TEMPE, Ariz. — Only in his first season at the helm of Arizona State, coach Todd Graham already has coached some pretty pivotal games. There was ASU’s first win in Berkeley since 1997. Then came the opportunity to shock No. 2 Oregon on national television. Shortly after that was a home showdown with UCLA for prime position in the Pac-12 South.
But as big as any of those games might have been, Graham has known from early in his tenure that the biggest of the season would be Friday’s Territorial Cup showdown with the University of Arizona.
“Going out (after being hired), I did 130-something speaking engagements, and to every single fan, the most important game is the Territorial Cup,” Graham said. “So we know this is the most important game of the year, bar none.”
The Sun Devils have had a digital clock in their weight room all season counting down the days, minutes, hours and seconds until kickoff in Tucson. Graham said he had the clock put up shortly after hearing what the ASU community cared about most.
Fans, alumni and boosters also told Graham they wanted to see fewer penalties, more class and better effort. Graham has delivered on all those fronts but most want to bring the Territorial Cup back to Tempe and strike first in a rivalry renewed by two new head coaches — Rich Rodriguez at UA — with a history.
Walking out of Arizona Stadium late Friday night with a win will require a delicate balance for the Sun Devils (6-5, 4-4 Pac-12). On one hand, the returning players want revenge after losing a heartbreaker at home to the Wildcats (7-4, 4-4) last season.
“When they were here (last year), they came out and stomped on the pitchfork,” senior safety Keelan Johnson said. “That’s one of the things I remember and one the things I will use to my advantage when I play.”
On the other hand, Graham, as always, has stressed emotional control and discipline entering a hostile environment
“What I tell my players is, ‘You are not going to remember what some person said to you hanging over the rail. You’re not going to remember who had the best tweets or who talked the most trash. You are going to remember who won the game,'” Graham said.
At least for now, it appears the message is getting through to players.
“The fans are screaming at you when you take the field,” junior wide receiver Kevin Ozier said. “You have to really focus in on the game at hand and not let that stuff get to you.”
Just how capable ASU actually is of handling the raucous atmosphere expected in Tucson — where UA has called for a “Red Out” from fans — won’t be clear until Friday.
It is perhaps intangibles such as emotions, passion and motivation that make the Territorial Cup seem a toss-up most years. In plenty of instances, the obvious favorite has fallen while the rival with little to play for has captured bragging rights and often the joy of derailing the loser’s season.
With both teams bowl-eligible this year, there’s no “knockout” factor in play, though the winner will obviously improve its bowl fate. There is also much to be gained from a recruiting standpoint.
“Winning is obviously the key component to success and attracting the best and brightest players here in the state and even outside the state,” Graham said.
There is little more to do in preparing for intangibles than emphasizing focus. But when it comes to scheme and personnel, ASU has a pretty good idea what it is up against. UA owns the Pac-12’s second-ranked offense, which is putting up an average of 521.8 yards per game.
Much of that has been thanks to sophomore running back Ka’Deem Carey, a Tucson Canyon del Oro product who has become a star in Rodriguez’s spread offense. Carey leads the nation with 1,585 rushing yards and two weeks ago set a Pac-12 record against Colorado with 366 rushing yards and five touchdowns.
“He’s probably one of the best backs I’ve ever seen that finds the gap that a guy’s not in,” ASU co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Ron West said. “He slices, and he just keeps moving and moving and he does a good job with his feet. He’s strong, he makes great cuts, he’s got great vision. So obviously he’s the guy.
“You look at the games he’s rushed the football with a lot of success in, they have great games. The key to everything is stopping the run and controlling the quarterback.”
Both those tasks will prove no small challenge. Fifth-year UA quarterback Matt Scott suffered a concussion three weeks ago and may still be shy of 100 percent, but he leads the Pac-12 with 300.8 passing yards per game. He has also shown the ability to run, tallying 100 rushing yards in the win vs. USC on Oct. 27, and 74 yards in last week’s victory over Utah.
Graham ought to have a pretty good idea what to expect from the Wildcats offense considering he modeled his own after Rodriguez’s. Graham first witnessed Rodriguez’s up-tempo offense in the 1993 NAIA national championship, which pitted Rodriguez’s Glenville State (out of West Virginia) against East Central, where Graham was defensive coordinator at the Oklahoma school.
Since then, Graham has always run a fast-paced, no-huddle offense. But if there’s any advantage to knowing Rodriguez’s scheme or having worked for him two seasons at West Virginia, Graham is downplaying it.
“Things evolve and people do different things over periods of times, so they are probably as familiar with what we are doing as we are with them,” Graham said.
While Graham, Rodriguez, and the assistant coaches on both sides with intertwined pasts insist Friday’s game is about the players and the universities, the history still makes for added intrigue. But in the end, it won’t matter as much to fans who is on the field or the sidelines as it will who raises the Territorial Cup high in the air once the final whistle has blown.
“I want to win,” Johnson said. “That’s my biggest thing. It doesn’t even have to be a rivalry. I want to win every game. This being my last game against the Wildcats, I want to go out there and bring the Territorial Cup back to Tempe.”