Every football coach looks for that one big win each year that defines his season, or maybe even his career. Rich Rodriguez, the new head coach at University of Arizona, got his when the Wildcats beat then-No. 9 USC just past the mid-point of the season.
But Arizona State‘s first-year boss, Todd Graham, is still looking for his. That opportunity comes tonight.
The Sun Devils will carry a winning record (6-5) and bowl eligibility into the annual fight for the Territorial Cup, held this year in Tucson. But there have been no wins against ranked opponents. Probably their best chance at a defining moment came against UCLA (currently ranked No. 15 in the AP poll) in late October when ASU was 3-1 and tied for first place in the Pac-12 South, but a late Bruin field goal stole the victory and made it two straight losses for ASU after it was beat by 22 points by Oregon the week before. It turned out to be the start of a four-game losing skid.
Arizona (7-4) isn’t included in the AP top 25, but did come in at No. 24 this week in the BCS rankings. So an ASU win tonight could be considered an upset. But that’s just one reason this could be Graham’s signature win for his first year at the helm of the ASU program, which has waited four years to enjoy even a winning season.
(*Update: Graham got his signature win as ASU came from 10 points down to start the fourth quarter, strung together 24 unanswered points, and pulled away to a 41-34 win. The Cats helped a little with four turnovers that the Sun Devils turned into four scores. Arizona rallied late, scoring with 1:54 left in the game, but couldn’t cover the following onside kick before it rolled out of bounds. The win puts ASU in a better position now than the Cats for a bowl invitation.)
This one is for bragging rights for the next 12 months. And it’s critically important for a couple of newbie coaches trying to prove their schools made a smart choice in picking them to lead the troops into the future.
The Sun Devils will be seeing red when they arrive in Tucson today, but not because they’re angry about getting beat last year in this annual rivalry. Wildcat fans are donning the Arizona red to give the visitors a crimson background to work against.
And the team is doing their part as well, rolling out the all-red uniforms that will include red helmets. Only the ardent fans would remember the last time the Cats put on their red hats. It was 1980, and since then the team has rotated between white and blue – with the one exception of this year’s Sept. 29 game with Oregon State when they went to copper-colored head gear in honor of the state’s centennial.
It will also be senior day at Arizona Stadium, marking the final home game for 21 seniors who will get a chance to play in their third bowl game since the Cats became bowl eligible with their Homecoming win over Colorado three weeks ago.
This year’s game could arguably be the biggest toss-up these seniors have experienced, although the series is known for its close contests and dramatic finishes. The last three meetings have been decided by four points or fewer and six of the last eight have been won by a touchdown or less.
Both teams are 4-4 in conference and each depends on a hurry-up style of play that puts lots of points on the board. This should be what can best be called a real shoot-out in the Old Pueblo.
Arizona State will count on a sophomore quarterback, Taylor Kelly, who will enter the game sporting a streak of 18 consecutive pass completions; a running back in Marion Grice who has 14 touchdowns this year and needs just four more to move into the top five on ASU’s single-season record list; and a tight end, Chris Coyle, who has 51 career receptions and needs just five more to set the school record for catches by a tight end.
Arizona will look to its main source of power, a sophomore running back, just as it has all season long. Ka’Deem Carey, the speedster from Canyon del Oro High School in Tucson, has accumulated 1,585 rushing yards so far this season and leads the nation with 144.1 per game. He ran 26 times last week against Utah for 204 yards and set a Pac-12 record with 366 yards in a Nov. 10 win over Colorado.
“He is, no question, the one guy you have to stop – and it’s a tall order to do that,” admits Graham.
But that’s what it will take for the Sun Devils to bring the cup back to Tempe this year. And, actually, the odds are in their favor. The visiting team has won seven of the last 12 games.
Both coaches have made this game the focal point of their season. Graham even put a digital clock in the ASU weight room at the start of the season that has been counting off the days, hours, and minutes until kickoff. Now, it’s down to just hours and minutes.
“You can be 11-0 and if you don’t win this game, you had an unsuccessful season,” Graham pointed out earlier this week in a press conference. “This is what college football is all about – rivalry games – and none have more passion than this one.”
The clock in the weight room can finally stop turning the numbers at 8 o’clock tonight.
(Photo: Arizona Athletics)