West Virginia, Arizona State set to play at Chase Field
PHOENIX (AP) West Virginia traveled across the country to play what's essentially a home game for Arizona State with a start time past 10 p.m. back home.
Instead of complaining, the Mountaineers are embracing the challenge.
Besides, hanging out in Arizona during the dead of winter isn't bad.
''This is a fantastic place,'' West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said. ''Number one bowl destination, in my opinion, to be able to come spend this time of the year here. We're excited about being here.''
West Virginia (7-5) arrived in the desert by starting the season strong, losing its first four Big 12 game, then winning four of its final five games.
Arizona State (6-6) was considered a dark horse to reach the College Football Playoff and never came close.
The Sun Devils opened the season with a loss to Texas A&M in Houston, were blown out by Southern California in their Pac-12 opener and sputtered to their worst record in four seasons under coach Todd Graham after losing four of six to close the year.
Arizona State clinched its bowl berth with a lopsided victory over rival Arizona on Nov. 21 and could have opted to play somewhere else, but decided to stay at home instead.
''I think it's great for us,'' said Graham, for former West Virginia assistant. ''I know when we went through things when we got to the end of the season, we were sitting waiting to decide where we want to go. I sat down with our seniors and this was where we wanted to go.''
The Sun Devils weren't exactly home, though. They practiced all week at their on-campus facility, but stayed at a casino in nearby Chandler.
Even so, their 10-mile journey to play at Chase Field is much shorter than the 15-hour trip the Mountaineers had to get here.
A few more things to watch when West Virginia plays Arizona State in the Cactus Bowl Saturday night:
TURNOVER BATTLE: West Virginia was one of the nation's best teams at forcing turnovers, while Arizona State was uncharacteristically sloppy with the ball this season. The Mountaineers finished second nationally both in turnovers gained with 31 and interceptions with 23. The Sun Devils had been superb at holding onto the ball during their first three seasons under Graham, but finished 55th nationally this season, losing 19 turnovers - 10 of those fumbles.
STRENGTH ON STRENGTH: Arizona State's attacking defense was strong against the run, finishing tied for 20th nationally at 124.4 yards rushing allowed per game. West Virginia, led by Wendell Smallwood, was 14th nationally with 235.3 yards per game on the ground. Smallwood had 1,447 yards - 15th in the nation - and scored nine touchdowns. Something will have to give.
SPEEDY SUN DEVILS: While the Sun Devils will have their hands full with Smallwood, the Mountaineers will have a big challenge in slowing Arizona State's quick-hitting offense. Though not quite as prolific as the past few years, the Sun Devils still put up big numbers, ranking 23rd nationally with 473.8 yards per game and 37th in scoring with 34 points per game. And they play fast, often snapping the ball right after the official places it on the ground.
CHASE FIELD: The game will be played a unique venue: Chase Field, home of the Arizona Diamondbacks. The bowl is usually held at Arizona State's Sun Devil Stadium, but it is undergoing renovations so the next three Cactus Bowls will be at Chase Field. The baseball stadium used to be home to the Insight Bowl, last played there in 2005. Fresh sod was added to cover up the dirt in the infield and bleachers were added to bring fans closer to the field.
AP College Football website: collegefootball.ap.org