Arizona State vs. West Virginia: Cactus Bowl preview

Cactus Bowl preview: Can the West Virginia Mountaineers exploit the Arizona State Sun Devils' shaky secondary?
Publish date:

Arizona State (6–6) vs. West Virginia (7–5)

Jan. 2, 10:15 p.m. ET (ESPN)

Reason to watch

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It’s a chance to see how West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen’s team will perform only weeks after the school announced he would return for his sixth season at the helm. Holgorsen appeared to be in danger of losing his job after the Mountaineers dropped four straight games in October to fall to 3–4. But they bounced back in a major way: West Virginia ripped off four consecutive wins prior to a 24–23 defeat at Kansas State in its regular-season finale.

On the other sideline, quarterback Mike Bercovici will play his last game for Arizona State. The senior threw for 3,442 yards on the season, and he passed for more than 300 yards in three of his final five contests. 

Keep an eye on: Arizona State receiver Devin Lucien

The graduate transfer from UCLA closed out the 2015 campaign stronger than possibly any other wideout in the country, racking up 17 catches for 390 yards with four touchdowns over the Sun Devils’ last two games. Lucien was the program’s leading receiver on the year, finishing with 57 grabs for 930 yards and seven scores.

Did you know…?

Sun Devils running back Kalen Ballage once carried most of UCLA’s defense on his back en route to a 23-yard touchdown. During the waning moments of Arizona State’s 38–23 win on Oct. 3, Ballage, a sophomore, burst up the middle, charged into a group of Bruins’ defenders and, well, refused to go down. It made for one of the best highlights of year.

Final analysis

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Arizona State features an explosive offense and a formidable front seven that recorded 44 sacks in 2015, more than any defense in the nation besides Alabama’s. However, the Sun Devils’ secondary has left plenty to be desired. It surrenders 321.7 passing yards per game, second worst in the FBS. West Virginia has counted on its ground game this season (and junior tailback Wendell Smallwood, in particular) more than it has in the past, but Holgorsen still knows how to pick apart an opponent that is vulnerable through the air. Look for that—and a few key Josh Lambert field goals—to be the difference. 

The pick: West Virginia 37, Arizona State 28