After a strange year in which the Arizona-Arizona State game wasn’t played on the traditional day, the Duel in the Desert will return to the day after Thanksgiving.
The Sun Devils (6-5, 4-4 In Pac-12) will make the trip to Tucson for the season finale. Both teams are bowl-eligible and the game will be played for Pac-12 positioning and bragging rights.
However, it may mean more than that to some key personnel on both sides of the field. Arizona State Head Coach Todd Graham was an assistant under Rich Rodriguez back when he was coaching at West Virginia. In addition, when Rodriguez was hired at Arizona after taking a year off to commentate, a number of his faithful assistants left the University of Pittsburgh, where Graham was previously Head Coach.
Both teams are coming into the game off of big victories. Arizona defeated Utah 34-24 to start a modest two game winning streak and the Sun Devils snapped a four-game losing skid with a 46-7 thumping of Washington State. Prior to the WSU game, the Sun Devils faced a tough stretch of four losses that included Oregon, Oregon State, UCLA, and USC.
On offense, ASU will throw a balanced attack at Arizona, led by redshirt sophomore quarterback Taylor Kelly. Coming into the season he wasn’t even sure if he would win the starting job, but Kelly has excelled so far this season, passing for 2,581 yards, a number that ranks fourth in the Pac-12. He may be a threat against an Arizona defense that has struggled to stop opposing passing attacks this season.
On the receiving end of Kelly’s passes are Chris Coyle and Rashad Ross. The two have combined for 1,084 yards and eight touchdowns. Coyle is a threat because he is a big pass-catching tight end. He can often get lost in a shuffle and be wide open down field before the defense knows what happened. Ross, a senior, is a fast play maker who can make defenses miss in the open field.
The Sun Devils also send out a three-headed tailback monster. The trio of Cameron Marshall, D.J. Foster, and Marion Grice has rushed for a total of 1,310 yards and has made fourteen trips to the end zone this season. Marshall is the featured back garnering 118 carries, but the other two complement his attack. Grice has found his own niche in catching the ball out of the backfield throughout the season, as he has caught 38 balls for eight touchdowns and an average of over ten yards per reception.
Going against the Arizona offense, ASU will have to stop the attack of Matt Scott and Ka’Deem Carey. In order to get a good push in the front line, the Sun Devils will have to rely on Will Sutton. Just a redshirt junior, he is a force to be reckoned with on the defensive line. Sutton has eighteen tackles for loss and forced a team-high three fumbles. It will be up to the Wildcats’ offensive line to slow him down and allow the plays to develop.
Patrolling the middle of the field are the linebackers Brandon Magee and Carl Bradford. Magee leads the team in tackles by a handy margin of fourteen. Bradford is the team leader in fumble recoveries with two on the year. Together, they make a formidable wall behind the defensive line.
Alden Darby is the player that should concern the Wildcats in the Sun Devil secondary. He has three interceptions on the year with one coming two weeks ago in the Coliseum against USC in which Darby returned it 70 yards for a touchdown. Scott was inaccurate with plenty of passes in the first game coming back from his concussion and any errant passes could be jumped on by the junior.
Arizona State has a strong offense that could possibly keep pace with the Wildcats. The Sun Devils also have a formidable defense that can make stops when necessary.
In the past, when Arizona and Arizona State have met, classic games have been formed for both sides. This Duel in the Desert looks to be another classic, and the first in the Rodriguez-Graham rivalry era.
Players to watch:
#10 QB, Taylor Kelly – The sophomore has come into his own since emerging as the starting quarterback for the Sun Devils. He has passed for over 2,500 yards this season and could look to stretch Arizona’s secondary.
#6 RB, Cameron Marshall – Marshall is the leading rusher for the Sun Devils and will likely get a majority of the carries in the rivalry game. He won’t get all the carries, but should be the featured back for ASU in this one.
#90 DT, Will Sutton – The most dangerous player on the ASU defense is big Will Sutton. He has dealt with a few injuries so far this season, but should be playing at top level in what could be his final rivalry game of his career.
#8 LB, Brandon Magee – Playing his final season at ASU, Magee has led the team in tackles. He is often all over the field, sometimes seeming to be in two places at once. Magee is also a threat against Arizona’s short passing plays.
#87 TE, Chris Coyle – Arizona has had trouble with receiving tight ends so far this season and he could be a big thorn in the Wildcats’ side if he isn’t given the proper attention.
Keys to the game:
1. Be balanced: Arizona has found the most success this season when it can attack with the run and pass equally. If the Wildcats can keep Arizona State guessing, it will help them come out on top when the clock runs out.
2. Run early: Plenty of eyes will be on Carey and the Arizona rushing records that he is on the verge of breaking. If he can break it early in the game, while establishing a strong running game, it may be beneficial to the team in the second half.
3. Cover non-receivers: ASU’s top three receivers aren’t really receivers. Coyle is a tight end and Grice and Foster are both running backs. The Wildcats need to keep a close eye on all three in order to keep the passing game at bay.
4. Contain Kelly: With the different looks that Arizona State has shown throughout the year, it has an extra weapon with Kelly’s legs. The Sun Devil quarterback has rushed 121 times, the most on the team, for 393 yards. Arizona will want to contain him and make sure he doesn’t have a big day rushing.
5. Want it more: This is a rivalry game where stats and records don’t matter. What matters most is the players’ desire to win the game. The Wildcats need to come out with fire and intensity. They need to want to protect their home field and keep the Territorial Cup in Tucson.