TEMPE, Ariz. – This is a game between two football teams that have been working hard to climb any bit closer to the top of the Pac-12, but are still unsure if there will be any reward at the end.
It’s a little like Hayden Butte, which rises 1,495 feet to the west of Sun Devil Stadium.
From the top, one can see downtown Phoenix in the distance … the final four letters of ARIZONA S(TATE) in the stadium’s north end zone directly below … and, flying low directly above, streaming airplanes on their way to touch down.
From the west trailhead, it’s 798 steps to the butte’s summit. It’s a moderate 15-minute trek. Until the final surge, that is. It’s there that hikers are greeted by sharp, jagged rock, loose gravel and, finally, a small locked gate with a “No Trespassing” sign just behind it.
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Those last few steps are the toughest.
At 3 p.m. Friday, 24 hours before kickoff between Washington and Arizona State on that grass field below, the view from the top was pretty spectacular. A blue sky and comfortable 86-degree heat made it all the better.
The forecast calls for almost identical conditions Saturday afternoon, under which the Huskies (4-2, 1-2 Pac-12) and Sun Devils (4-2, 2-1) will attempt another step toward the top of the Pac-12.
They’ve both been locked out for a while.
And for both, a victory Saturday would go a long way toward regaining relevance in the Pac-12 chase.
“It’s a must-win situation for us,” Arizona State coach Todd Graham said, “and our guys know that.”
The game carries equal significance for the 20th-ranked Huskies, who are looking to end a two-game losing skid. Since 2004, UW has had a losing streak of at least three games in every season.
And the Huskies have won just three of their past 10 Pac-12 road games going back to the start of the 2011 season.
“The key with it is we don’t have to be different,” UW coach Steve Sarkisian said. “We can bottle up the same energy, enthusiasm, focus, determination and ultimately execution that we play with at Husky Stadium and take it right on the road with us.”
The Huskies played well on offense and defense two week ago at then-No. 5 Stanford. Special-teams miscues proved costly in a 31-28 defeat.
Then, last week, No. 2 Oregon wore down Washington in the fourth quarter en route to a 45-24 victory. The Ducks rolled up 631 yards of total offense, the most the UW defense has allowed to a Pac-12 opponent since 2007, when Oregon had 661. (Only Baylor, with 777 in the 2011 Alamo Bowl, had more yards against UW during that stretch.)
“I don’t know if it’s a wake-up call,” UW defensive end Hau’oli Kikaha said. “We obviously see where we stand.”
The Huskies were beaten repeatedly by big plays against Oregon — the same kind of big plays that have helped Arizona State rank in the top 10 nationally in scoring at 44.2 points a game.
“I gotta do a better job during the week preparing and helping our guys be successful,” UW defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said. “And then when we get on the field, we have to be successful and apply the things we worked on during the week. Whether we were a step out of position here or there against a team like that, when you’re a step late it’s gonna show up in a pretty big way.”
And for both teams Saturday, a big hurdle awaits.
Adam Jude: 206-464-2364 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @a_jude