Arizona-ASU preview: Who to watch, notes, prediction - Tucson News Now

Arizona-ASU preview: Who to watch, notes, prediction

TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) -

With seasons that have gone all kinds of sideways, Arizona and Arizona State meet Saturday with nothing much at stake other than to settle a 365-day grudge.

Which is a lot.

Each team began the season in the AP Top 25, but the Sun Devils have been skittering since opening with a loss to Texas A&M, and the Wildcats have been trying to regain their footing after a disastrous Pac-12 opener against UCLA.

Arizona, at least, has banked bowl eligibility, getting to 6-5 overall thanks to last week's upset double-overtime victory against 10th-ranked Utah. ASU has work to do, at 5-5 with a game at Cal remaining next weekend.

But, like with Arizona's win last week, the Devils enter the game in feel-good mode following a comeback home victory over Washington.

Last season, the Territorial Cup ended up being a winner-take-all showdown for the Pac-12 South. Arizona won 42-35. This year, not many outside of the fans of both teams will care. 

That is plenty.

"If they don't sense it, they must be living in a cave," Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said of his players' understanding of the importance of this game.

"Just in case, to make sure they understand that their legacy sometimes, right or wrong, is tied to this game, we try to remind them of that all week."

THREE WILDCATS TO WATCH

QBs Anu Solomon/Jerrard Randall

Solomon was having his best game of the year last week, until he was knocked out during the fourth quarter with his second concussion of the season. Arizona lists him as questionable to play against ASU.

Solomon is a full-service quarterback who can usually take advantage of the defense's game of pick-your-poison, tilting to either stop the run or the pass. Runnin' Randall is a different beast. If he has to start or play most of the way, it becomes a game of high-risk, high-reward.

The Sun Devils, always aggressive anyway, will load up to stop Arizona's run, playing man-to-man on the outside and daring Randall to beat them with his arm. Utah played in a similar fashion, and Solomon and his receiving corps responded with several big gains down the field.

Randall had one -- the TD throw to Nate Phillips to start the second overtime.

WR Nate Phillips

Speaking of Phillips, his one-handed touchdown catch in overtime deserves to be ranked among the best receptions in school history. If you haven't seen the breakdown of the play from ESPN Sports Science, by all means check it out here. We'll wait.

"I was like, 'Wow, I didn't even realize I caught it with one hand,'" he said. "When I came down, I was, 'Hey, I caught the ball and put up seven points.' I was just happy about that."

Phillips, a junior, didn't play in last year's Territorial Cup because of injury, so his only experience in the rivalry is a 58-21 loss at ASU in 2013.

S Tellas Jones

Arizona coaches have been without their two pass rushers for almost all of the conference season, as the plan was to bring linebackers Scooby Wright and Derrick Turituri off the edge before they got hut.

Jones has been banged up plenty, too, but he's feeling good now, so the coaches went to Plan B or C or D or whatever, and inserted Jones as that needed edge rushers vs. Utah in passing situations.

Jones had nine tackles, including 1.5 for loss and half a sack.

"We are just looking for speed off the edge," Rodriguez said.

THREE SUN DEVILS TO WATCH

QB Mike Bercovici

The senior has been inconsistent, often from half to the next, in his one season as ASU's full-time starter. He came into last season's Territorial Cup late in the third quarter, but couldn't complete the comeback, as he and ASU turned the ball over on downs late in the game.

He's an emotional player who can light up the stadium if he can get on a roll, and Arizona is wary of his scrambling ability.

"He's a good player, a good runner," said Arizona safety Will Parks.

"We have to keep him honest, keep him in the pocket and make him beat us with his arm. If he gets out of the pocket, it's going to be trouble for us."

RBs Demario Richard/Kalen Ballage

These sophomores are a load, and a really worry for Arizona.

Richard is a compact 5-10, 220 pounds. Ballage runs like a Mack truck, listed at 230. Running behind an experienced interior line of guards Christian Westerman and Vi Teofilo, and center Nick Kelly, ASU should try to pound and ground the Wildcats into submission.

To me, this is the most troublesome matchup for Arizona.

"We're not big on defense," Rodriguez said, "so we better tackle well."

WR Tim White

White is another junior college success story for coach Todd Graham -- not on the order of a Jaelen Strong or Marion Grice, but his explosiveness should be a major concern for Arizona. White has a team-high six touchdowns among his 40 catches, and the Wildcats do not want to see him get up to speed on kick returns, where he has a 100-yard effort for a touchdown.

Senior D.J. Foster is the big name among the receiving corps, but his value has been somewhat diminished this season following his move from running back. As always, he is dangerous in space, but White is the receiver most likely to make a highlight.

NOTES

--Arizona senior safety Will Parks went viral this week because of "love tap" of a referee at the beginning of the overtime period against Utah.

The Wildcats won the coin toss, and the referee tapped the shoulder of Parks, who had his back to the official, to indicate as such. Parks turned and playfully tapped back on the ref's right shoulder. You can see it here.

It's crazy," Parks said.

"I guess it was the way I tapped him, because I didn't know that they actually tap you to verify which team is going to have the ball. And when he tapped me, I was like, 'All right, well, tag you're it.' And that was it.

"He kind of laughed, too. ... It was crazy."

Jimmy Kimmel even featured the clip on his late-night show, saying, "I don't know why that tickled me so much."

Parks laughed at his video fame.

"Shout-out to Jimmy Kimmel," he said. "My resume is open whenever he wants to call me up."

 --ASU lost the heart of defense last week as senior safety Jordan Simone suffered a season-ending knee injury. The former walk-on from Washington State leads ASU with 91 tackles, including nine for loss.

How big of a loss is this for the Devils? To put it in perspective for Arizona fans, Simone is kind of a cross between ex-Cats Jared Tevis and Tra'Mayne Bondurant.

--Arizona linebacker Scooby Wright will end the regular season with eight tackles in two games. While he has maintained a strong workout regimen, he isn't yet to able to fully practice or do all the drills that would show he's recovered from a foot injury suffered Sept. 26.

He's probably not far off, though, and the time span before the bowl game should be enough to allow him to get back on the field this season.

PREDICTION

Much will spin on who plays quarterback for Arizona, and that uncertainty increases the degree of difficulty in making a prediction.

Even if the Wildcats have Solomon, though, the Sun Devils have stronger talent across the board. If they don't get too cute on offense, I like their downhill running game to be the deciding factor.

Arizona State 38, Arizona 28.

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