The Star’s Michael Lev presents five storylines of interest as the Arizona Wildcats visit Arizona State for the season-ending Territorial Cup matchup. Kickoff is slated for 2 p.m. at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe. The game will air on Pac-12 Arizona:
QB play, Rachaad White will be critical factors in latest Arizona-ASU matchup
Yogi Roth anticipates “an incredibly competitive ballgame” Saturday in Tempe, and he didn’t say that just because he’s broadcasting the Arizona-Arizona State matchup for Pac-12 Networks.
Having spoken to multiple UA coaches and players earlier in the week, Roth came away with a distinct impression regarding the Wildcats: “It's their season. They're putting everything into it.”
Arizona has only one win. ASU is favored by almost three touchdowns. The Sun Devils won last year’s meeting 70-7.
“Is it too cheesy to say that it's personal? For both teams, there's a lot at stake,” said Roth, the primary game analyst for the Pac-12. “Which is the beauty of this game. I’ve called this game before when there wasn't a championship at stake. That's clearly the case here.”
There are plenty of fascinating subplots, compelling characters and intriguing matchups in this year’s Territorial Cup, no matter the participants’ records. Below is Roth’s breakdown of three of the biggest ones.
On Arizona QB Will Plummer’s improvement: “I've seen a lot. I literally just asked him that question: Take me through the journey of your year. And he admitted, when he was getting going, ‘Look, I was trying to figure things out. I was new to college football, new to how the flow of a game worked, new to an offense that has answers that you have to be able to manage at the line of scrimmage.’ He's really grown in terms of anticipating throws and understanding a scheme.
“That scheme is complex and has details. You can't just play catch. You gotta play quarterback. I think Will’s done a nice job of that. He's gonna be one of those guys who you'll always be trying to beat out. But he'll always just keep fighting his tail off and be there. That's who he is.
“And he's still young. A lot of the criticism, sometimes when you read it you're like, ‘OK, are they talking about a three-year starter?’ ”
On ASU quarterback Jayden Daniels’ numbers flatlining: “So many expectations for him, right? And they were all fair when you looked at the context of this year's quarterback class and ... the context of his career. It made sense that you were saying this guy has got a chance to be one of the best in the country this year. That was the standard for him. And he would have said that. It hasn't gone as he had hoped.
“I still think he's one of the top signal-callers in our league. He's got all the tools to be in a dialogue as one of the better players. The problem is, their passing game hasn't found a flow. There's a lot of reasons for that. None of those big recruits (at receiver) have yet to really elevate like you’d think when they came in a couple years ago. They all have a lot of ability. They just haven't been able to put it together.
“Overall, it's just kind of funky when you look at his season. ... Too many unforced errors.”
On ASU’s running game vs. Arizona’s run defense: “I think it's advantage, Arizona State. Rachaad White is one of ... maybe four running backs in the league where I look at (them and) say, ‘They're going to play in the NFL.’
“I talked to Rachaad last night. He looks to this game as the signature moment for him in his career. ... He can do everything. He's elite.
“You're gonna see another active defensive front that’s playing well for Arizona. They're going to want to try to change looks as much as they can.
“The RPO, zone-read game is going to be the most challenging. You gotta stop Rachaad White if you want to win this ballgame. But Jayden can easily pull and throw right behind your earhole or keep it. So if I'm Arizona, I would be bringing a variety of different pressures, try to force ASU to be behind the sticks.”
DC Don Brown delivered results, memorable quotes during one season at Arizona
It was fun while it lasted.
Don Brown became Arizona’s defensive coordinator in January. He will depart after Saturday’s game to become the head coach at UMass.
Although there’s been slippage lately, it’s fair to say Brown has had a significant impact on the Wildcats’ defense during his brief time in Tucson. Here are some notable accomplishments entering the season finale at Arizona State:
• Arizona has held six of its 11 opponents to fewer than 400 yards this season. Entering this year, the Wildcats had limited six of their previous 31 opponents to less than 400.
• The last time Arizona held the opposition to fewer than 400 yards six times was 2010. The Wildcats finished third in the conference in total defense that year – the last time they ranked higher than eighth. They entered this week ranked sixth (376.2 ypg).
• Arizona is allowing 199.5 passing yards per game, third fewest in the Pac-12 and 25th fewest nationally entering this week. The last time the Wildcats surrendered less than 200 passing yards for a full season was 2008. They’ve held three opponents under 100 yards for the first time since 1996.
We’d be remiss if we didn’t highlight some of Brown’s most memorable quips. We dubbed him the MVP of post-practice interviews during the offseason, and he continued to deliver during his regular Tuesday meetings with the media.
On whether he’d coach from the field or booth: “If I was in the booth, I’d probably be scaling the booth to the ground. I've tried that once; it didn't work so well. I think I made it through a quarter.”
On the defense performing well but the team still losing: “We didn't win the game, so that's the ultimate goal. That's where you gotta get better. Whatever it takes, that's what you gotta do. It’s the life of a defensive coach.”
On the Wildcats beating Cal to end their 20-game losing streak: “This has been all about the players. Seven hundred-plus days – I mean, damn. And we got an effort like that? The game of football introduces a man to himself.”
Backs have run away with Territorial Cup MVP more often than not
Who’s going to win the Bob Moran Award as the Most Valuable Player of the Territorial Cup? Odds are it will be a running back.
Twenty-one players have won the MVP award over the past 20 seasons, including co-winners in 2003. Eleven times, the honoree has been a running back.
That total includes the past four seasons, when an Arizona State running back has claimed the prize:
• 2017: Demario Richard (165 rushing yards, two TDs)
• 2018: Eno Benjamin (113 scrimmage yards, three TDs)
• 2019: Eno Benjamin (182 scrimmage yards, two TDs)
• 2020: Rachaad White (133 rushing yards, two TDs)
Benjamin is the only two-time winner of the Bob Moran Award, named after a sportswriter for the Star and East Valley Tribune who died of stomach cancer in 2008. Five quarterbacks have been named the game’s MVP. Four times wide receivers have earned the honor. Only one defensive player, Sun Devils defensive lineman Michael Marquardt, has won the award (2007).
The last Arizona player to win it was quarterback Brandon Dawkins in 2016. That was also the last time the Wildcats won the game. Dawkins accounted for 264 yards of offense, including 187 on the ground, and three touchdowns in a 56-35 upset.
Wildcats haven’t had Arizonan start at QB in Territorial Cup for 40-plus years
Arizona’s Will Plummer is about to do something that hasn’t been done in a very long time.
Assuming Plummer takes the first snap for the Wildcats on Saturday, he will become the first quarterback from Arizona to start for the UA in the Territorial Cup in more than four decades.
The last to do so was Tucson product Jim Krohn in 1979. Plummer, who was born in Dubuque, Iowa, grew up in Gilbert. He accounted for nearly 8,000 yards of offense and 71 touchdowns at Gilbert High School before enrolling at Arizona in January 2020.
Plummer is one of 20 players from Arizona who appear on the Wildcats’ depth chart (including special teams). That number climbs to 21 if you include freshman receiver Dorian Springer, who’s from St. Paul, Minnesota, but spent his senior year of high school at Phoenix Pinnacle.
Arizona State has 15 in-state players on its depth chart. The Sun Devils have 25 Arizona products on their online roster. California leads all states with 37 current ASU players.
The UA lists 34 players as being from Arizona. California ranks second with 32 players.
From 1980-2020, 18 quarterbacks led the Wildcats in season passing yards. Twelve hailed from California.
Future could belong to Wildcats
As a program, Arizona State is in better shape than Arizona heading into Saturday's rivalry game.
ASU is bowl eligible for the third time since hiring Herm Edwards as head coach, and — with a win — can finish the regular season with eight wins for the second time in three years. A victory over Arizona on Saturday would make it five straight in the rivalry series, the longest stretch since the UA lost nine straight from 1965-73.
A present belongs to ASU. The future? Advantage Arizona — at least for the 2022 recruiting class.
The Wildcats currently have 15 players committed for ’22, which ranks fourth in the Pac-12 and 39th nationally, according to 247Sports.com. The Sun Devils’ five-player class is rated last in the conference and 94th nationally. Should the current rankings hold, ASU would have its worst-rated recruiting class since 2011.
Arizona’s ’22 recruiting class is a potpourri of in-state prospects from notable high schools such as Chandler, Phoenix Brophy College Prep and Chandler Hamilton — schools that the UA has struggled to pluck players from in recent years — along with Southern California standouts in quarterback Noah Fifita, four-star tight end Keyan Burnett and wide receiver AJ Jones.
ASU’s five commits are neither from Arizona nor California, two states defensive coordinator and recruiting coordinator Antonio Pierce has traditionally mined.
The two classes may be emblematic of the two programs.
Arizona has a new, energetic, happy-go-lucky coach in Jedd Fisch, while ASU is under NCAA investigation for violating recruiting rules during the NCAA dead period in the pandemic-influenced 2020 season.