5 questions: Arizona vs. Arizona State

Does Arizona have an answer for Jaelen Strong? Can ASU's feast-or-famine defense keep Nick Wilson in check. Let's see what Joel Klatt, Tyler Lockman and Steve Rivera have to say.

Arizona and Arizona State meet on Friday in Tucson for the 88th installment of the Territorial Cup, and this one means a lot. The teams face off ranked in the top 25 for the first time since 1986 and just the second time ever with at least nine wins each.

To examine the big game more closely, FOXSportsArizona.com’s Tyler Lockman and Steve Rivera answered five key questions. FOX Sports analyst Joel Klatt, who will call Friday’s game alongside Tim Brando, weighed in as well to offer a national perspective.

1. Both theses teams have exceeded expectations for this season. What was the turning point that got ASU/UA here?

Lockman: There was sort of a two-pronged turning point. The biggest thing was the Hail Mary win at USC. That breathed new life into a team that was knocking on death’s door as far as the Pac-12 South race was concerned. No question it helped the Sun Devils get to this point. Then right after that ASU revamped the defense, shifting to a 4-3 scheme with more attacking. That has paid major dividends — starting with the Stanford win — even if the defense has still had a few lapses since.

Rivera: It can easily be pointed to the successful Hail Mary pass Austin Hill caught in the final-second, 49-45 win over California in Arizona Stadium. That was the culmination of a whirlwind of a fourth quarter when UA scored an improbable 36 points. After a convenient schedule to begin the season, UA went into the game 3-0 and thinking big. It left even bigger, getting confidence from a play that helped it beat Oregon a game later.  

Klatt: For Arizona I would say the Hail Mary at Cal, and for Arizona State I would say the Hail Mary at USC. It’s pretty rare that even one team in the country has a Hail Mary completed, especially to win a game. I felt like those two games in particular for each program were huge in their belief that not only could they play at the higher levels of the conference, but also that they could continue winning. If those two individual passes fall the opposite way, I think you could be looking at one, two, maybe even three more losses for each team.

2. Who needs to step up as a difference maker for ASU? And for UA?

Rivera: Redshirt sophomore wide receiver Cayleb Jones. Arizona has so many to choose from, but you know you’ll get a good game from Scooby Wright III and likely Nick Wilson, but Jones isn’t the same player he was compared to the beginning of the season. He’s Arizona’s biggest threat through the air, but because of a slight hand injury and teams singling him out, it’s been tough for Jones, who has caught just 10 passes in the last three games.

Lockman: No doubt it’s quarterback Taylor Kelly. He has been inconsistent but mostly struggled since coming back from a six-week injury absence, and it has hampered ASU’s offense a good deal. Kelly’s not running at 100 percent and has admitted his feet can be slow and his timing isn’t always there. He finished the Washington State game nicely after a rough first half, but ASU will need four quarters of good football out of him this week.

Klatt: I think Scooby Wright has to be a difference maker for Arizona because when you look at what Arizona State does, so much of it when Taylor Kelly is in the game has to do with the run game and D.J. Foster. Jaelen Strong is the type of guy that is so far above the Xs and Os as far as his physical ability you kind of have to understand he’s going to get his catches, but if you can limit what Kelly and Foster do in the run game, you’re playing much more successful defense. For Arizona State, I really think Strong is the guy Arizona doesn’t have an answer for. If Strong is able to go out and not just put up a productive day but a monster day, it would really increase ASU’s chances.

3. What player could be the most troublesome to handle for the team you cover?

Lockman: Probably running back Nick Wilson. In the games the Sun Devils have gone up against highly capable running backs this seasons, they’ve been gashed. Wilson fits that bill. ASU’s rushing defense ranks ninth in the Pac-12 with 159.6 yards allowed per game. If Wilson gets going, it could be trouble for ASU, especially if UA is able to find ways to burn ASU for big yardage when it’s sending pressure on the quarterback. If Wilson can run for 218 yards on Utah’s defensive front, he could torch ASU’s.

Rivera: Jaelen Strong is ASU’s go-to guy on a number of fronts, particularly when it needs a first down. UA’s defensive backs will be busy, particularly Jonathan McKnight. Strong leads the team with 71 catches and can get them anywhere on the field. There are plenty of other problems for UA, but if it can stop Strong, it has a chance.

Klatt: I think for Arizona State they’re going to have some serious trouble handling Cayleb Jones and Nick Wilson. Their defense is a real feast-or-famine defense. They give up a lot of big plays, but they’ve also been great attacking people and getting them behind the line of scrimmage. I’ve been so impressed on film and the stat sheet by the fact Nick Wilson doesn’t lose yardage. When you’ve got a team that’s predicated on attacking and getting behind the line of scrimmage and a running back that’s adept at making people miss behind the line of scrimmage, I think there’s some big plays there for Nick Wilson. And I just don’t think ASU has anyone that can handle Cayleb Jones. I think Strong will give Arizona a lot of problems, as well as Jordan Simone. He’s a guy I love because I was a former walk-on. I love his story, and the fact he is all over the place, I think Arizona is going to have trouble with him.

4. This game could end up deciding the Pac-12 South. How do such high stakes change this rivalry game?

Rivera: It doesn’t with the players in that it’s just another game where it all matters. They are used to it. It’s been that way all season, but for the fans … yikes! It’s going to be bonkers crazy at Arizona Stadium on Friday afternoon. Obnoxious on each side, but isn’t it always?

Lockman: The obvious answer is they make it even more intense on both sides. But I think those high stakes actually transcend the rivalry. Players and coaches will always say beating their rival is of unparalleled importance, but I’m willing to bet both these teams would trade a win over the other for a Pac-12 South title. The fact they have to beat one another to even have a shot at it makes this game more about the prize than the opponent. Bragging rights are nice, championships are better.

Klatt: I don’t think it changes the rivalry game as much as it changes the pressure within the game. You always want to win this particular game. Each coach has said numerous times this week it’s the single most important game on their schedule. The fact that it is so meaningful I think just increases the pressure because it means that the things that happen in this game and the players that stand out on either side are going to be remembered for a really long time. These are the games people go back to. This is why everyone remembers the ’86 game or the ’75 game. When the pressure goes up, it means people are always going to remember this edition.

5. Given the last two meetings, do you get the sense in Tucson/Tempe that ASU has gained a clear upper hand in this rivalry, or is it more a small sample size?

Lockman: It might not be a clear upper hand, but I do get the sense ASU has the advantage right now, and not just because it’s 2-0 against the Wildcats under Todd Graham. There’s a mental benefit to that kind of early success, and it’s clear the Sun Devils take a lot of confidence from it. Graham also builds up this game’s importance different than every other game in a way Rich Rodriguez doesn’t. It may be posturing, but it seems an effective motivational tool so far. Of course, one game can totally shift the momentum.

Rivera: It’s clear that Rich Rodriguez and Arizona have to figure out a way to get it done. Apples to apples, ASU probably has the better talent overall. But UA has been scrappier all season. ASU has been, too, but Arizona wasn’t expected to be this good. ASU has won six of nine vs. UA, so this isn’t just a recent problem for Arizona. Strangely, though UA is a four-point favorite. I never would have imagined that.

Klatt: I think it’s too small of a sample size, and I don’t know if there really was an upper hand to be gained. This rivalry has gone a bit back and forth, at least from the national perspective. This is one of those really evenly matched rivalries from the outside looking in, but I do know this: It will start weighing over Rich Rodriguez even with the success he’s having if he’s not able to beat Arizona State and specifically Todd Graham, whom he doesn’t like — and Todd doesn’t like Rich. That’s a strained relationship, which makes it all the better of a matchup. You can’t continue to lose this game.