Graham, ASU ready for 'most important game of the year' vs. Arizona

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Will ASU running back D.J. Foster (8) once again top the Wildcats? By Christian Petersen Will ASU running back D.J. Foster (8) once again top the Wildcats? By Christian Petersen

TEMPE, Ariz. -- “This game is the single most important game of the year for us and for our fans,” Arizona State head coach Todd Graham said on Monday.

That’s where the rivalry between ASU and Arizona begins, but this year, the stakes go beyond bragging rights and possession of the coveted Territorial Cup. 

“It has a lot more meaning, as both teams are going for their tenth win and the Pac-12 South Championship is on the line,” said Graham. “There is definitely a little extra importance added to this game.”

However, this clash of 9-win and top 15 ranked teams on Friday almost was not to be.

Just a week after their loss to Oregon State knocked them out of the playoff race, ASU fell behind Washington State 21-7 in the first half of last Saturday’s game. The Sun Devil offense in particular was sluggish, but things began to click in the second half, and ASU emerged with a 52-31 victory.

A similar slow start on Friday may doom No. 13 Arizona State, as they look to top the 12th ranked Wildcats for the third straight year. Graham, however, feels confident his team has corrected those problems.

“We’ve knocked a lot of those issues out,” said Graham. “Late in the year we’ve only had one game (Oregon State) where we’ve had a lot of mental errors and that’s just from not really being prepared to play.“

Arizona comes into the game fresh off a dominating, but costly, 42-10 road win over then N0. 17 Utah. During the win, Wildcat quarterback Anu Solomon injured his ankle, and his status for Friday’s game is in doubt.

The redshirt freshman won UofA’s quarterback competition on the eve of the opener, and has impressed ever since in leading the nation’s 14th ranked offense. Solomon has thrown for 3,216 yards, 25 touchdowns and just seven interceptions while adding 329 yards rushing. If he can’t play, redshirt senior Jesse Scroggins will likely get the start.

“He’s done a tremendous job and is a great operator of the offense,” said Graham of Solomon. “He has an ability to extend plays and is very elusive in the pocket and you can tell he has a mastery of what they’re trying to do. I think he is as good as any quarterback they have had.”

Solomon is far from the only threat facing the Sun Devil defense. Freshman running back Nick Wilson ran for a career-high 218 yards and three touchdowns in the win over Utah, putting him over 1,000 yards on the year.

“He’d be similar in the lines to the style of (Devontae) Booker from Utah,” Graham said of Wilson. “They’re a downhill, inside zone-based team, that’s what he is; he’s a really good inside zone runner. 

Out wide, the Wildcats boast a deep receiving corps led by Cayleb Jones (60 catches, 803 yards, eight touchdowns) and Austin Hill (38-541-4). Seven Wildcats have caught 20 or more passes this season.

“They have a great receiving core and great running backs and he (Solomon) does a great job of dispersing the ball and managing their offense,” Graham said. “What makes their run/pass so good is their receivers. They have really good receivers who do a great job and really understand what they are doing, and they’re very well coached."

While both team’s feature explosive offenses, they also share similar defenses that place a premium on speed, explosiveness, and generating big plays.

The Wildcat defense has been among the biggest surprises in the Pac-12 this year, transforming from a liability in 2013 to a playmaking unit. The catalysts has been linebacker Scooby Wright, who leads the nation with 22 tackles-for-loss and is a Lombardi Award finalist.

Having so many similarities creates unique challenges in an already unique series.

“It just makes you be very assignment-oriented and we have to make sure that we have all of the right matchups,” said Graham. “It’s a challenge. There are a lot of similarities there in what we do, but it’s about the personnel.”

ASU personnel will get a big boost with the return of wide receiver Jaelen Strong, who missed the game against Washington State. On the year, Strong has made 71 catches for 982 yards and nine touchdowns. In his absence, speedy sophomore Cam Smith stepped up with 131 yards and touch touchdowns. 

The Sun Devils will look to unleash Strong, Smith, and the rest of their offense in what will be a very hostile environment in Arizona Stadium in Tucson.

As is to be expected during “hAte Week”, there is a lot of taunting and some that crosses the line.

“I love rivalries, but I don’t love getting all of the stuff that I get,” said Graham. “But the pageantry and the rivalry between the two teams is unmatched in college football.

However, it’s not all bad.

“Sometimes I get a little chuckle because some of them are pretty good and creative,” Graham admitted.

It’s all part of keeping an emotional balance in a game whose intensity is always off the charts.

“I think the key in this game is not getting too emotional, and that’s something I’ve talked about every year,” said Graham. “The key for us is going to … focus on the game and the fundamentals and do what we have to do to execute and win.”

Should Stanford defeat UCLA on Friday afternoon, the winner of this game will win the Pac-12 South division championship. That would make for some great icing on the cake, but for Graham, who is 2-0 against Arizona, beating the Wildcats is all that matters.

“It’s the single most important thing,” Graham said. “When I came here I had the opportunity to go out and speak to all of our fans and they told me that this is the single most important thing. Winning this game is the top priority for our program and for our players every year.”