The Arizona State-Arizona rivalry might be the most "heated" rivalry that no one talks about. This season, "The Big Game" does not carry the same cache as it has in the past, since one of the team's fate has already been determined. But there is no doubt, that both the Sun Devils and Wildcats will bring passion, hatred, and desire to this annual rivalry once again.
Dennis Erickson and his Sun Devils have not had the best of seasons to date, but a huge victory over the hated Arizona Wildcats would do wonders for the Arizona State football program moving forward. Saturday will mark the last time that the seniors at ASU will suit up for the maroon and gold, and what better stage for them to play their last game as college students, than Sun Devil Stadium against Arizona.
The 22 seniors that will be departing following Saturday's game are the last strand of players that were recruited by former ASU head coach Dirk Koetter. Although many Sun Devil fans consider the Koetter era to be mediocre at best, these seniors did have a helping hand in one of the school's three Pac-10 championships in 2007. However, most of their career in the desert was somewhat pedestrian.
These seniors have gone through winless droughts against USC, Oregon, and virtually every game played in the state of California. Although, these losses have been under the guidance of both Koetter and Erickson. But as we all know, the records and numbers heading into this bloodbath of a rivalry, can be thrown out once the whistle is blown.
So what strategies and gameplan has Erickson put on the table for this years Duel in the Desert?
This week at quarterback, the drama, or lack there of, has already been determined. Samson Szakacsy will earn his second career start in as many weeks. Erickson must feel that the elusive Szakacsy gives the Sun Devils the best chance to pull off the surprise victory against Arizona. In his featured role the past two weeks, Szakacsy has totaled 310 yards and three touchdowns through the air and one on the ground.
Erickson did, however, overlook the heartfelt choice of naming senior Danny Sullivan the starter, but even when the season is all but over, wins are still No. 1 in Tempe.
With Szakacsy receiving the nod at quarterback, the running game will undoubtedly receive a boost, as well as an added dimension in the spread offense attack. Senior running back Dimitri Nance will carry the load for the Sun Devils on the ground, for the final time in his career.
Although Nance is coming off of one of his best games of his career (21 carries for 110 yards), the Sun Devil fans will be looking for more of the same if ASU wants a real shot at beating the Wildcats.
However, the running game is what sets the table for the ASU passing attack, without balance on the ground and through the air, the Sun Devils will find themselves in a whole quickly. Szakacsy will have to find a steady balance between his two top receivers, Chris McGaha and Kyle Williams.
Both McGaha and Williams are seniors playing in their final game of their careers, and both will look to light up the scoreboard and stat sheets in front of the maroon and gold fans tomorrow.
ASU's duo have combined for 10 touchdowns and over 1,300 yards between them, and Williams has been Szakacsy's go-to-receiver in limited action. Szakacsy and Williams have connected for three touchdowns in the past two games to ignite the ASU offense. But look for McGaha to be featured this week, if the Arizona defense focuses in on Williams.
On defense, ASU has not had the same success against spread offenses such as Oregon and Saturday's opponent Arizona, as they have against more pro-style offenses. The key ingredient for success will be for the secondary and linebackers to swarm to the football when Arizona runs their quick screen passes to their wide receivers.
This might seem fundamental and slightly elementary, but ASU must tackle well or else the Wildcats could turn ASU's Senior Day into a disappointing sob story.
Sure tackling and swarming to the football might seem simple, but the Wildcats have made even the best of defenses look foolish. Arizona has averaged 430 total yards of offense this season while scoring nearly 32 points a game.
For ASU to be successful in this game, and notch their fifth victory of the season, the Sun Devils must limit the Wildcats to less than 28 points. Dennis Erickson's offense has not scored more than 28 points since the Louisiana Monroe game in early September. That just shows how woeful the Sun Devils have been on offense this season.
Then again, a helping hand from the defense could be the catalyst for Arizona State that everyone has been looking for. The deciding factor for any team is always turnovers. ASU has forced 15 interceptions and nine fumbles this season. If the Sun Devils want to have a leg up in this game, the turnover margin has to be swinging in their favor, positively, not negatively.
Last week against UCLA, Arizona State lost the turnover battle by six. UCLA did not turn the football over, which means ASU had six forced, or unforced errors last Saturday. Clearly, that statistical category has to be either even or in the favor of the Sun Devils for a Duel in the Desert victory.
ASU Player to Watch
This week, since it is the "Duel in the Desert" the Sun Devils will need two big time performers to step up for Arizona State to have a chance.
Senior wide receivers Chris McGaha and Kyle Williams.
Both McGaha and Williams will have to be big time performers for Arizona State tomorrow night if the Sun Devils have any shot at a victory.
In terms of Kyle Wiliams, his contributions will be two fold. Williams has the ability to change the game as a receiver and big play threat, but also in the kick returning game too. Last week against UCLA, Williams hauled in six catches for 128 yards and two touchdowns.
But the biggest attribute for Williams is his big play mentality, and that could prove to be vital this Saturday against the Wildcats. A big return to set up field position or a touchdown can swing the pendulum in Arizona State's favor.
For Chris McGaha, last week against UCLA, the senior was quiet only catching two passes for nine yards in his lowest output of the season. But in McGaha's final outing at Sun Devil Stadium, one would have to believe that the Phoenix native is going to leave everything he has got out on the field.
Now a 15 catch 165 yard performance like the Oregon State game would be ideal, however, even a modest six catch 80 yard and one touchdown performance would lend a helping hand for Samson Szakacsy and the Sun Devil offense.
Arizona Player to Watch
QB Nick Foles
The University of Arizona quarterback has thrown for over 2,000 yards and 17 touchdowns this season, but as Sun Devil fans might remember, Foles was nearly an ASU quarterback.
Before Dennis Erickson was hired, Foles committed to ASU while former coach Dirk Koetter was running the show. Enter coach Erickson, who wanted to recruit a quarterback to run his spread offense, and Szakacsy, a former USC commit opened up his recruiting and chose the Sun Devils. With that decision, Foles then de-committed and went on to sign with the Michigan State Spartans.
From that point, all the rest is history, and for Arizona Wildcats fans Foles has not disappointed. However, Foles will be in a showdown against the ASU quarterback to prove to ASU, that Mike Stoops recruited the better quarterback out of the two.
Will Szakacsy steal the show from Foles on Saturday?
The Arizona Wildcats have not won in Tempe since 2001, and I do not see that trend changing either. Dennis Erickson and his ASU football team know how meaningful this game is, not for their season, but for the progress moving forward into the offseason and into the 2010 season.
That is not to say that UofA head coach Mike Stoops doesn't know how important this game is, I just think that Arizona had their Rose Bowl dreams ripped to shreds by Oregon last week, and the Wildcats might have a bit of a "hangover" following that overtime loss.
Arizona State's offense has shown strides in recent weeks under Szakacsy, and it is time for the Sun Devil offense to explode. A 30-point performance is in the future, hopefully the fans at Sun Devil Stadium don't have to wait until next season to see it.
I think that the ASU players are going to give everything that they have in them, to send their senior teammates out with a huge victory. Emotion is a huge part of the game, and emotions will be high for this contest.
ASU 34 UofA 30
3:30 PM ET Kickoff ABC
Sun Devil Stadium