Fair or not, that's certainly the perception of an Arizona State team picked as a darkhorse candidate for the national championship, but one that finished just 6-6. The reward? A bowl game a mere 11 miles from campus, one that head coach Todd Graham said his team coveted, most likely because the other alternative would have been to stay home with one more defeat. West Virginia, meanwhile, started 3-4 and looked headed to a bowl closer to home before a mental offensive meltdown cost the regular season finale' against Kansas State.
With that went the chance to finish with five consecutive wins and right overall. That, according to what head coach Dana Holgorsen said prior to the KSU defeat, would have been the very definition of progress. But if the Mountaineers lose this game, what's the measure of the season? The guess here is a definite lack of success and in fact disappointment. Beat the Devils, and its only by playing advocate for another season that this one might be hinted at as something resembling decent.
Such is the set-up for the two programs, whose storylines have been well-documented; Todd Graham's time at both WVU and Pitt, Keith Patterson's tenure on both staffs, and with Tony Gibson at Pitt. But otherwise, one has to look to a previous match-up in 1979 for any history, other than the distant ones like ASU's win over Rich Rodriguez's Arizona team, or Mike Leach's Washington State squad topping the Sun Devils with Hologrsen under his coaching tree. It'll likely be a common theme for West Virginia in the Big 12, this cross-regional bowl match-up and the accompanying lack of enthusiasm.
On to the game. On paper, frankly, this seems to favor Arizona State. The Sun Devils, behind quarterback Mike Bercovici, averaged 34 points and 473.9 yards, while the senior completed 60 perceent ofhis throws with 26 scores against nine interceptions. The Devils can move the ball far better through the air than on the ground, and that's baad news for a WVU team which has allowed three 300-plus yard passing games. Add in that cornerback Daryl Worley is out due to academics, and ASU could be primed for a solid show. Keep in mind the Mountaineers were able to hold their other nine foes to just 175 yards on average, though some of those numbers are skewed because of the nonconference slate. Still, a passing attack that ranks 22nd nationally at 289 yards per game out of the spread more resembles Baylor, TCU and Oklahoma than Maryland, Georgia Southern and Liberty.
On the ground, ASU averages 184.8 yards, but should be bottled by a WVU front that has held its own in each game this season. Teams simply don't exploit the run against the Mountaineers with much consistency, and Gibson has his team fitting up well and with solid leverage and gap control. Arizona State has exploded for some major games on the ground, including 344 against Oregon, but that's simply not going to happen versus West Virginia. WVU's front, even without Eric Kinsey - another inexcuseable academic casualty - should be more than able to hold its own in the run game while its physical, speedy linebackers and hybrid safeties chase down its multiple backs. The key - and this seems to emerge every game - is to see if the Mountaineers can contain the run and generate a rush against an ASU line which starts four seniors and a junior.
The experience and size are there, but it's nothing West Virginia hasn't faced against the likes of Baylor and Oklahoma. The bet here is WVU contains the run, but gives up multiple major pass plays and doesn't pressure all that effectively. One thing it has going for it is the odd stack look. Countering that, though, is the five weeks of prep for the Sun Devils. On this side of the ball, ASU takes the passing game while WVU wins in the run.
On the flip side, it'll be interesting to see how West Virginia's offense responds after its mediocre showing against Kansas State. The Mountaineers can run with Wendell Smallwood, who frankly should have won the Big 12 rushing title, and would have except for a lack of carries in the lone remaining game for the next month-plus. Yet the coaching staff refused to use its best player enough, and it cost them the game and some major salvo for past similar issues. WVU, after all, averages 235.4 yards per game on the ground, good for 16th in the FBS - and that's after a season-low 166 against K-State. Will the coaches feel confident enough to allow Smallwood, who should now be very fresh, to carry the load if he's running well? Or will that be sacraficed for "balance" and the need to simply look at numbers in the box and ignore what's working?
The magic number here is 200. The Mountaineers have been held under that mark six times this season, and are just 2-4 in those games. In games in which WVU reaches 200-plus yards rushing, it is 5-0. The thought isn't to simply pound the best player into a curtain of defenders to spite critics. The thought is that if indeed the run is working, not to abandon it just for the sake of a change-up. If Smallwood is running effectively, and the game management and score allows it, run the back 30-plus times. There is no saving for next week, and there should not have been last game, either.
Keep in mind, Arizona State does have a very solid run defense, ranking 19th nationally at 124.4 yards per game. The Devils have allowed more than 185 yards just once this season, so this match-up is perhaps the most intriguing of the contest. Can WVU create seams and get Smallwood the incrimental space he needs? How does the line match a solid ASU front after weeks off? And which team shows better ability in short yardage situations?
This, much like West Virginia's passing game against the Arizona State secondary, is about even. The Mountaineers were able to average 229 yards over their last three games, but the quarterbacks have struggled, completing more than 50 percent of throws just once over the final eight games. The Devils have been shredded in the Pac 12, allowing 321.7 yards per game, good for 126th in the NCAA. The mark to note is about 300, which would put West Virginia over the 280-yard mark allowed by State in each of its last nine games. Foes put up 400 or more in four of those, but West Virginia's passing game, now without Jovon Durante as, you guessed it, another academic casualty, isn't up to par with most of the Pac 12.
With both the first two sides of the ball pretty even, this game could well come down to special teams and the always-unknown bowl intangibles. And, again, this reads like a toss-up. West Virginia blew the last game with its kickoff coverage against KSU's Morgan Burns, and though ASU doesn't have a returner with as much ability, Tim White took a return back 100 yards and averages a solid 25.6 yards per attempt. Placekicker Zane Gonzalez made 22 of 29 field goals, with a long of 45. Punter Matt Haack averaged 43.3 yards per punt. West Virginia's Nick O'Toole and Josh Lambert are a bit better, but the Devils win in the return game.
That leaves intangibles. West Virginia likely wanted a game in Arizona over a return to Memphis, but it would have loved a five-game winning streak, 8-4 overall record and a likely trip to Orlando. That would have made for a bigger fan traveling segment, more alumni already in the area and a far better day for the game to be played. Now, it's at 10:15 p.m. eastern as the last-gasp bowl before the national championship. It's even playing second - or third or fourth - fiddle in its own city, as the Fiesta Bowl will be played one day earlier, and the Cardinals are a surefire NFL playoff team who host defending NFC champ Seattle a day later.
How inspired will Arizona State be, playing this close to home? The one edge it will have is the vast majority of the fans will be wearing maroon and gold. With most of this balanced, including a vertiable push on the intagibles as well, watch a pair of things. First, how well can West Virginia run the ball, stay ahead of the chains, use Smallwood as much as posssible, and allow Skyler Howard to make comfortable throws? If that happens, the Mountaineers will be in excellent position to score some points and match the Devils' pass game.
West Virginia must protect the ball and finish - and this is big - in the red zone. It can't simply settle for field goals, and it must show an ability to put solid drives together after a vastly underwhelming performance in the last outing. On defense, control the line, and the run via its fits, tackle effectively (and oh, how big that is every game against spread sets) and at least limit ASU's passing. If Bercovici and his top two targets in seniors Devin Lucien and D.J. Foster - who combined for 111 catches for 1,375 yards and 10 touchdowns - get rolling and put a further depleted secondary on its heels, the game could be a long one for West Virginia.
This contest figures to be close, but one can never truly tell in a bowl setting. The unmistakable fact is that after the Kansas State game, and with the head coach locked in for next season, West Virginia badly needs this win for any kind of feel-good finish to the season, and into the offseason. If not, the 2015 campaign will be remembered more for losing when it truly counted than any of the seven and potentially eight wins, just one of which will come against a Power Five team with a winning record.