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The phone signal at Arizona Stadium should be absolutely terrible this weekend. While the 88th installment of the Duel in the Desert will be happening right before everyone’s eyes, you can also be certain that every last one of the 56,029 fans inside the stadium will be fixated with what’s going on in Pasadena at the same time, with countless cell phones refreshing the Stanford-UCLA score throughout the afternoon.
The Bruins and the Cardinal will meet in a game that will heavily favor UCLA, but Stanford (6-5) isn’t just going to keel over for the Bruins. If the Cardinal can pull off the upset, that means whatever happens between Arizona and Arizona State will decide the Pac-12 South Champion.
The Wildcats haven’t fared well against the Sun Devils in the Rich Rodriguez era, losing both match-ups to their long-hated in-state rival.
UA hopes for a different result this season and it may depend on how successful the ground attack is with Nick Wilson running the ball. Wilson became the first Arizona freshman in program history to run for 1,000 yards in a season and the Wildcats improved to 6-0 when he runs for over 100 yards.
You can be sure Todd Graham and the Arizona State defense is well aware of Arizona’s success when Wilson is able to wreak havoc on the opposition, so look for the Sun Devils to focus on the Wildcats’ rushing attack and force Arizona’s quarterback, whether it be Anu Solomon, Jesse Scroggins or Jerrard Randall, to beat them with their arm.
Luckily for whomever is under center, they should be able to find success through the air. ASU’s pass rush is formidable — producing 35 sacks on the season — but the unit ranks in the middle of the pack in the conference in passing defense, surrendering 266.6 yards per contest through the air.
The reason the quarterback should find success is simple: Arizona should be able to run the ball against an Arizona State defense that ranks 9th in the conference in rush defense, giving up 159.6 yards per game on the ground. If the Sun Devils feel the need to add an extra man or two in the box, it will take just a little bit of attention from the talented and deep UA wide receiver corps.
Whether Solomon can go or not, the game plan should call for plenty of running and, when it comes to throwing the ball, finding your biggest play-makers in space and allowing them to go to work.
ASU’s defense could ultimately determine the outcome of this contest. If the unit can overcome its struggles against the ground game and stop Wilson without sacrificing the pass defense, it will make life very tough for the Wildcats offensive unit as a whole.
If the Sun Devils can’t stop the run, however, it will allow Wilson to put a charge into the offensive attack and open up the field for the passing attack.
While ASU has suffered its fair share of shortcomings on defense, Arizona’s unit hasn’t been anything to write home about this season. It has held the opposition to less than 400 yards of total offense just four times in 11 contests and has given up over 500 yards on three occasions. If you want to find a silver lining for Arizona, it’s that two of those sub 400-yard defensive performances came over its past three games.
The Sun Devils have been merely average on offense this season in comparison to the rest of the conference, but they have dynamic play-makers in wide receiver Jaelen Strong and running back D.J. Foster. Both have big-play ability, so it will be imperative for UA to limit their capability to break a big gain.
The good news for the Wildcats here is that their defense has relinquished just 12 passing plays for 30 yards or more. If that number seems high, it’s not. It places them 33rd nationally and tied for third in the Pac-12.
The bad news is that Arizona has allowed nine rushes of 30+ yards, which places them tied for ninth in the Pac-12 and tied for 90th in the nation.
Conventional wisdom would determine that the Sun Devils will give the Wildcats’ defense a heavy dose of Foster and use that to open up the passing attack for Taylor Kelly, who has absolutely owned Arizona’s defense two consecutive years.
It’s apparent that the Wildcats’ defense will have its hands full on Friday. They will have to solve Kelly, which is — again — something they have failed to do for two straight years, while making sure they contain Foster on the ground and prevent Strong from making big-yardage plays through the air.
This game involves two teams who are seemingly matched evenly. Arizona’s offense is decidedly more talented than ASU’s, but Kelly’s experience and track record versus Arizona could be the x-factor that separates the units. If Wilson is running all over the ASU defense, however, that could neutralize Kelly’s performance.
Arizona is one of eight FBS teams with 3,000 pass yds/2,000 rush yds. The eight teams have combined 76-10 record this season.
This game will come down to each team’s respective defense. If Scooby Wright and company can continue to build off of a couple of strong recent performances, they could limit the Sun Devils’ offense and put the Cats offense in better position to score points.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, if ASU can stop Wilson and put the game in the hands of whomever is under center for UA, it will severely hinder Arizona’s chances to win the game.
Either way, both teams are 9-2 heading in to the most meaningful Duel in the Desert affair in eons. The winner may not run away with just the Territorial Cup, but perhaps the Pac-12 South title as well.
Jason Nimrichter is a Tucson sports journalist who aspires to be a sports talk show host. He is a follower of the Arizona Wildcats, Sacramento Kings, Ohio State and all Cleveland pro sports teams. Plus, he claims he’s a music nut. He has covered Arizona previously with WildcatAuthority.com and GOAZCATS.com.