The Chalkboard: WVU - Arizona State

In the eyes of the jaded, the Cactus Bowl means little. Words like “irrelevant” and “meaningless” get thrown around by the hot take crowd. For thinking fans and observers, though, there's plenty of meaning in the West Virginia – Arizona State match-up in Phoenix. From the players to the head coach, this game will not only set a tone, but also have a significant impact in 2016.

OK, we admit that this game isn't for the national title, and not many outside the fan bases of the two schools will take anything other than casual notice. However, that doesn't mean that the game isn't important. For West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen, it's right next door to vital. He knows he's on what amounts to a watch list for the coming year, and getting a win in this game is very important for him. This doesn't mean that a loss will result in him losing his job following the 2016 campaign, but it could wind up being one of the determining factors if, for example, the Mountaineers put up another 7-5 season.

For Sun Devil coach Todd Graham, there's not quite the immediacy of importance, but in today's world it won't take long for him to feel some heat. Following on a pair of 10-win seasons, this year's 6-6 record brought a bit of grumbling, coming as it did on the heels of some predictions for a Pac-12 title. Still, he's riding plenty of goodwill, so the pressure isn't on him as much as it is West Virginia's head man. Will that make a difference in the way they coach the game?

There's also the matter of simple prestige in being able to hang a “champions” banner. With so many bowl games dotting the schedule now, simply going to one isn't a measure of any real success. It's either get to the CFP or one of the half-dozen or so “big bowls”, or win your bowl. That's the new benchmark of success in postseason play, and perhaps that's the way it should be. Just getting to a bowl is a participation trophy – actually winning it is a mark of achievement.

There there are the players themselves, and their level of motivation. This is the toughest angle to figure out, because everyone says the same things about being excited to play, winning for the seniors, going out on a good note, etc. But do all, or the majority of the players, really believe that? The ones that do, and are ready to play, are the ones that will succeed and likely power their teams to victory. And the ones that have bought in – well, it's clear that the game is important to them, no matter what the rest of football fandom thinks.

It's time – way past time – for WVU's Jordan Thompson to get a chance from the get-go at receiver. Through much of this season, Thompson hasn't been in the starting lineup or the first player used in the slot position. However, when called upon, often after a series of drops by other wideouts, he produces. By virtue of those performances, he should get some early chances. The coaches many be seeing other things, or different levels of productivity, in practice or in other areas, but the fact is that Thompson has far fewer drops than anyone else in the Mountaineer receiving rotation. With fewer snaps and targets than many of his teammates, Thompson has still managed to compile 28 catches for an average of 15.3 yards per reception. How big of a boost would it be to WVU's passing game for it to enjoy a couple of third down conversions via the pass early in the game? Thompson is listed as the backup at slot, but he knows all of the receiver positions, so it might not be a bad idea to give him a chance there as well. He's not going to go up and beat someone in a jump ball or a one-on-one battle, but how many of those wins have been delivered by other receivers this year?

WVU (7-5) vs. Arizona State (6-6) Sat Jan 2 10:15 PM EST
Cactus Bowl Chase Field Phoenix, AZ
Series: ASU 1-0 TV: ESPN Sirius\XM: 80

How much will the venue have an effect on the game? There has been a bit of discussion about the close quarters behind the end zones, as there is just enough room to lay out the football gridiron inside Chase Field between the home plate-first base side of the park and the outfield wall. The sidelines look to be fine, but looming just behind the end zones, especially the “left” one on the TV broadcast, are padded walls. (In this case, it's the left and left-centerfield walls.) That could certainly have an effect on passes to the back of the end zone. Another item, which hasn't been brought up, is the angle of the lights. Those are installed for the best lighting and least glare for the baseball field, and they will be lighting the field from a different angle than that usually employed in most football stadiums. “Losing it in the lights” could be a factor in this night game.

Much of the focus on the Cactus Bowl has centered on West Virginia's offense against Arizona State's defense, but less has been analyzed of the reverse. One of the compelling players and match-ups to watch here is that of Arizona State multi-purpose threat D.J Foster, who is one of only five players in NCAA Division 1 history to account for more than 2,000 yards both on the ground and via reception in their careers (WVU alum Charles Sims is one of the other five). Foster has been a smaller part of ASU's rushing attack this year than in previous seasons, but has still accounted for 5.3 yards per carry to go along with 54 catches and 544 receiving yards.

Foster will provide a challenge for the second level of West Virginia's defense, which will be tasked with covering him in the passing game. ASU will try to get him matched up against slower linebackers, while the Mountaineers will counter with their shifting coverages and drops to try to produce incorrect reads and bad decisions from ASU QB Mike Berkovici. It won't be a surprise to see the Sun Devils feature Foster early in the game, or go to him in key situations with routes or runs designed to take advantage of a particular WVU defensive set or coverage.

Ten of Arizona State's 12 2015 foes played in bowl games this year, and one of those was an FCS opponent. Again, that's a less-impressive number than it would have been just a decade ago, but it still is representative of the Sun Devils' strength of schedule. WVU faced seven teams that played in bowls or the CFP this season. Mountaineer opponents that didn't make a bowl game were Liberty (FCS) , Maryland, Texas, Kansas and Iowa State. Not surprisingly, those teams accounted for five of West Virginia's seven wins.

If the Cactus Bowl plays out as closely as oddsmakers predict, the likelihood of special teams as a determining factor rises. There are a number of similarities in the performances of the kickers and punters in the contest, with one big advantage accruing to one side.

Placekickers Josh Lambert and Zane Gonzalez are nearly identical this year, with the former making 18 of his 25 attempts for WVU while nailing all 49 of his PATs. Gonzalez wass 19-25 on field goals for the Sun Devils and likewise perfect on PATs, although with 12 fewer attempts. The duo combined to miss just three attempts of 40 yards or fewer, making themselves a near-mirror image of each other.

WVU punter Nick O'Toole owns a yardage edge over counterpart Matt Haack, as the Mountaineer senior averaged 45.7 yards per boot as opposed to Haack's 43.2. They each put almost the same number of punts inside the 20-yard line (24-23 in favor of O'Toole). O'Toole also had a better chance of flipping the field, as he had 26 punts of 50 yards or more as opposed to Haack's 13. Still that's a pretty even battle, and one that is offset by a big Sun Devil advantage on kickoffs. There, Gonzalez put 48 of his 62 kickoffs into the end zone for touchbacks, while O'Toole had just 17 in 66 attempts.

Thus upshot of those touchback numbers is that ASU foes gained just 378 yards on kickoff returns, while Mountaineer opponents gained 1,191. WVU's kickoff coverage team did a very good job for the most part, allowing just 22.9 yards per return, but as was seen in the Kansas State game, given enough opportunities, a team is going to break a return at some point. ASU was able to hide a so-so coverage unit that yielded 31.5 yards per return on those 12 chances by preventing returns altogether – and that's an advantage to watch and track in this final game of the year.

Finally, at the risk of beating a dead horse, it needs to be reiterated. West Virginia has to get more use out of Wendell Smallwood. We've analyzed his usage rates and discussed several angles, but it all comes down to this: He's healthy, says he can take more work, and he's the Mountaineers' most consistent offensive player.

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