Both the Arizona Wildcats (0-4) and the Arizona State Sun Devils (0-2) are winless heading into this game. A victory in the annual Territorial Cup game doesn’t exactly save your season from being a complete failure, but it sure does make it feel a lot less terrible.
“It’s everything,” senior Aaron Blackwell said. “You hate to say, but if we had to win one game this year, it’d be this one. It’s the biggest one of the year.”
This football season has been filled with tons of distractions this year. Cancelled games, positive COVID-19 tests, meticulous protocols and empty stadiums. The Wildcats are currently on an 11-game losing streak dating back to last season, but none of that matters this week. The only thing on these players’ minds: The Territorial Cup, because there’s no time to dwindle on anything else.
“We’re approaching it as a rivalry game,” head coach Kevin Sumlin said. “It’s been on the schedule. There’s no time for that because we’re on a short week. We’re playing Friday night. We were on the field last night after playing Saturday night. There’s no time for that.”
Sumlin knows exactly how much this game means. This game means so much to him that he brought in former Arizona legend Chuck Cecil to talk with the team to begin the week and explain the importance of this historic rivalry.
“It fired me up,” linebacker Rourke Freeburg said. “[Cecil] is a truly passionate guy. I honestly like to think of myself kind of as him — as a newly reformed Chuck Cecil, if that makes sense. He’s a walk-on back in the day who made a legacy for himself here, so I’ve always kind of looked up to him and gone to him for advice. I talk to him every other day here and there just about football and especially this week. I told him, ‘Chuck, this is our game,’ because he gets fired up every year for this. You can definitely hear in his voice the passion he has, and I know he’s looking forward to getting out there Friday night. Even though he’s not playing, I know he’s highly anticipating this game as well.”
Sumlin said he plans on having more alumni speak to the team this week just to further emphasize the significance of this game.
For some players, the rivalry is understood once you arrive on campus for their first season. But for others, the tradition has been ingrained into their lives long before their football careers. Blackwell is from Peoria, Arizona and grew up admiring UA football as a kid. For Blackwell and many others, this game means everything.
“Growing up, this was always the he said, she said in town,” Blackwell said. “We’re excited beyond belief, just so thankful that we made it this far and thankful Arizona State got healthy enough to meet us this late in the season. So just grateful for the opportunity to play each other and bring Arizona football back together.”
But not every Arizona player grew up on the same side of the rivalry. Rourke Freeburg was an ASU fan before deciding to continue his football career in Tucson.
“That’s my hometown,” Freeburg said. “Believe it or not, I actually grew up in a Sun Devil household. My mom went there, and then coming out of high school, I decided to come here. I thought this was a better fit for me academically and athletically.”
“This game means a lot,” Freeburg said. “I look forward to this game every year and especially now that I have a critical role on defense and I can make some plays to help have an impact on this game. I’m really looking forward to it. This is a game that I circle every year just because it means the most to me. Not to discredit any other game, but it’s the Arizona State, Arizona game. It’s for the Territorial Cup, so I can’t wait to get on the field Friday night.”
Friday’s game will mark the 94th Territorial Cup between these two teams. Rivalry games are common events, but that doesn’t downplay the significance of this game.
Fans from both sides still remember “The Catch'' made by ASU’s John Jefferson in 1975. Fans still remember Chuck Cecil’s 106-yard pick-six to seal the game in 1986. Fans still remember the 2-9 Wildcats not attempting a single pass in the second half and still winning the game 56-35 in 2016.
These teams won’t be playing in a bowl game this year, but no matter the record, no matter the circumstances, this game will always be the most important competition on the schedule.
“Wherever you go, there’s always going to be that game,” Sumlin said. “When you’re in it, that’s when you have the appreciation for it. You can look at it from afar and say, “Man, this is intense,” but not until you’re in it do you really get it. As a player, every game is important. For our fans, every game is important, but rivalry games just mean more. I’ve been a part of a bunch of them. Whether it’s the Red River Shootout, Old Oaken Bucket, Paul Bunyan’s Axe, you name it. Little Brown Jug, I’ve seen a bunch of them. But until you’re in it, you don’t understand the significance of what that means to a lot of different people besides the guys that are on the field.”
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