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November 29, 2010

First look: Arizona

On a battlefield that is likely to leave combatants bloodied and bruised, Arizona heads into the annual Territorial Cup clash with Arizona State Thursday in Tucson already in search of gauze.

The stumbling Wildcats have lost three straight after a 7-1 start to the season that had them harboring hopes for the program's first-ever Rose Bowl appearance.

After a 48-29 loss to Oregon in rainy Eugene Friday, the Wildcats dropped out of the rankings for the first time since entering them following a season-opening win over The Citadel.

But as is often the case with rivalry games, records, losing/winning streaks, home-field advantage, weather and myriad other factors can be thrown right out the window. And there is still plenty at stake in this one.

Barring unprecedented action by the NCAA that would give ASU a postseason berth -- effectively allowing it to go to a bowl in place of an already bowl-eligible team -- the Sun Devils will miss a bowl game for the third straight season, even if they are to top their I-10 rivals this week.

But ending the season on a two-game winning streak, avoiding a third-straight losing season and, of course, beating UA for the first time since 2007 would go along way toward restoring some measure of faith in a frustrated fan base, especially with a overwhelming majority of the team's major contributors returning next year.

For the Wildcats, who finished 8-5 each of the past two seasons, a win over ASU followed by a victory in the team's bowl game would mean a 9-4 campaign, a possible indication that it is continuing to build toward its goal of becoming one of the Pac-10's elite teams.

"It's big," ASU coach Dennis Erickson Monday in summarizing the importance of the game. "When you have two universities that are in the same state like we are, it's huge. I've been in a lot of rivalry games and this is as big as any. … You're either a Sun Devil or a Wildcat, and that's kind of how this state is. It's bragging rights for a year."

As Erickson alluded to in his press conference Monday, the Wildcats' success on offense begins with quarterback Nick Foles. The one-time ASU commit -- who changed his tune when Dirk Koetter, the coach who recruited him to Tempe, was fired following the 2006 season -- leads the Pac-10 with an average of 294 yards passing per game.

After missing two games due to dislocated kneecap, Foles has played well of late, including his performance in the loss to the Ducks, when he completed 29 of 54 passes for 448 yards and three touchdowns.

"When you look at Foles, he's one of the better quarterbacks in the country," Erickson said.

Of course, it doesn't hurt to have a weapon like junior wide receiver Juron Criner, the Pac-10 leader in receptions (67) and receiving yards (1,091) -- he is tied for fourth with eight touchdowns -- who Erickson calls "one of the best playmakers I've ever seen."

What has been perhaps the biggest surprise for the Wildcats this season, though, has been the play of its defense, a unit currently ranked fourth in the conference while giving up 339 yards per game (ASU is fifth, 363).

During fall camp, there was much uncertainty coming out of Tucson as to whether the group, which had lost numerous talented players from the previous year's bowl squad, would be able to do keep the team from seeing a drop off in success. Led by senior defensive ends Brooks Reed and Ricky Elmore and a cast of young players who have stepped up in the secondary, UA has seen no such lull in production.

"Defensively they run, and that's what they've built that defense on," Erickson said. "They have outstanding speed."


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