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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Wildcats can guarantee bowl appearance with win over ASU

    Wide receiver Syndric Steptoe returns a punt in last years 23-20 loss to ASU at Sun Devil Stadium. The senior leads the Wildcats in receptions this season heading into his final home game against ASU Saturday.
    Wide receiver Syndric Steptoe returns a punt in last year’s 23-20 loss to ASU at Sun Devil Stadium. The senior leads the Wildcats in receptions this season heading into his final home game against ASU Saturday.

    Whoever wins is in.

    A guaranteed bowl-game berth lies at stake Saturday at 4 p.m. when the Arizona football team hosts ASU in the 80th Territorial Cup rivalry game at Arizona Stadium.

    Both teams enter with six wins, and a Wildcat victory would clinch Arizona’s first spot in the postseason since 1998.

    The Wildcats (6-5, 4-4 Pacific 10 Conference) became bowl eligible with Saturday’s 37-10 victory over Oregon but still could miss the postseason with a second straight loss to the Sun Devils (6-5, 3-5), depending on how other conference teams finish the regular season.

    “”Arizona State is always a tough game, no matter whose record is what, no matter how the teams are doing,”” said junior running back Chris Henry. “”It’s always a big game. It’s always a play-hard game, and it always comes down to the wire… We’re going to try to get a victory.””

    The Wildcats defeated the Sun Devils 34-27 the last time these teams met in Tucson, to cap off head coach Mike Stoops’ first season in 2004.

    Arizona holds a 28-16 edge in the series at home and a 44-34-1 advantage overall.

    “”It’s even more intense than I could’ve thought it was, or more intense than I maybe believed it was… This thing is really heated among the fans, and that spills over to the players and to the coaches.””

    – Dirk Koetter,
    ASU head coach

    Stoops might be undefeated against ASU if not for a string of injuries and a late special-teams breakdown in last year’s game, which the Sun Devils won 23-20 in Tempe.

    The Wildcats stormed out to a 15-point third-quarter lead but wound up playing parts of the game without five key offensive players lost to injury – quarterback Willie Tuitama, running backs Mike Bell and Gilbert Harris, wide receiver Mike Thomas and tight end Brad Wood.

    Arizona was still up 20-13 in the fourth quarter when ASU returner Terry Richardson ran a punt 71 yards to the end zone, a play now referred to in Sun Devils lore as “”The Return.””

    Tuitama, for one, will return healthy for this year’s matchup, despite sitting out the second half of the Oregon game after taking a hit to the head.

    “”I’m definitely excited,”” said Tuitama, who went 8-of-9 for 120 yards and two touchdowns against the Ducks. “”I plan on finishing this one.””

    “”These are two teams that 110 miles separate each other. It’s bragging rights for our state. We recruit against each other. There’s a lot of alumni in Phoenix. It’s big for both teams.””

    – Mike Stoops,
    UA head coach

    Besides the motivation to salvage a season that began with Pac-10 title aspirations, ASU brings a productive offense less reliant on the pass and a once-maligned defense that statistically has improved across the board.

    The Sun Devils feature a running attack led by junior Ryan Torain and sophomore Keegan Herring that averages 162.8 rushing yards per game, second in the Pac-10.

    And the team’s defenders, many of which presided on the conference’s worst overall unit last season, are allowing nearly 160 fewer yards per game.

    Yet the Wildcats are playing better than they have at any point over the last five seasons.

    The team has won three straight games for the first time since 2001, having scored nearly 30 points per game in that span.

    Henry has headed the effort, averaging two rushing touchdowns on nearly 30 carries an outing.

    “”I think Chris, regardless of what he says, is a more mature, tougher, stronger player than he’s ever been in this program,”” Stoops said. “”He needs to become a lot more consistent and a lot more accountable and dependable, and he’s a very dependable player right now. That’s what we need, a guy we can lean on and depend on.””

    After two-plus seasons under Stoops when repeated on-field mistakes and frequent losing wore on players’ confidence, veterans said the prevailing attitude has finally changed for the better: Winning has become the rule, not the exception.

    Arizona’s triumph over Oregon may have proved that.

    The Wildcats lost their final two games last season after a spirit-boosting 52-14 victory over then-No. 7 UCLA.

    Saturday, Arizona put together its most dominant performance of the year before a frenzied crowd at Autzen Stadium, a week after holding on for a 24-20 home victory over then-No. 8 California.

    A win over the Devils would not only give the Wildcats bragging rights over their in-state rival for another 12 months, but it would also signify a completed turnaround for a program all but woebegone this decade. “”Our kids, we’ve been through some tough times, and it’s helping us right now,”” Stoops said. “”We don’t want to go back to that, that’s for sure.””

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