Arizona State vs. Arizona: Five things to watch - Tucson News Now

Arizona State vs. Arizona: Five things to watch

(Source: Tucson News Now) (Source: Tucson News Now)
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    Thursday, June 21 2018 6:40 PM EDT2018-06-21 22:40:38 GMT
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    Deandre Ayton was selected No. 1 by the Phoenix Suns in the NBA draft Thursday, June 21. (Source: Associated Press)Deandre Ayton was selected No. 1 by the Phoenix Suns in the NBA draft Thursday, June 21. (Source: Associated Press)

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By Anthony Gimino / Special for Tucson News Now

Arizona-Arizona State. Former Wildcats coach Dick Tomey always called it "a season unto itself."

Rarely has this "season" had so much at stake.

Both teams enter Friday afternoon's game with 9-2 overall records, 6-2 in the Pac-12, with a potential Fiesta Bowl berth as a reward to the winner. And if Stanford upsets UCLA, then the winner goes to the Pac-12 championship game as the champion of the South division.

A sold-out Arizona Stadium on a sun-drenched afternoon awaits on what could be one of the greatest days in UA football history. Here are five things to watch:

1. Arizona's quarterback situation

Redshirt freshman Anu Solomon is listed as questionable because of a lingering ankle injury that forced him out of last week's game at Utah. The best guess is that he'll start and go as long as he can, but that's still just a guess.

The Wildcats might have to turn to fifth-year senior Jesse Scroggins, whose only significant playing time in his college career, which began at USC, came last week in the second half against the Utes. Even then, he did a lot of handing off.

"It's not like he's an 18-year old freshman, but it was his first time in there so I'm sure he was a little nervous," coach Rich Rodriguez said. "If he was nervous, he didn't show it and he was very composed."

Know this about Scroggins: He's a strong-armed passer who doesn't lack for confidence. Arizona won't have to change its offense in significant ways. While Solomon is crafty as a runner, picking his way down field, Scroggins is more of a glider with the ability to gain bigger chunks of yards.

But can he read the coverage, make smart decisions and not turn the ball over, especially against an attacking, aggressive ASU defense? If he plays, we'll all find out at the same time. Scroggins will need to overcome any feeling of needing to be the hero; caution could be his better guiding emotion.

2. Turnovers

Pretty basic. Turnovers. Yeah, you can say that about any game, but let's, oh, triple the importance for this matchup.

Here are the stats:

-- The Wildcats have a 90-15 edge in points off turnovers this season. ASU's advantage is 125-48.

-- Arizona is tied for ninth in turnover margin at plus-10. ASU is fifth at plus-12.

The last time the teams played in Arizona Stadium, the game turned in ASU's favor on a fourth-quarter fumble by UA quarterback Matt Scott as the Wildcats were driving to take a two-touchdown lead.

3. ASU receiver Jaelen Strong

The junior missed last week's game because of a concussion, but he'll start against Arizona. He'll be the top pro prospect on the field, a likely first-rounder, and the Wildcats won't be sorry to see him go if he bolts after this season.

Strong caught only four passes last season in a 58-21 win over Arizona, but it seemed more like 14. Those four catches went for 142 yards, including a 61-yard touchdown. He also had a 50-yard reception.

He wasn't one of the three finalists for the Biletnikoff Award, given to the nation's top receiver, but he should have been.

Arizona cornerback Jonathan McKnight has been solid all season. The other corner, Jarvis McCall, has the size to be match up with Strong, but hasn't been as consistent as McKnight. Stopping Strong's back-breaking big plays is vital.

4. Live by the blitz, die by the blitz

Todd Graham's Arizona State defense is as aggressive, if not more so, than any in the Pac-12. That's why the Sun Devils rank in the top 10 nationally in tackles for loss (8.0 per game) and sacks (3.2 per game).

Safeties Damarious Randall and Jordan Simone make a ton of plays, but the player Arizona fans should most fear is 300-pound senior defensive end Marcus Hardison, who has always looked the part but has actually played the part in the second half of the season.

"His light has come on," Graham said.

Hardison's late-season surge included an interception, two sacks and a forced fumbled in a win over Washington State last week. He has a team-high 10 sacks.

But that attack mode can also work against ASU.

Two weeks ago, Oregon State, in its upset win over the Devils in Corvallis, gashed the Devils for touchdown runs of 66 and 78 yards when ASU came with the blitz. Arizona took advantage of a Utah blitz last week, when Nick Wilson made the right reads at the line of scrimmage and emerged into daylight for a 76-yard score.

Guessing right against the blitz could be Rodriguez's best friend today.

5. ASU quarterback Taylor Kelly

The senior is trying to go 3-0 against the Wildcats, but he hasn't been quite the same since coming back from a foot injury about a month ago. Kelly previously missed six weeks, and his running skills haven't much been on display, which has hurt his overall game.

As opposed to Arizona's Solomon, however, Kelly seems to be getting slightly healthier every week.

He's had a penchant since his return to hold the ball too long, which is something he doesn't want to do against Arizona, unless he wants to be a snack for linebacker Scooby Wright.

It took this long into the story to mention Scooby Wright? Call it saving the best for last.

PREDICTION

If you were expecting a final piece of analysis here, sorry. I mostly see this as a 50-50 game, but can't shake the feeling that it's simply Arizona's time to win. That's all I've got. It's Arizona's time.

Arizona 31, Arizona State 27.

Anthony Gimino has covered University of Arizona athletics for more than two decades, including as the football beat writer for the Arizona Daily Star and the columnist for the Tucson Citizen.

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