West Virginia-Arizona St. Preview
As bowl destinations go, Arizona State certainly could have done worse for what was largely considered an underachieving season.
The Sun Devils get to close out their disappointing 2015 campaign with a de facto home game in the Cactus Bowl opposite West Virginia on Saturday night.
Arizona State (6-6) had higher aspirations for a program coming off consecutive 10-win seasons and ranked 15th in the preseason AP Top 25. Early blowout losses to Texas A&M and Southern California and three straight midseason defeats shattered hopes for a major bowl, though the Sun Devils rebounded to win two of their last three and become postseason-eligible with a 52-37 win over rival Arizona on Nov. 21.
The silver lining is a 20-minute trip to downtown Phoenix's Chase Field to face a Power 5 opponent in front of an expected partisan crowd.
"I'm looking at the bright side," senior wide receiver D.J. Foster said. "To be able to play my last game in front of a lot of family and friends, to see a lot of the Sun Devil community that's been supporting us this year and throughout the last four years, for people that can't usually make that travel to be able to see us play."
West Virginia (7-5) also has motivation despite another mid-pack finish in the rugged Big 12 under coach Dana Holgorsen. The Mountaineers can still earn their most wins since joining the conference in 2012, as well as their first bowl victory since routing Clemson in the Orange a season earlier.
"We can finish with eight wins. No West Virginia University Big 12 team has done that," Holgorsen said. "We can win a bowl game, and that is something to be proud of. If you finish 8-5 and win a bowl game against a quality opponent, it puts a smile on your face. That gives you a big boost heading into the offseason."
The Mountaineers endured a roller-coaster season as well, starting 3-0 before losing four straight to the Big 12's upper tier. They followed with four consecutive wins prior to a 24-23 defeat at Kansas State in the finale.
Arizona State, making a fifth straight bowl appearance under one-time WVU assistant Todd Graham, also faced a daunting slate that contained 10 teams that reached the postseason.
The Sun Devils' next challenge may be restoring continuity to an offense that saw coordinator Mike Norvell depart to become Memphis' head coach. Offensive line coach Chris Thomsen will call plays for a unit that averaged 473.9 total yards and possesses impact players at every level.
Quarterback Mike Bercovici threw for 26 touchdowns - four in a 48-46 loss at California in the Nov. 28 regular-season finale. Foster, Devin Lucien and Tim White all had over 50 catches and Demario Richard (1,056 yards) had four 100-yard rushing efforts over the final five games.
"It will be a challenge for us defensively," Holgorsen said. "Clearly, in the Big 12 you are facing up-tempo offenses. You are facing balanced offenses with good wideouts, so our guys are used to that. They know that if they relax against an opponent like this they are going to blow right by us."
Lucien may be the greatest threat, as the UCLA transfer has 391 yards and four TDs on 17 catches in ASU's last two outings.
The Mountaineers can counter with a defense that's second in the FBS with 23 interceptions and has held teams to a 51.0 percent completion rate, even with star safety Karl Joseph suffering a season-ending knee injury after four games.
It'll also be strength against strength when the Mountaineers have the ball. Running back Wendell Smallwood (1,447 yards) heads a WVU ground attack averaging 235.2 yards, while the aggressive Sun Devils defense ranks second in the Pac-12 against the run and among the national leaders in sacks (44) and tackles for loss (101).
Quarterbacks have abused ASU's blitz-happy scheme, however. The Sun Devils have permitted 30 passing touchdowns and 321.3 yards per game through the air, with Cal's Jared Goff throwing for 542 yards and five TDs in the finale.
Whether the Mountaineers can take advantage remains to be seen. Quarterback Skyler Howard has completed 49.8 percent of his throws over the last seven games and WVU is 0-4 when he attempts 35 passes or more.
Each school is making a second appearance in this game, both when it was known as the Insight Bowl. Arizona State defeated Rutgers 45-40 in the 2005 edition and West Virginia lost 34-31 to Missouri in the 1998 game in Tucson.