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November 25, 2006Arizona State travels to Tucson play the University of Arizona Saturday at 4 p.m. in the regular season finale for both teams, with a bowl game, and perhaps much more at stake for the Sun Devils, whose coach, Dirk Koetter, is facing heavy criticism from a large percentage of fans for his job performance after six seasons in Tempe.
Koetter may or may not need this win in order to earn a vote of confidence for next season from ASU athletics director Lisa Love, who will likely make an announcement regarding the future of the program within several days of the game.
What is certain, however, is that beating Arizona is an absolute necessity for Koetter, if he is to have any hope of his team salvaging a season that could be considered respectable, as measured against preseason expectations, which coaches and players alike said it was the most talented group of Sun Devils in years.
A win would give the team seven wins heading into a bowl game, and be the first time for three straight bowl appearances since 1985-87.
A loss would mean the end of the season, a .500 record, and perhaps a change of direction at the top.
Conventional wisdom suggests Arizona is in great position to win this game. The Wildcats have won three straight, including impressive showings against Cal and Oregon in successive weeks, where they had a plus-nine turnover ratio, developed a newfound success running the football, and got sophomore quarterback Willie Tuitama to show some of what he's capable of doing when healthy.
Tuitama was dinged up yet again versus Oregon last Saturday, but he is expected to be at full strength versus the Sun Devils.
Conversely, the Sun Devils have continued the up-and-down yo-yo we've seen for most of the season. Just when you might think the team has finally turned the corner (Washington, Washington State) the following game, the team proves otherwise (Oregon State, UCLA).
Chalk it up to inexperienced players being counted on, injuries or just inefficiency, there is really no way of knowing what version of the Sun Devils we'll see on any given Saturday, even in the Territorial Cup showdown with the Wildcats.
Quarterback Rudy Carpenter was poised and confident looking versus the Cougars two weeks ago, picking the team apart at will. Against UCLA, he appeared uncomfortable, hurried, out of sync.
Koetter said at his weekly press conference that Arizona is more similar to UCLA than Washington State defensively in their style and how they apply pressure to opposing teams' quarterbacks. That's not a good sign for the Sun Devils.
He also called the Wildcats' starting cornerbacks tandem, Antoine Cason and Wilrey Fontenot perhaps the best in the Pac-10. Another not so good sign for the Sun Devils.
We've seen this season what can happen when Carpenter comes up against a defense that is very good on the edges of the field, at Cal for instance, and that wasn't a pretty sight for ASU fans.
That's the type of thing that can't be duplicated in this game if the visitors are to have any chance at winning.
ASU simply doesn't have an explosive enough offense that it can overcome turnovers, so protecting the football will be at a premium in this game.
Arizona doesn't have a great offense, not by any stretch, but when given short fields to work with, most teams are able to have some success.
And the Wildcats have been better on this side of the ball in recent weeks. Tuitama has been a big part of that. Though he has relatively modest numbers on the season, with six touchdowns against six interceptions, Tuitama has managed the team well in recent weeks and done what has been asked of him. He has several weapons at his disposal, most notably, receiver Syndric Steptoe.
What was a major problem-area for the team earlier this season -- an effective run game -- has turned into a bright spot of late. Junior Chris Henry was Pac-10 Offensive player of the Week in the Oregon win, when he had 191 yards on the ground and three touchdowns.
The added balance that UA now has at its disposal, which has been aided by an improving young offensive line, will make it tougher for the Sun Devil defense to key in on one particular discipline.
As a result, we anticipate that the linebacking corps and safety group for the Sun Devils will be especially tested in this game, which means a number of true freshmen will be relied on heavily.
What Bill Miller's group will have to do, is force Arizona to score on sustained drives only. While the Sun Devils have done a nice job overall on defense, they're still susceptible to giving up big plays, especially via the passing game, where Justin Tryon and Keno Walter-White will again be seriously tested.
In a game where both teams take care of the football, this could actually turn into a low scoring, defensive shootout. It wouldn't be too dissimilar from what happened in last year's Duel in the Desert game, when the Sun Devils won 23-20 in a game that had just one turnover (Arizona) and both teams had less than 400 yards of total offense.
Carpenter said his performance last season may have been his worst all year, but he didn't turn the ball over, and he managed his team relatively well, considering it was a field-possession type of game.
He'll need to do the same this season, and also help the team convert in the red zone when they do have scoring chances. Do that and it could become another year when you see conventional wisdom proved meaningless in rivalry games. Don't, and the season may not be the only thing we see reach its conclusion.