The moment Rich Rodriguez started to take over the Arizona football program and plan ahead for the 2012 season, few had a winning record in the cards for Year 1. Optimism, at best, was guarded and the general thought was to wait and see how quickly after the first season the Wildcats could start to significantly improve.
But a season removed from a 4-8 campaign and a coaching change, the tune changed as the unexpected victories piled up and so, too, have the expectations. Sitting at a respectable seven wins, the good feelings could still turn sour pending the result of Friday night's regular-season finale.
Welcome to the battle for the Territorial Cup, RichRod.
Arizona will seek its fourth victory in the past five years against rival Arizona State in an 8 p.m. MST showdown at Arizona Stadium. UA leads the all-time series 47-37-1, including a 31-27 win in a thriller at Sun Devil Stadium last season.
Close games would be an understatement. The last three contests were not decided until the game's final play.
Rodriguez is fully aware of just how serious the in-state battle for supremacy is for all involved.
"They're important to your guys, they're important to the coaches, important to the fans and alumni," Rodriguez said. "I think you probably do a little more offseason work on your rivalry than maybe other games on your schedule."
The Wildcats (7-4, 4-4 Pac-12 Conference) have the top-10, high-octane offense while the Sun Devils (6-5, 4-4 Pac-12) will bring the nation's top pass-rushing unit that has produced 47 sacks.
But all eyes will be on Ka'Deem Carey, the nation's leading rusher who also has the Arizona single-season record sitting in front of him. At 1,585 rushing yards, the sophomore needs just 18 yards to break Trung Canidate's 13-year-old mark.
"As long as we can stop the run and rattle the quarterback, everything else should take care of itself," ASU redshirt senior safety Keelan Johnson said.
In the past two weeks combined, Carey has collected 570 yards on the ground - including 366 two weeks ago against Colorado to set a new Pac-12 single-game record and top Canidate for the school's best performance. He also is 21 yards ahead of Nevada's Stefphon Jefferson for the rushing title, although UCLA's Johnathan Franklin (1,441 yards) sits in fifth place but with two games left to play.
With 19 rushing touchdowns, Carey also is just three shy of breaking Art Luppino's single-season school record set in 1954.
So, which record would the Tucson native prefer?
"I would have to say maybe the rushing record," Carey said. "Just because I feel like that's just a little bit more work. You've got to grind for each yard."
But with just a game separating the two, there will be position in the bowl picture at stake, as well. Among the likely destinations are the MAACO Bowl Las Vegas and the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas.
If that wasn't enough fuel for an already blazing fire, Rodriguez and Todd Graham's coaching staffs have a bit of history, too. Graham was a linebackers coach and co-defensive coordinator with Jeff Casteel for two seasons under Rodriguez at West Virginia.
During his one season at Pittsburgh last year, among Graham's assistants were Tony Dews, Tony Gibson and Calvin Magee - all of whom previously worked at Michigan and decided to reunite with Rodriguez in Tucson. Before accepting the Sun Devils' position, Graham called the three coaches "nothing but mercenaries," according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Hello, bulletin board material.
But Graham said he will not think too much about his past relationships with the UA staff.
"It is much bigger than any individual or any person or anything," Graham said.
"You don't want to beat yourself by being too emotionally evolved."
Rodriguez was in a bit lighter mood when asked about the Duel in the Desert and his former assistant.
"I think the rivalry makes it personal, in some regards," Rodriguez said. "But I'm not playing. I've been training, in case they allow me to play. If they change the rules and me and Todd go at it 1-on-1, I'll try to be ready for that. But that's not going to happen.
"I'm not playing, our coaches aren't playing. It's all the players."
Click Here to view this Link.Tracy McDannald
GOAZCATS.com Senior Editor