Arizona St.-Duke Preview
Seasons which showed so much promise well into November ended with a whimper for Arizona State and Duke.
The similarly disappointing finishes these programs endured kept them out of conference title games and one of college football's premier postseason spectacles, leaving them to meet in the Sun Bowl on Saturday in El Paso.
That doesn't mean the Blue Devils (9-3) won't be eager to face the 15th-ranked Sun Devils (9-3). Besides having the chance to defeat a Top 25 team from outside the ACC for the first time since winning at Stanford in 1971, Duke is seeking its first postseason victory since the 1961 Cotton Bowl.
Coach David Cutcliffe is also trying to lead the Blue Devils to a second consecutive 10-win season after the program never previously had one.
"We are really excited to play a team as talented and as highly ranked as Arizona State," Cutcliffe told the Blue Devils' official website. "These are two teams with a lot of playmakers.
"... It is important to our guys to finish strong with this win."
Both teams opened 8-1 and in position to defend their division titles, as Duke led the ACC Coastal and Arizona State was atop the Pac-12 South. Things started to go south for both schools Nov. 15.
The Blue Devils were upset 17-16 at home by a Virginia Tech team which had lost three straight. The Sun Devils' loss was worse, having climbed to No. 7 in the AP poll but falling 35-27 to Oregon State - the Beavers' only win in their final seven games.
That defeat cost Arizona State a shot at the College Football Playoff, though it still had a chance to reach the Pac-12 title game going into the season finale. That came against archrival Arizona, which won 42-35 and would end up in the Fiesta Bowl despite losing the conference championship to Oregon.
"It's the ultimate bitter taste in our mouths and it's going to last the rest of our lives," said quarterback Mike Bercovici, who threw for two touchdowns but also had a key fourth-quarter interception.
Like ASU, Duke would lose to its biggest rival to see its conference title hopes fade away. Five days after falling to the Hokies, the Blue Devils were blown out at home 45-20 by North Carolina. That left the door open for Georgia Tech to win the Coastal, and it reached the Orange Bowl despite losing the ACC crown to Florida State.
Duke did come back to beat Wake Forest 41-21 in its final game.
"Toward the end of the season, we didn't win some ball games that we definitely needed to win, but it's been a fun ride," senior Jamison Crowder said.
Crowder's play is one reason Duke is in a bowl game for the third straight year for the first time. An all-ACC pick as both a receiver and return specialist, Crowder has 276 career receptions and 5,402 all-purpose yards - both good for third among active FBS players. He was second in the ACC this season with 78 catches.
Arizona State has a similar weapon in Jaelen Strong, who totaled 75 receptions and surpassed 1,000 yards for the second straight season. The all-Pac-12 performer, who has 10 TD receptions in 2014, announced earlier this week that he will forgo his senior season and enter the NFL draft.
Taylor Kelly will be throwing to Strong instead of Bercovici, at least to begin the game. Kelly will start after being benched in the third quarter against Arizona. The senior failed to throw for more than 270 yards in any of his nine starts and was sacked 24 times in the last six.
Bercovici started three games in place of an injured Kelly earlier this season, throwing for 1,243 yards with nine TDs and two INTs.
Duke didn't have reliable quarterback play this year, either. Anthony Boone's 116.8 passer rating and 5.94 yards per attempt ranked toward the bottom of the ACC.
Boone did rush for 346 yards and five TDs for a Blue Devils offense which rushed for 183.3 per game without one player gaining more than 600.
Arizona State wasn't running the ball effectively late in the season, averaging 2.9 yards per carry in its last three games. D.J. Foster rushed for 1,002 yards, but more than half came in the first three games. Foster, though, was a solid receiving option all season with 59 catches for 646 yards.
The Sun Devils, making their fifth Sun Bowl appearance, are trying to post back-to-back 10-win seasons for the first time since 1970-73.
"This is a great opportunity for us to compete against a top-notch program and close out the 2014 season on a high note," coach Todd Graham said.
These programs are meeting for the first time.