Arizona State (9-3) vs. Duke (9-3)Dec. 27, 2:00, CBS
Here's The Deal: In a first-ever battle of dueling Devils, Arizona State and Duke meet in El Paso after squandering a chance to defend their divisional titles in the final month of the regular season.
ASU was in the Pac-12 South driver’s seat—and riding a four-game winning streak—following a Nov. 8 decimation of Notre Dame. There were even whispers that the Sun Devils might muscle their way into the College Football Playoff by running the table and winning the conference. And then late losses to Oregon State and Arizona changed everything, including the possibility of appearing in a marquee bowl game. No. 15 Arizona State is now left grasping for a second-straight 10-win season, which isn’t chump change considering where the program stood when Todd Graham took over in 2012. The last time ASU won 10 games in back-to-back years, Danny White was the quarterback more than four decades ago.
Has Duke raised expectations to an unfair level? The Blue Devils have nine wins, including a victory over Coastal Division champion Georgia Tech. And yet the Sun Bowl invite feels oddly hollow for a program that used to crave postseason invites, testament to how much David Cutcliffe has changed the culture in Durham. There’s also the reality that the Blue Devils, not the Yellow Jackets, controlled their own divisional destiny in mid-November before caving in at home to Virginia Tech and North Carolina in the span of five days. Ten-win seasons are even rarer on Tobacco Road than Tempe, occurring just once, in 2013.
Why Arizona State Might Win: ASU’s Big 3 on offense is arguably the best trio of playmakers the Blue Devils have faced this season. The Sun Devils feature plenty of pop, balance and explosiveness, which Duke will have a hard time matching. Taylor Kelly is a far more reliable quarterback than inconsistent Anthony Boone, and he’s supported by a couple of dynamite next-level playmakers, WR Jaelen Strong and multi-dimensional RB D.J. Foster. Since the Blue Devils are shaky in run defense, allowing 196 yards per game, ASU is poised to unleash both Foster and Demario Richard, who averaged 5.7 yards off the bench.
- While Arizona State’s aggregate defensive numbers are mediocre, Keith Patterson’s kids got much tougher as the season unfolded. Yeah, the Sun Devils will allow the occasional big play through the air, but they’ve been compensating with an attacking unit that has 39 sacks and will fluster the Blue Devils. ASU is going to attack with speed and tenacity from any angle that’s open. DE Marcus Hardison will provide pressure in the traditional fashion, while linebackers Salamo Fiso, Antonio Longino and Laiu Moeakiola cover a lot of ground in a short time.
- Kelly should have time to operate for a change. And he’s very effective when not being hounded in the pocket. The Sun Devils have given up far too many sacks this season, 37. But Duke lacks the quickness in the front seven to exploit Arizona State’s weakness. And none of its linemen have more than four sacks on the year. Plus, the ASU staff is confident in the blocking ability of C Nick Kelly, LG Christian Westerman and LT Jamil Douglas, who each earned some kind of All-Pac-12 recognition.
Why Duke Might Win: The Blue Devils are well coached, and are not going to beat themselves. Duke is a smart team—it makes few penalties and turnovers, and does the little things, like special teams, well. The Blue Devils are liable to gain an edge in El Paso off the leg of all-star P Will Monday and PK Ross Martin, or on a tempo-changing return from Devon Edwards or Jamison Crowder. Duke will be prepared, much the way it was for last New Year’s Eve Chick-fil-A Bowl against heavily favored Texas A&M.
- Even if the Blue Devils are unable to mount a consistent pass rush, they’ve got the defensive backs needed to neutralize Strong and the Sun Devil passing attack. Duke has given up just 12 touchdown passes over 12 games, thanks to the coverage skills of CB Breon Borders and safeties Jeremy Cash and DeVon Edwards. Cash and Edwards are 100-tackle playmakers, as is LB David Helton, the recipient of the Campbell Trophy given to the nation’s top scholar-athlete.
- Boone has underachieved this season. But after being one of the heroes of last year’s bowl game, he’s got a chance to reprise that role this December. Boone is a savvy senior who’s been there and done that. And he’s going to get a lot of help from his blockers, who’ve yielded only 13 sacks, and an underrated set of skill players. Jamison Crowder is one of the ACC’s premier receivers, and the Duke backs average five yards a carry. Speedy Shaun Wilson, reliable Shaquille Powell and even change-of-pace QB Thomas Sirk will get a crack at exploiting the interior of the ASU line.
What’s Going To Happen: The maroon Devils are going to outscore the blue Devils, provided they arrive in West Texas properly motivated.
As long as ASU cares, it’ll have too much talent and speed for a Duke squad that overachieved to reach this point. The Blue Devils will stay close in the first half, because Cutcliffe is that good. But the Sun Devils will pull away over the final 30 minutes behind Foster, Strong and Kelly, with a cameo from hard-throwing backup QB Mike Bercovici not out of the question.
Prediction: Arizona State 40 … Duke 28