Slumping Sun Devils face last-place rival Arizona
Despite consecutive losses on the road, Arizona State remains in the hunt for a spot in the Pac-12 championship game. A loss by the Sun Devils to last-place Arizona in their Territorial Cup matchup Saturday night might end that possibility once and for all.
Just a few weeks ago, Arizona State's berth in the expanded conference's first title game as the Pac-12 South representative seemed almost a foregone conclusion. Then came losses at UCLA and Washington State. Now the Sun Devils (6-4, 4-3 Pac-12) need to win and get some help.
An upset victory for Arizona (2-8, 1-7) would be a cherished moment in the Wildcats' otherwise awful season, especially if it ended up knocking the Sun Devils out of the championship game.
''We want to beat these guys and take away any opportunity they have for the South,'' Arizona linebacker Paul Vassallo said.
Usually, this rivalry game ends the regular season, but both of these teams have one more game. Arizona State hosts California next Friday, and Arizona plays a nonconference game at home next Saturday against Louisiana-Lafayette.
Arizona State is still standing largely because the South's real leader, USC, is ineligible, so the second-place team gets the berth. Arizona State and UCLA are tied at 4-3, with the Bruins holding the tiebreaker by beating the Sun Devils two weeks ago. UCLA plays at home against Colorado this week, then concludes its regular season Nov. 26 at USC.
If UCLA loses once, the Sun Devils need to win both remaining games to get the nod.
''Obviously, our focus is strictly on the University of Arizona. That's the most important game every year for both teams,'' Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson said. ''If we do win those football games then we do still have a chance to win our division and still have that opportunity. It's not totally gone. We have to worry about ourselves, that's the most important thing.''
Washington State redshirt freshman Connor Halliday torched the Sun Devils for 494 yards and four touchdowns in the Cougars' 37-27 victory in Pullman last weekend. Now Arizona State must face Arizona senior Nick Foles, who leads the Pac-12 in yards passing per game at 360.7. The Wildcats' passing offense ranks fourth nationally.
''I would think they're probably licking their chops right now watching that game,'' Erickson said.
Foles, though, has eight interceptions compared with five touchdowns the past three games.
''Adversity introduces a man to himself,'' interim coach Tim Kish said of his quarterback. ''He's sorting himself out right now, he's trying to get a grip on what he's wanting to get accomplished. Nothing is more important to Nick Foles than helping his team be successful and win football games.''
Arizona State, with a far more balanced attack than the Wildcats, should be able to move the ball against the worst defense in the conference, and one of the worst in the country. Arizona is surrendering 457 yards per game.
In a way, Arizona State should thank Arizona. The Wildcats beat UCLA 48-12 on Oct. 20. That came a week after coach Mike Stoops was fired and replaced on an interim basis by Kish, the defensive coordinator. Since then have come consecutive losses at Washington, at home to Utah and at Colorado, the Buffaloes' first Pac-12 victory.
Arizona State must be happy to be home, where the Sun Devils are 5-1 compared with 1-3 on the road.
Arizona leads 46-37-1 in a series that dates to 1899.
A year ago in Tucson, in one of the wilder games of the rivalry, Arizona State won 30-29 on a blocked extra point in double overtime. ASU quarterback Brock Osweiler has called that his worst game and best night.
In his growth as a player since then, Osweiler said it is ''completely different, black to white.''
''I've had 10 games under my belt this season, whereas last year, that was my first game starting,'' the 6-foot-8 junior said. ''Also, I have had six months in the offseason to improve upon everything that I didn't do so well in last year's football game.''
While Arizona is looking for another coach, Erickson sits uneasily as what was supposed to be the big year for his senior-laden squad unravels at the end.
''I would be lying if I said that we weren't aware of it. We are,'' Osweiler said. ''That just goes with the game of football. If you don't win, you're probably going to get fired. If you don't produce as a player, you're probably not going to start. So, we are aware of it. But, that's not the major concern. You can't have things like that on your mind. You just have to focus on your opponent, focus on the game plan and however things work themselves out on Saturday, then you go from there.''