Arizona State Sun Devils vs. Arizona Wildcats: Prediction for the 90th Territorial Cup game

Posted at 2:18 PM, Nov 23, 2016
and last updated 2016-11-25 20:28:37-05

The 90th Territorial Cup game between the Arizona Wildcats and Arizona State Sun Devils was supposed to mean more than this.

Just two years removed from a matchup that determined the winner of the Pac-12 South, both ASU and UA are riding lengthy losing streaks heading into Friday's meeting in Tucson. In terms of combined victories, this is the worst Territorial Cup matchup since 2003 and the second-worst since ASU became a university in 1959.

But that doesn't mean the Cup itself isn't as coveted as it has always been. 

See also: The 5 most controversial moments in Territorial Cup history

ASU, which upended Arizona 52-37 last year in Tempe, will look to retain the trophy against an Arizona squad desperate to end a dreadful season on a high note. The Sun Devils are 3-1 vs. the Wildcats since Todd Graham and Rich Rodriguez became the head coach at ASU and UA, respectively.

Here are three questions and a prediction for the 90th Territorial Cup game, which will begin Friday at 7:30 p.m. and will air nationally on ESPN.

1. Which team is less demoralized?

It’s a depressing but highly relevant question. ASU had dreams of a Rose Bowl bid after opening the season 5-1, but the Devils have since lost five in a row and need a win Friday simply to become bowl-eligible. Arizona has lost eight in a row and, for the first time in the Rich Rodriguez era, is playing for nothing more than pride.

ASU coach Todd Graham always makes an enormous deal out of the Territorial Cup. He hasn’t minced words by calling it the most important game of the season. Down in Tucson, RichRod knows a home win over the Sun Devils would be a dream ending to a nightmarish season that began with the death of offensive lineman Zach Hemmila in early August.

But the question is: Which team’s players still have their heads in the game? Have the Wildcats mentally checked out, or will they use this shot at redemption as a rallying cry? Have the Devils stopped buying in since their season took a disappointing turn, or will Graham have them as fired up as ever to beat "the team down south?"

These kinds of intangibles always seem to matter a little more in rivalry games, and the answer to this question will tell much of the story Friday night.

2. Will Arizona make Wilkins look Heisman-worthy?

After Arizona gave up five passing touchdowns to Oregon State quarterback Marcus McMaryion – more TDs than he had thrown all season – RichRod said his Wildcats have a habit of making every QB they play look like Heisman Trophy contenders.

ASU fans hope that trend will continue Friday when redshirt sophomore Manny Wilkins takes the field in his first Territorial Cup battle. Wilkins has struggled for the better part of the last month thanks in part to injuries, but there’s no denying the raw talent of the dual-threat QB.

The Wildcats have allowed 31 passing touchdowns on the season (only ASU has allowed more; see below for more on that) and haven’t proven capable of containing speedy, elusive quarterbacks. Wilkins’ QBR has been dreadful in three of his last four games, but Arizona's secondary could be just what the doctor ordered.

3. Can the Cats get the run game going?

Arizona beat ASU in Tucson two years ago thanks to 178 rushing yards and three touchdowns from freshman Nick Wilson. Last year, the Devils got some payback largely because they limited Wilson and senior running back Jared Baker to nine yards on as many carries.

This is once again an area of concern for Arizona heading into Friday. For starters, the Wildcats will be without Wilson, as well as their No. 2 and 3 running backs on the depth chart heading into the season. The Wildcats have been forced to convert senior wide receiver Samajie Grant to the tailback position – and while Grant has been serviceable in that role, it’s quite a drop-off from where UA wants to be.

And while ASU is among the NCAA’s worst teams in most defensive categories, it is the Pac-12’s second-best team in rushing yards allowed per game (131.5). Arizona will certainly get some rushing yards from quarterback Brandon Dawkins (more on him below), but will Grant and junior running back Zach Green help take pressure off Dawkins and keep the Devils from making Arizona’s offense one-dimensional?


UA junior quarterback Anu Solomon hasn’t been healthy for the better part of two seasons, and there’s a good chance he’ll miss Friday’s game, as well. That means the Sun Devils would avoid, Solomon, who beat ASU in his freshman season, for the second straight year – a likely break for the Devils, as ASU is among the NCAA’s worst teams against the pass, and Solomon is capable of throwing the deep ball.

That means Dawkins, who was the losing quarterback in last year's Territorial Cup game, to deliver for the Wildcats. The junior is one of the best rushing QBs in the country, but he often decides to keep the ball when he has receivers open – and when he does decide to throw, bad things tend to happen. ASU’s secondary is awful, but that won’t matter if Arizona doesn’t have a QB who’s capable of taking advantage of it.

Look, no one who’s lived in Arizona for at least a few years should be surprised if Arizona wins Friday. Rivalry games are unpredictable, and the annual battle for the Territorial Cup is less predictable than most. ASU hasn’t won a single conference road game this season, and there’s no doubt the Wildcats are desperate for redemption after what can be adequately described as a season from hell.

Nonetheless, talent still matters, and ASU simply has more playmakers than the Wildcats do. The two-headed RB duo of Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage, along with freshman wide receiver N’Keal Harry, are a handful. Junior linebackers D.J. Calhoun and Koron Crump are among the Pac-12’s leaders in tackles for loss. And of course, if Friday comes down to a last-second field-goal attempt, the Devils have Zane Gonzalez, the best kicker in college football.

If Solomon were to play Friday, this could be a different story. But as it is, expect the Territorial Cup to remain in Tempe for at least one more season as Graham improves to 4-1 against RichRod.

Arizona State 37, Arizona 31