Among the rivalry games set for D1-A this weekend is one that isn’t going to have an effect on who makes the playoffs, but matters to the player nonetheless.
Arizona State travels to Tucson to play Arizona in a match that, first and foremost, gives teams bragging rights for another year, and secondly, puts one of those teams in position to finish with a winning season.
Both ASU and Arizona are 1-3. Both have been hit by injuries or unavailable players. Both went to Utah this past weekend and gave up 80 points, but also could point to some positives in those blowouts.
ASU hosted Arizona back in December, with the Wildcats beating the Sun Devils 25-24. That result might not be much help in deciding who will win this time around, as the teams have undergone much change since then.
But playing at home this time, Arizona certainly would expect to win again.
Common opponents this season are similarly not helpful. Arizona beat Colorado 40-36, while Arizona State lost to the Buffaloes 67-5 (!). But Arizona State’s 54-13 loss to BYU was a lot closer than Arizona’s 80-8, somewhat a mirror image of their results against Utah (Arizona lost 68-15, ASU 81-27).
And throw in the fact that this is the in-state rivalry and both teams know each other very well … it’s not a game you can predict easily.
Arizona State has been stung by injuries, forcing Head Coach Gary Lane to run in a bunch of younger players.
“We’re just taking it from the start,” said fullback Adam Sandstrom, one of the veterans. “Trying to teach them the type of offense and the type of defense we’re trying to run. They’re starting to get the idea of it.”
ASU felt they rebounded somewhat last week, despite the big scoreline. Utah is very dangerous, and were expected to score a lot of points. But the Sun Devils did manage to score four tries, including the last try of the day. They kept playing, which was a lesson from their 67-5 loss to Colorado.
“One of the things we talked about after that tough loss to Colorado was keep your head up at all times and never, never give up on it,” said Sandstrom, who scored that final try. “I think we did an alright job of it against Utah. We came through with a big try at the end. It was nice to see our backline come through.”
The positives for Arizona in their 80-8 loss to BYU was that after 20 minutes it was only 5-3.
“We wanted to make sure that we came out of the gate pretty strong and kind of made them feel a little bit uncomfortable,” said flyhalf and captain Trent Fischer. “We wanted to create turnovers and make sure we got as much possession as we could. After that they kind of wore us down a bit.”
So neither team is coming in on a high, but they know what they want out of this match – victory.
“This is big,” said Fischer, “especially because it could decide if we are going to have a winning season or a losing season. We know it will be a tough match; Every time you play ASU it’s a grind.”
“This game is a whole different feel,” added Sandstrom. “Hopefully we can bring our best performance.”
Asked if there can be too much emotion assigned to a rivalry match, Sandstrom said he welcomes it.
“I think there’s been a little bit of a lack of emotion on our part. So I hope that this game brings the intensity up,” he said. “Hopefully we harness it.”
“We are really looking forward to it,” concluded Fischer. “We are putting in a lot of work for this game. Both teams, I know, are really looking forward to this challenge.”
The two teams have different issues to deal with. ASU is, in places, very young. Their midfield is not and produced some impressive line breaks against Utah. What they lacked was experience in the back row – where they needed players to anticipate where the tackle would be and get there to win ball.
Now that plays somewhat into Arizona’s hands. If the Wildcats can do anything, they can battle at the breakdown. Led by No. 8 Nic Svob, who brings the intensity at every training and didn’t stop once against BYU, they can produce turnovers, which spells difficulties for the Sun Devils.
The Wildcats have another worker in scrumhalf Kyle Thompson. If he can communicate well with Fischer, they can turn turnovers into tries. The not-so-secret weapon for Arizona is cinder-block-solid hooker Damian Vaughn, who is imposing with the ball.
For ASU, then, the center pairing of Nate Chapman and Zach Utley will need to test the Arizona D when they get good ball. Halfbacks Jode de Klerk and Kolten Molina work well together.
So the question is, what can the forward pack do? Their front row, led by Colton Rahav, is very solid. They need their back five to get around the pitch and, more importantly, get around to the right places.
And backing them all up is Sandstrom, who will take a break from the USA Junior All Americans camp to lead the Sun Devils. The fullback can run, defend, and, perhaps most importantly, kick goals. If Arizona gets in penalty trouble, Arizona State has someone to make them pay.