The rivalry game at the end of the football schedule between Arizona and Arizona State is played for the rights to the Territorial Cup for a year. But it has also come to be known as the ‘Duel in the Desert‘.
That final game on the schedule arrives Friday night in Tucson.
But this year it may look like a duel between two combatants who each have one arm tied behind them. Both teams have been decimated by injuries and forced to start a variety of quarterbacks over the course of the season – which has led to losing records for both.
This may well be one of the least-anticipated meetings in recent rivalry history since the two teams have a combined seven wins. The Wildcats (2-9) are on an eight-game losing streak and the Sun Devils have lost the last five straight.
ASU (5-6) has the most on the line in this one because the Devils need one more win in order to become bowl eligible. That holds a special significance to head coach Todd Graham because a bowl invite would mean he has set a school record with six consecutive bowl games, five of those during his tenure.
And, just as important, it would keep him from having two consecutive losing seasons. ASU finished 6-7 in 2015.
But one thing they have in common is the need to use their final regular-season game to save some semblance of dignity. Each wants to finish their hugely disappointing seasons on a high note, able to at least secure bragging rights until next November.
Mentally, neither team can be in a very good place right now. ASU was run over last week by Washington in a 44-18 drubbing in Seattle, while the Cats were similarly embarrassed by Oregon State in a 42-17 road loss in Corvalis.
While the Sun Devils were beaten by a team ranked sixth in the nation and tied for first place in the Pac-12 North Division, the Wildcats fell to a team that had just two wins all season and one conference victory that has them sitting in the North Division cellar.
The outcome of Saturday’s game is likely going to depend on which team can get over the psychological hump and be ready to compete.
Against Washington, the Sun Devils were in a 24-0 hole by halftime and never recovered. Sophomore quarterback Manny Wilkins was 20-for-32 for 227 yards and one interception, not a bad night by most standards. And N’Keal Harry, the freshman wide receiver from Chandler High School, put up 114 yards on six catches.
But the ground game was practically non-existent. The top Devil rusher was Demario Richard who finished with 25 yards. His backfield partner, Kalen Ballage, who was supposed to be the other half of a dynamic duo this season, added nine yards on six carries.
And against Oregon State, the Wildcats were just as busy digging out of a 21-7 hole in the second quarter. The Arizona secondary had no answer for the Beavers’ quarterback, Marcus McMaryion, who threw for 265 yards and five touchdowns.
To make matters worse, Arizona lost its season-opening starting QB, Anu Solomon, for a second time. Solomon started for the first time since a knee injury earlier in the season sidelined him. He was injured in the first quarter in this game and, once again, Brandon Dawkins took over the job, finishing with 106 yards passing and another 88 yards rushing.
But that’s all behind them now. The slate is wiped clean before every rivalry game and emotion takes over.
That emotion is probably going to be the Wildcats’ best weapon Friday night, particularly since it will be Senior Night and the entire team will be playing for the seniors on the squad, trying to send them out of their college careers on a win.
But that may not be enough for an Arizona victory. ASU has won three of the last four Territorial Cup games during Graham’s time as head coach.
And this likely won’t be the year the Cats turn the tide.
(Photo: ASU Athletics)