Territorial Cup preview: Bitter rivals have more than bragging rights to play for
TEMPE, Ariz. — Arizona’s Rich Rodriguez and Todd Graham of Arizona State were among coaches on the hottest seats heading into the season.
Only one remains there as the teams prepare to play in their annual rivalry game for the Territorial Cup. It’s not Rodriguez. His Wildcats have been arguably the biggest surprise in the Pac-12.
Graham, on the other hand, may need to win on Saturday to keep his job — not that he wants to hear about it, much less talk about it.
“I don’t have anything to say about that,” Graham said during his weekly news conference on Monday.
Arizona State did not give Graham a one-year contract extension during the summer, which it had done in previous offseasons. The not-so-subtle message: Get better or this could be it.
Graham brought the Sun Devils back to relevance after being hired away from Pittsburgh in 2012, leading them to three straight bowls and a pair of 10-win seasons. Arizona State played in the Cactus Bowl in 2015, but lost that game and finished with a losing record (6-7).
The Sun Devils took another step back last season, finishing 5-7 behind a defense that ranked among the worst in FBS.
Arizona State struggled to open the 2017 season, laboring to get past New Mexico State before losing to San Diego State and Texas Tech. The Sun Devils have had some impressive wins, beating No. 24 Oregon, No. 5 Washington and Utah in a span of four weeks.
Even with a win over Arizona, Arizona State will be 7-5, an improvement over the past two seasons, but only marginally. Lose to the Wildcats for the second straight game — the biggest game on the schedule every season — and Graham’s status gets really murky.
“I know as a staff it’s been a lot of fun getting to build these guys and I couldn’t be more proud of the job that they’ve done,” Graham said. “You look at the things that we’ve done and the teams that we’ve beaten, the progress that we’ve made I think has been very impressive.”
Rodriguez has made more progress in Tucson.
Picked to finish last in the Pac-12 South, the Wildcats have already reached seven wins and have garnered attention across the country as quarterback Khalil Tate has transformed from backup to Heisman Trophy hopeful.
The sophomore sensation set an FBS record for a quarterback with 327 yards rushing after Brandon Dawkins was injured in week 3 against Colorado and hasn’t stopped running.
Arizona lost last week when Oregon bottled up Tate, but a victory on Saturday would give the Wildcats eight wins and a shot at a bigger bowl game after clinching bowl eligibility earlier this season.
Even with a loss, Rodriguez should be safe.
A few more things to look for when Arizona plays at Arizona state:
LAST YEAR: Arizona was in the midst of one of the program’s worst losing streaks, heading into the Territorial Cup, looking as if it would have little chance against its rival. The Wildcats caught the Sun Devils and just about everyone else by surprise in that game, ditching their usual no-huddle offense to huddle up on almost play. The tactic worked, leading to a school-record 511 yards rushing in a 56-35 rout that ended the Wildcats’ eight-game losing streak and had Sun Devils fans muttering under their breath. Expect a few huddles from the Wildcats again this weekend. Arizona leads the all-time series 49-40-1.
DEMARIO RUNS: Arizona State running back Demario Richard needs eight yards rushing to pass Leon Burton (2,994) for fifth on Arizona State’s all-time list and 13 to become the fifth 3,000-yard rusher in program history. The senior is Arizona State’s leading rusher with 812 yards and 10 touchdowns this season.
WILDCATS RUN: Arizona has been pretty good at the run, too. The Wildcats have set a school record with 3,648 yards, including a record 534 in one game, against Oregon State two weeks ago. Tate has been a big reason for it, rushing for 1,325 yards, including 1,239 the past seven games.
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