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Wildcats aim for the Cup

As Carey breaks records, Cats aim for the Cup

Arizona linebacker Jake Fischer is hungry to face ASU after missing all of last season due to injury.

In the spirit of the week that is, supporters of Arizona football should feel resoundingly thankful today, as in Year One under new head coach Rich Rodriguez, the Wildcats have won seven games and are ranked No. 24 in the BCS standings, are bowl bound, and feature a hometown hero who is increasingly making his presence known on the national stage.
Following last week’s dominant performance against a formidable Utah defense, UA tailback Ka’Deem Carey now leads the nation in rushing yards with 1,585. That number has skyrocketed over the past two weeks, as he gained a conference record 366 yards against Colorado, before wearing out the Utes with another 204 on Saturday night, in a 34-24 Arizona victory.

In spite of this spike in production, however, the sophomore’s consistency cannot be overlooked; it was his eighth 100-yard effort in 11 tries in 2012.

Carey has failed to surpass that benchmark of backfield excellence just twice in Pac-12 play, and both sub-par efforts came in road defeats, though he still managed 133 yards on 37 totes in those contests, to go with a score. Further, those two games came against Oregon and UCLA; top 15 teams with defenses that effectively shut down the Arizona passing game, as otherwise-electric quarterback Matt Scott threw zero touchdowns to three interceptions. Suffice it to say then, the elusive phenom from Oro Valley’s Canyon del Oro High School has been the Wildcats’ most reliably successful offensive weapon this fall.

Carey now needs just 18 yards on Friday to break Trung Canidate’s 13-year-old school record of 1,602, set in the final game of the 1999 season, in the finale of his UA career. And when Carey surpasses that mark, he’ll do it against the same team Canidate had his greatest collegiate success against, though it’s hard to know whether he’ll quite be able to replicate his efforts of the past two weeks, when he broke Canidate’s single-game Arizona record of 288 yards, and joined him as one of just three UA backs to garner multiple 200-yard games in his career (Art Luppino is the other).

Like seemingly all rivalry games, the Wildcats’ post-Thanksgiving matchup with 6-5 Arizona State is difficult to read. The teams are similar in that both have exploitable strengths and flaws, are led by new head coaches deemed to be ahead of schedule by their respective fan bases, and each boasts highly-effective quarterbacks who will be making their first career starts in the rivalry series.

While the Cats’ brightest star is their soon-to-be all-conference running back, the Sun Devils’ iconic leader is a player suited to slow the likes of Carey, and especially Scott – defensive tackle Will Sutton. The junior from Corona, Calif. has 53 tackles and 10.5 sacks on the year, as part of a defense that finds its greatest consistency in attacking opposing passers in search of the big play - ASU has 17 interceptions and 48 sacks – though it’s not particularly dominant at stopping the run.

Still, the Devils’ big No. 90 and senior linebacker Brandon Magee will surely test Carey’s escapability under the lights in Arizona Stadium, as Rodriguez may be forced to rely more on the ground game, should Scott find himself under continuous pressure.

The Wildcats signal-caller, who played on the same Centennial High School team as Sutton, had his last great game of the season nearly a month ago against USC, when he passed for 369 yards and three touchdowns. Since then, he had a dismal performance in a blowout loss UCLA, before suffering a second half concussion that kept him out against Colorado. And last week, he went just 12 of 27 for 160 yards against Utah, though he gained 74 yards on many drive-extending runs in the win.

Matt Scott will have to overcome the emotions of 'Senior Day' before turning his attention toward the Sun Devils and several former high school teammates.

He’ll need to regain his rhythm and touch against the Devils though, and continue to use his legs to escape pressure, if the UA offense is going to keep ASU’s charging defense at bay.

His counterpart, Sun Devil sophomore Taylor Kelly, has had a stellar rookie showing in 2012, passing for 2,581 yards and 25 touchdowns, equaling Scott’s respectable mark of just nine interceptions. However, his line has been inconsistent, and he’s been sacked 30 times, compared to Scott’s 13. UA Defensive Coordinator Jeff Casteel will likely send some pressure of his own on Friday, in hopes that lineman Reggie Gilbert or linebacker Marquis Flowers can cause some hurried throws and a few costly mistakes by Kelly, who completed 18 consecutive passes in last week’s 46-7 ASU win over Washington State.
As the clock spins toward midnight, though, it’s anybody’s guess what the game will ultimately look like.

The last three meetings in the annual battle for the Territorial Cup have been won by the road team, all decided on the game’s final play, and the favorite has shown little evidence as to why they were chosen as such in the first place.

In 2009, the 7-4 Wildcats needed a last-second Alex Zendejas field goal to knock off a 4-7 ASU team that had lost five straight. In 2010, Zendejas duffed two PAT tries (credited as blocks by Sun Devil lineman James Brooks), as the 7-4 Cats fell to the five-win Devils in double overtime.
And last year, nearing the end of a dreary season that saw Arizona fire its coach mid-season, the Wildcats rallied for two fourth-quarter scores to stun the 6-4 Devils in Tempe, 31-27.

The Wildcats are three-point favorites at the moment, but the series – which first awarded the Cup in 1899 – has continually proved the exception to the adage that the Las Vegas oddsmakers “always know.”

Though much remains to be determined with regard to the Pac-12’s bowl picture, it’s likely the Wildcats will pay a return visit to Sin City, should they pull out the victory this week. A win would ignite a nostalgic euphoria dating back to 2008 – the last time a home team won in the series – when Arizona knocked off ASU to go 7-5 and clinch a trip to the Las Vegas Bowl.

That was Arizona’s first journey to the postseason in a decade, and although they’ve since played in the Holiday and Alamo Bowls, given the trials they’ve experienced – and the 10-game FBS losing streak their fans painstakingly witnessed – it feels like it’s been about that long since the Cats have packed their bags in December.

The Wildcats will go bowling win or lose this time around, but beating their hated foe will validate their surprise ascension under Rodriguez much more than a defeat and subsequent invitation to the New Mexico Bowl, to face the fifth-place team from the Mountain West Conference.
It also wouldn’t hurt the Cats to knock the ‘Staters’ down to eighth place, a position from which they’d be fortunate to receive a bowl invite, as they would have finished their year losers of five of six.

In 1998, Canidate ran roughshod on ASU, galloping for scores of 88, 66, and 48 yards, en route to his aforementioned school record. The man who broke that record two weeks ago happens to lead the nation in runs of 10 yards or more, and Carey – who chose Arizona despite a heavy recruiting play by the team from Tempe – will have a strong chance to keep his streak of stellar play going, against a defense that yields 161 yards per game in 2012.

Should he do so, he’s likely to lead the Pride of Arizona marching band in one of its sweetest renditions of ‘Bear Down, Arizona’ to date.

The oldest trophy game in college football will be frenzied one the day after Thanksgiving, and though tradition dictates that anything goes, the all-red wearing Wildcats have enough firepower to feast on the Devils’ ‘D’ and keep the Cup in Tucson for the fourth time in five years.

Arizona 37, Arizona State 31, and the “Red Out” old stadium will thankfully rejoice.

Follow me on Twitter @EricWKay

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