ASU, UA both see Saturday’s football game as ‘must-win’


For the third week in a row, the Arizona State football team is dealing with a ‘must-win’ game.

First, they had to beat UCLA to get the sixth win that would make them bowl-eligible.  They got past the Bruins in a game that changed leads throughout and wasn’t decided until the final minutes when the Sun Devils held off a surging UCLA to cling to a 31-28 victory on Senior Day.

Next up was Utah, which the Devils had to beat to keep their hopes for a Pac-12 South title alive.  This time it was ASU rallying from behind, but falling short as the Utes pulled out the 31-29 win.

So the Sun Devils are 1-1 in must-win games going into tomorrow’s contest… a must-win game that comes around this time every season.  It’s time for the season finale against University of Arizona.  ASU will try to run its record to 7-5 in Herm Edwards‘ debut season as the head coach and provide a winning conference record (5-4) if it’s successful in Tucson.

A second-place finish in the Pac-12 South is also on the line for ASU.

On the other side of the field at Arizona Stadium will be another first-year head coach, Kevin Sumlin, who is also looking at this game as a must-win’  A victory over his newly-minted rival will avoid a losing season in his debut in Tucson, level his record to 6-6 overall, and boost the team’s conference mark to 5-4.  And, of course, the win would make the Cats bowl-eligible.

Both coaches are concentrating this week on bringing their teams back from huge mental let-downs, to get them pumped up for one last regular-season effort.  ASU’s two-point loss in its last game was a spirit-crusher, but Sumlin’s job at resurrecting his team’s confidence may be a little tougher.  The Cats were blown out, 28-69, and left for dead on the Martin Stadium field at Washington State.

This is always a big game for both schools, of course, but this year the quest for the Territorial Cup comes with some additional pressures.  Each program has its own reasons for needing this win badly.

Arizona won last year’s meeting, 42-30, and has won four of the past six games.  But there are new coaches and new rosters this time, so the past means little.  It will likely boil down to whether the Arizona defense can contain the three-headed monster that fuels the Sun Devil offense: quarterback Manny Wilkins, running back Eno Benjamin, and wide receiver N’Keal Harry.  The trio is pivotal to an offense that averages 429 total yards of offense per game.

Wilkins, who is averaging 239 passing yards a game, needs 589 yards in the final two games of his career to become No. 3 on the school’s all-time list for passing yards.  He is completing 63 percent of his pass attempts and boasts a 145.74 QB rating.

Benjamin ran for 149 yards in his last game, the loss against Oregon, which was the eighth time he’s collected 100 or more rushing yards this season.  Currently third in the nation in rushing yards this season, he’s averaging 131 rushing yards per game, has accounted for 12 touchdowns, and needs just 121 yards to become ASU’s all-time single-season rushing leader, surpassing the record of 1,565 yards set 46 years ago by Woody Green.

Harry is Wilkins’ favorite target when he’s not handing off to Benjamin.  The 6’4″ receiver averages 15 yards a catch and has piled up 1,033 yards and nine touchdowns this season.  He needs 159 yards in his final two games to move into second place on the all-time list, and needs three receiving TDs to take over third place on that list.

The Wildcats will counter with a couple of offensive weapons of their own.  Quarterback Khalil Tate has thrown for 1,248 yards this season and needs 269 more to rank No. 15 on that school’s record list.  He has piled up almost 6,000 yards of total offense (5,908 yards) in his college career.  And running back J.J. Taylor has 1,290 yards on 227 carries so far this season, and 1,863 all-purpose yards.

But one intangible factor may give Arizona the edge it needs to avenge last year’s defeat in Tempe…the game will be played in Tucson.  The home team has won each of the last five meetings.

And ASU has had a lot of trouble playing on the road this season, winning just one in five away from home.

But all of the stat sheets aren’t really worth much when it comes to rivalries.  This is a game between pretty evenly-matched teams.

And that’s the kind of game that makes rivalries interesting – and fun for the fans.

(Photo: ASU Athletics)