful for. It also means it’s time for rivalry week in college football and there may not be one more intense than the Duel in the Desert.
The Duel in the Desert is a football series between Arizona and ASU that dates back to 1899 — before Arizona was even a state. The winner of the game gets the Territorial Cup and bragging rights for the year until the two teams play again.
It’s one of the most intense rivalries in all of college sports, with fans on both sides having nothing but hate for the other. According to a study by The New York Times, it ranks as one of the top in the country. Before the game last year, police had to be on the field during warmups because the two teams kept getting face-to-face and neither would back down.
“It’s the biggest game of the year. It’s our bowl game,” linebacker Tony Fields said.
After last year, there was a bitter taste left in the mouths of Wildcat fans and players. The Wildcats were in complete control for three quarters and took a 19-point lead to the fourth. And that’s when everything fell apart.
The Sun Devils scored four times in the final quarter and had a one-point lead with three minutes left. Khalil Tate put Arizona into field goal range with 17 seconds left. But senior Josh Pollack pushed the field goal and ASU was able to escape the Wildcats with a one-point win.
“Winning? That would be the better experience,” Head Coach Kevin Sumlin said. “We try to win every game and what that looks like is different every week. But certainly a rivalry game … And as I said after the [Utah] game, for our seniors, we would like to leave them with a good taste in their mouth for their last football game.”
Sumlin, who is now getting ready for his second Territorial Cup, also understands the point of view of the rivalry from a fan’s perspective.
“It starts in the parking lot with the fans,” Sumlin said. “There’s a lot of people who really care. There was a little skirmish before the game last year. I have a great appreciation for this rivalry.”
While some of the seniors were on the team back in 2016 when Arizona beat ASU, most of the players now haven’t gotten the chance to see what that feels like.
Khalil Tate has never beaten ASU and neither has J.J. Taylor. A win against their most hated rivals could fix what has been a disappointing last two years in terms of how people were projecting the Wildcats to finish. Even just last year, college football experts were expecting Arizona to make it to their first ever Rose Bowl, and yet, they finished the season without going to a bowl game.
In 2017, Arizona had a 10-point lead at halftime and were in control. But right before half, Tate threw a Hail Mary that fell incomplete, was hit on the play and was out for the rest of the game. That meant that Brandon Dawkins had to come in for his first game action in weeks. The second half was a complete 180-degree flip from the first half, and ASU went on to win 42-30.
The 2016 game was one for the record books. If you don’t know, Arizona blew out ASU 56-35 without attempting a pass in the second half and only having three completions for the whole game. This game was all about bragging rights for Arizona as they were 2-9 on the year and weren’t playing well.
ASU, on the other hand, was one win away from a bowl game when disaster struck for them. It was the first time they had ever allowed over 500 rushing yards in a single game. While Arizona only finished 3-9 on the year, many felt it was still worth it considering they beat ASU.
In rivalry games, it comes down to which team can control their emotions best and which team has the least mistakes. That could be a problem for Arizona, since they have lost control of their emotions at times.
In their last game against Utah, very early in the first quarter when the score was still tied, Colin Schooler sacked Tyler Huntley to force a fourth down and Utah punt, but Tony Fields got called for an unsportsmanlike penalty and an automatic first down for Utah. The Utes went right down the field and scored, but if that didn’t happen and Arizona got the ball back, then who knows what could have happened.
Every year, there seems to be something unexpected that happens in this game that fans hold on to forever. Whether it’s not attempting a pass in the second half and winning, the best player on the field getting hurt on a Hail Mary or coming back from 19 down in the final quarter and a senior missing a field goal on senior day, always expect the unexpected this year and every year in the Duel in the Desert.
Follow Jack Cooper on Twitter