Stakes are raised for this year’s Territorial Cup
TEMPE, Ariz. — More often than not in recent years, the stakes in the Territorial Cup battle between Arizona State and Arizona have been relatively small potatoes.
For some historical perspective, consider that this is the first time since 1986 that both teams enter the game with at least seven wins.
Not that there’s anything wrong with a year’s worth of bragging rights. That’s always plenty sufficient to get these two bitter rivals to ratchet up the intensity to the season’s highest levels.
But things get a whole lot more interesting when there’s something of more significance on the line. Such will be the case Saturday night at Sun Devil Stadium.
The biggest prize is ASU’s opportunity to win home-field advantage for next week’s Pac-12 Championship Game. The Sun Devils will host Stanford in the Dec. 7 game if they beat the Wildcats. Lose and they’ll head back to Stanford for a second time this year.
“Obviously winning it is a big deal because we would host the conference championship game, and that’s a big deal,” ASU coach Todd Graham said.
ASU (9-2) is 6-0 at Sun Devil Stadium this season and has outscored opponents there by an average margin of almost 27 points. The Sun Devils are 3-2 on the road, with one of the losses a 42-28 setback at Stanford in September.
That sets the Wildcats up as the spoiler, with the opportunity of diminishing ASU’s chances to reach the Rose Bowl. But it’s not a role that the Wildcats care about, if you’re to believe what Arizona coach Rich Rodrigudz said Monday.
“I could care less what they’re playing for,” Rodriguez said.
It’s hard to believe the Wildcats wouldn’t take some joy in sending ASU back to Stanford, but Rodriguez is more concerned with what a win means for his team. The Wildcats (7-4) are coming off a stunning upset of No. 5 Oregon, the biggest win of Rodriguez’s two-year tenure, and look to keep building momentum.
A win would give the Wildcats their eighth victory of the season, their highest regular season win total since 2009. It would also boost their bowl profile, while a loss could mean another trip to the New Mexico Bowl or an at-large bid to a non-Pac-12 bowl game.
Undoubtedly, though, the Sun Devils have more to gain … and lose. While players and coaches may insist they need no extra motivation against the Wildcats, the chance to host the Pac-12 title game will certainly be on their minds.
“Guys are going to be even more fired up, but we’ve got to come out ready to prepare for (UA),” ASU quarterback Taylor Kelly said. “They’re a great football team, so we’ve got to prepare and have a great week of practice, just do what we do and trust our coaching.”
ASU has more on the line than the location of next week’s game. There’s the chance to reach the 10-win mark for the first time since the 2007 team went 10-2. And like Arizona, ASU also has the chance to improve its bowl standing if it’s not playing in the Rose Bowl.
And of course, the Sun Devils have has the opportunity to win a second consecutive Territorial Cup. But that’s where both teams’ motivation meets. Both coaches maintained Monday that motivation in the game starts with beating the other, regardless of what’s happened before.
“You’d have to be living under a rock if you play for Arizona and don’t realize how important the ASU rivalry is,” Rodriguez said. “We’re trying to improve our bowl status, and it’s our last regular season game but, in and of itself, it’s the ASU game. It’s one of the biggest rivalries in college sports.”
Said Graham: “No question about it the most important thing to our fan base every year is winning this game. This game, you can add things to it, but you need no motivation to get ready for this one.”
Arizona players shared the sentiment Monday.
“We shouldn’t have to pump anybody up on our team; we know this game is important,” UA quarterback B.J. Denker said. “It’s the most important game on our schedule.”
Even after ASU’s Pac-12 South clinching win over UCLA on Saturday, Graham went so far as to say ASU’s season would be unsuccessful without a win over UA. He said the same last season, basing his stance on interaction with former players, fans, boosters and alumni.
“Just talking to our fans, I don’t think I could put a level on just how important this game is,” Graham said. “I went out and talked to people, and they talked a lot about discipline and how they wanted to be represented, but clearly the only game they talked about was this game.”
And with the success of both programs on the uptick, the passions only figure to grow.
“You need nothing else other than the Territorial Cup, but it’s nice for the state, in my opinion, to have teams that are doing well,” Graham said. “We’re also playing for home-field advantage, and that adds a lot to it, but it still doesn’t need all that.”