The Duel in the Desert, the annual battle between Arizona (7-4, 4-4 Pac-12) and Arizona State (9-2, 7-1) for the Territorial Cup, has some added importance when the teams meet Saturday night in Tempe.
ASU, having already clinched the Pac-12's South Division, can host next week's conference championship game against Stanford with another victory. As if Arizona needed additional motivation to beat the team its lost to at home the last two times the game was in Tucson.
Both teams are headed to a bowl game, as was the case last season, but where each ends up will be heavily influenced by the outcome of the 87th meeting between the Grand Canyon State's two biggest schools.
When: Saturday, Nov. 30, 9:30 p.m. ET
Where: Sun Devil Stadium, Tempe, Ariz.
TV: Pac-12 Network
Radio: Arizona IMG Radio Network; MidFirst Bank Sun Devil-IMG Radio Network
Line: Arizona State is favored by 12 points, according to VegasInsider.com.
Control the emotions
The days leading up to the Arizona-Arizona State game bring out the worst in the teams' fan bases, as could be seen by photos the Arizona Daily Star had of spray paint vandalism on a statue of wildcats on the Arizona campus. The act was reportedly in retaliation for Arizona fans painting the "A" on ASU's mountain red, a common prank the schools do to each other.
Arizona has to make sure that emotion stays out of the game itself, at least in terms of how it plays. Passion is good, but getting too caught up in the moment can lead to mistakes, bad play and, ultimately, losses.
Hold onto the ball
Arizona State leads the Pac-12 in turnover margin, at plus-10, with those 26 takeaways leading to 108 points for the Sun Devils. A turnover can swing momentum instantly, as Arizona saw in last season's game when ASU's Robert Nelson intercepted a pass as the Wildcats were driving for a potential game-winning score.
Nelson returned the pick to the Arizona 1-yard-line, setting up a touchdown that gave the Sun Devils a 41-27 lead late.
Arizona's two most recent losses were affected by turnovers, including when Ka'Deem Carey fumbled just short of the goal line against UCLA. Without losing the ball, those both could have been wins for the Wildcats.
Ignore the significance
Arizona State will be playing in the Pac-12 Championship game next week, with a chance to make its third Rose Bowl. The Sun Devils can host the league title game if they beat Arizona.
The way Rodriguez sees it, winning the game just to ruin the opponent's season isn't nearly as important as what it can do for your own team.
Contain the weapons
Oregon was unable to limit the impact Arizona running back Ka'Deem Carey and quarterback B.J. Denker had in the game, and as a result the Ducks were blown out 42-16 by the Wildcats last Saturday.
Expect the Sun Devils to take the same approach, but hopefully with better results.
ASU is in the upper half of the league rankings in most defensive categories, other than scoring defense. Being able to slow down Carey (who ran for 206 yards and four touchdowns against Oregon) and Denker (who was 19-of-22 passing and rushing for more than 102 yards) is essential for a victory.
Arizona State has outscored its opponents 107-43 in the first-quarter this season, notching at least a field goal in nine of its 11 games.
The two in which the Sun Devils didn't score during the opening 15 minutes? At Stanford and against Notre Dame in Texas, both of which were losses.
The advantage has been especially healthy in ASU's six-game win streak, with that first-quarter edge up to 83-23.
Remember what's at stake
ASU knows its facing Stanford next Saturday for the Pac-12 title and a trip to the Rose Bowl. But beating Arizona will let the Sun Devils host that game, rather than play in Palo Alto, where they already lost 42-28.
The importance of being able to stay in Tempe for the title game isn't lost on ASU coach Todd Graham, the Arizona Republic's Doug Haller writes:
Clinching the South division against UCLA on Saturday was great, a significant achievement for an under-achieving program. But there’s work to be done, starting with Saturday’s Territorial Cup showdown at Sun Devil Stadium against rival Arizona.
“This week here is so vital, obviously, because it’s our rival game,” Graham said. “It’s the game every year. But there’s an added significance.”
The junior tailback set Arizona's career rushing mark, along with the record for total touchdowns, in last week's 42-16 win over Oregon. But he also carried the ball on 48 of the Wildcats' 87 offensive plays, showing he's not just a productive runner but one that is the centerpoint of the team's game plan.
Carey rushed for 172 yards on 25 carries with one touchdown in last year's rivalry game. Expect him to run at least that many times on Saturday.
Denker had the best game of his career against Oregon, completing 19-of-22 passes for 178 yards and two touchdowns, along with 102 rushing yards. Denker has improved vastly from the beginning of the season, when he was hitting on roughly 50 percent of his throws and failing to take any chances down field.
Matched up against Arizona State quarterback Taylor Kelly, Denker will be asked to pilot his team as effectively as Kelly has all season for the Sun Devils.
Richardson is routinely lined up against an opponent's top receiver, which for this game will mean having to deal with Jaelen Strong.
While ASU's passing game involves throwing to its running backs as much as the players lined up out wide, Strong is by far the go-to weapon for deep throws. Richardson has three interceptions this season, but he's also been burned quite a bit. He'll need to play his best game to contain Strong.
As mentioned above, ASU maximizes the use of its running backs by throwing to them frequently. That puts a lot of pressure on Arizona's three linebackers, especially Wright, to keep the middle of the field covered on passing downs.
Wright has done well in this role all season as a true freshman, logging 76 tackles.
Grice is not the prototypical running back who is used mostly as a straight-ahead runner, or one that looks to use his speed to get the edge. He does both of those things, but also is arguably the top pass-catching receiver in college football.
Grice has 20 total touchdowns this season, including six via the pass. He only carries the ball about 17 times per game, but makes up for that with 50 receptions.
With Grice and other running backs frequently used in the passing game, Arizona State doesn't tend to line up in five-wide receiver sets. It doesn't need to, because Strong finds a way to get open regardless of the alignment.
Despite being limited in a few games because of injury, Strong still has 65 catches for 925 yards.
The senior defensive back is a ball hawk on ASU's back line, hauling in six interceptions so far this season, and in the Sun Devils' last home game he was a one-man wrecking crew.
Nelson picked off two Oregon State passes, returning one for a touchdown, while also recovering a fumble and blocking a field goal.
Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez called Kelly "one of the most intelligent quarterbacks in the nation" during his weekly press conference, and that's not an outlandish statement.
The junior has already surpassed last season's passing total, with two fewer games played, with 25 touchdowns. And Kelly has added more mobility to his repertoire this season, scoring eight times on the ground.
Arizona holds a 47-38-1 edge in the all-time series with Arizona State, with the winner getting to lay claim to a replica of the Territorial Cup shown above.
Amazingly, though, this marks the first time since 1986 that both teams enter the game with at least seven victories, according to research done by TucsonCitizen.com writer Anthony Gimino. Both teams have had winning records only 11 times throughout the series.
In fact, in sign of how the programs have languished and/or have alternated good seasons, this is only the third time since 1993 that each team enters with a winning record. One of those occurrences happened last season.
While a lot of attention is being given to the offensive stars from Arizona and ASU, as well as some defensive standouts, the games' outcomes have often hinged on key special teams plays, writes FoxSportsArizona.com's Tyler Lockman:
Special teams blunders and heroics are written all over the history of this series, with some of the most memorable meetings defined by a single special teams play or a few combined.
Some of the more recent instances of this include the 2010 double-overtime win by ASU, which saw James Brooks block an extra point late in regulation, then bat away another PAT by Arizona's Alex Zendejas to clinch the win in the second OT.
In 2010, ASU's James Brooks forced overtime with a block of what would have been Alex Zendejas' game-winning extra in Tucson. Brooks came up big again in the second overtime, blocking another point-after try, this one to give ASU an improbable 30-29 win.
The year before that, Arizona won on a game-winning field goal after ASU's Kyle Williams muffed a punt with two minutes left.
Both teams appear mostly healthy heading into the game, though ASU tailback Marion Grice might be injured. The reason that's a might is because ASU coach Todd Graham has been mum on why Grice was seen leaving the Sun Devils' win at UCLA last week on crutches.
No update on Marion Grice. Didnt see him come out of practice but that doesn't mean he wasn't there.— Doug Haller (@DougHaller) November 26, 2013
This series' history is one where the team with the better record often does not win—nor does the home team, as the last four games have been claimed by the visitor.
But it's been a while since both teams were this good coming into the game, so one of the more hotly contested battles should be expected this time around. Arizona State can host the Pac-12 championship with a win, while Arizona has a chance to move higher up the league's bowl list with a victory.
Throw in all the hate and vitriol between the teams and their respective fan bases, and this should be a barn-burner.
ASU has been nearly unstoppable at home, winning by an average of 27 points per game. But going with the recent trend of road victors, look for the Wildcats to pull the minor upset.
Prediction: Arizona 37, Arizona State 35