December 5, 2008

Arizona preview

This is it - rivalry week.

Emotions are high, the stakes are higher and records are thrown out.

All Arizona State cares about is winning.

"I'd like to say that playing against UA is just another game we're trying to win, but obviously that's not the case," quarterback Rudy Carpenter said. "When you come to ASU, obviously, playing UA is a big deal and winning is a big deal."

Saturday's game against the University of Arizona will ultimately determine if Year 2 under Coach Dennis Erickson is a success or a failure.

It's win or go home for ASU.

If ASU wins, it will keep the Territorial Cup for another year and will become bowl eligible, extending its season at least two more weeks.

But a loss gives UA 12 months of bragging rights and the Sun Devils' 2008 season will be over.

"We're fighting for our lives," linebacker Mike Nixon said. "Two years in a row they had to be home for the holidays and that's something that we don't want to do. So we're going to go down there and hopefully win a tough road game."

This game means everything to the players. They want to win this game more than any other.

There is pride and an extra sense of accomplishment on the line.

The current players on the ASU roster have never played in a game in which they lost to the Wildcats, and they want to keep it that way.

"It's always good to win and if we win against them its even better," wide receiver Chris McGaha said. "I've never lost to UA and I don't want to start that now."

Even the coaches have been a little more juiced up this week.

"Of course (the coaches are hyped for this game)," Erickson said. "It's an in-state rivalry. That's what it is what it's all about. That's why you play it the last game of the year."

And obviously, rivalries mean a lot to the fans too.

When Erickson became the Sun Devils' coach nearly two years ago, he was told, somewhat in jest, that fans would be pleased with him if all he did was win the Territorial Cup every year.

This season that could be true.

If ASU wins Saturday, the talk won't be about the school record-tying six-game losing streak. The fact that ASU fell far short of preseason expectations won't matter quite so much.

This win will be only thing anyone remembers.

"For everyone in this state, this is the biggest game of the year," McGaha said. "If we win it will make this season a success."

And the fact that ASU could win the Territorial Cup and become bowl eligible all at once makes this game extra special for the Sun Devils.

When ASU was sitting at 2-6, the players believed they would be 5-6 heading into this game with a bowl berth on the line. Now that that belief has become a reality, the players don't want to let this chance slip away.

"I think it's perfect," tight end Andrew Pettes said. "I would rather not be 5-6 right now, but going into this game that's okay. I know it's going to be a tough, physical game anyway, so why not go into it with more motivation to win."

The offense and defense are at opposite ends of the spectrum heading into Saturday's game.

While the offense is still in the midst of three-month funk, the defense has been dominant lately.

The difference between the two units was obvious last week when the offense only tallied 122 yards against UCLA while the defense scored all four touchdowns.

Neither side of the ball knows why things have gone the way they have recently, but the defense doesn't want anything to change while the offense seeks to recapture its early season success.

"I wish I knew (exactly what is going right)," Nixon said. "Looking back at some of the earlier games, every tipped ball was falling in the other team's hands or every chance we had to make a play a guy was spinning out. For whatever reason, we found a way to get those breaks and make that luck on our side now."

"We have one more opportunity to try and turn things around and I think we're due for something good to go our way," Carpenter said. "Hopefully it can be this weekend."

For the 15 seniors on ASU, this is the final regular season game of their college careers and they want to go out on top.

But they know that won't be easy.

This is perhaps the best Wildcat team they have ever faced and they know how difficult it will be to leave Tucson with a win.

"For us seniors and myself it's a big game because (if we win) we can say we never lost to them," he said. "Anybody can say anything they want about what type of careers we've had, or what type of people we are, or whatever, but at the end of the day they're going to have to respect us a little bit about what we did here as far as playing against the University of Arizona."

About UA

Head coach: Mike Stoops (5th season)

2007 season: 5-7

2008 record: 6-5 (4-4 Pac-10)

Offense

As hot as the Sun Devil defense has been as of late, Saturday will be a challenge.

ASU's defense has lived on the mistakes of opposing quarterbacks, but Willie Tuitama is a senior and has played well this season.

Tuitama is the second most efficient passer in the conference and averages 225.4 yards per game. He has put up 19 touchdowns this season, also second in the Pac-10.

"You can tell that he's a big leader on that football team," Erickson said of Tuitama. "You can see why they (UA) move the football. He makes plays. He's smart. I can't say enough about him."

Tuitama leads an offensive unit that averages 37.6 points and more than 400 yards per game.

And Tuitama has a lot of weapons to throw to.

Wide receiver Mike Thomas leads the Pac-10 with 5.6 receptions per game and has caught four touchdowns on the year. Thomas has also returned a punt for a touchdown.

In the red zone, Tiutama's biggest threat has been tight end Rob Gronkowski.

Gronkowski has caught nine touchdown passes, and Erickson knows the 6-foot-6, 260-pound sophomore is one of the most dangerous players in the Pac-10.

"He's one of the better tight ends in the country," Erickson said. "He creates all kinds of problems. You have to know where he's at."

On the ground, the Wildcats average 169.4 yards per contest.

Most of that production comes from Nic Grigsby who rushes for 86.5 yards per game and has scored 11 times.

Grigsby was held in check the last time UA took the field, but he has gone over the 100-yard mark four times in 2008, including a 189-yard day against Washington State.

Defense

Surely the UA defense watched ASU's last game and was licking its chops.

The Wildcats have held opponents to just 22. 4 points per game and have generated 22 turnovers in 2008.

The UA front four is a somewhat inexperienced group with three sophomores and one junior on the line.

Starting defensive ends Ricky Elmore and Brooks Reed have combined for nine sacks that have resulted in 76 yards lost for their opponent. Elmore also has one interception on the season.

In the middle, UA starts defensive tackles Earl Mitchell and Kaniela Tuipulotu.

Tuipulotu has been very limited this season with an ankle injury, but he is expected to play.

The Wildcat linebacking corps consists of Adrian McCovy, Ronnie Palmer and Xavier Kelley.

Palmer, who plays middle linebacker, leads the team with 70 tackles, nine of which were for a loss, and has two and a half sacks and one pick on the season.

Arizona has had a strong pass defense all season, only giving up an average of 173.9 yards through the air per game.

Starting cornerbacks junior Devin Ross and seniorMarquis Hundley have put up pretty comparable numbers this season

Ross has recorded 42 tackles and three interceptions while Hundley has 47 tackles and two picks.

Reserve cornerback Trevin Wade leads UA with four interceptions.

UA's starting safeties Cam Nelson and Nate Ness have been among the more consistent players for the Wildcats all year.

Ness has two picks on the season, one of which he returned 75 yards for a touchdown, and Nelson has recorded 54 tackles and one forced fumble.

Territorial Cup

The Territorial Cup was first awarded to the winner of the ASU/UA game in 1899 and is the oldest rivalry trophy in the NCAA.

Saturday will mark the 82nd time the Sun Devils and Wildcats have met on the gridiron with UA holding the all-time advantage 44-36-1.

However, ASU has won three straight games over its rival including a 20-17 win last season in Tempe.

In Tucson, ASU is 17-28 all-time.

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