(Photo: Scotty Bara/WCSN)
One month removed from its last glimpse of in-game action, the Arizona State football team is currently undergoing a “normal” week of practice in El Paso, Texas.
“Normal” in quotations because nothing is ever normal about Bowl Week in college football.
The Sun Devils were greeted at the airport on Tuesday by folkorico dancers and mariachi music; a Rotary Sun Bowl Football Team Luncheon awaits both teams on Friday at 11 a.m., in which ASU and Duke will introduce its starting lineups; Fan Fiesta on Friday night highlights the laundry-list of activities that give the bowl its unique atmosphere and tradition.
The Sun Bowl website even deems it necessary to include a tab that says, “The Sun Bowl Game,” another subtle hint that the Sun Bowl identity is not limited to the action on the field.
But even with the distractions, nothing about the Sun Devils’ preparation for the Sun Bowl deviates from their preparation for any regular season game. Accordingly, neither will the coverage from Cronkite Sports.
What follows is a preview for the 81st Sun Bowl, with a specific emphasis on familiarizing the Sun Devil community with the 9-3 Duke Blue Devils.
Snapshot of Duke
Under the guidance of David Cutcliffe, Duke’s appearance in the Sun Bowl is the program’s third straight postseason bid.
Though Duke has historically underachieved and was consistently neglected in the bowl selection process, Cutcliffe has revitalized a fan base and given hope for years of sustained success.
Of Duke’s nine wins in 2014 (its second straight nine-win season), its 31-25 win over then-No. 22, now-No. 12 Georgia Tech was the most resume-enhancing. Other than that, the remaining eight of Duke’s wins came against teams that finished the season at or below .500—teams that had a combined record of 27-69
All three of the Blue Devils’ losses came against teams that finished the season with 6-6 records. Two of those losses (a nail-bitter against defensively-inclined, offensively-challenged Virginia Tech and a crushing defeat to North Carolina) came in the last three games of the season, and effectively knocked Duke out of contention for an appearance in the ACC Championship game.
Even though Cutcliffe is known as a breeder of great quarterbacks—he coached both Peyton and Eli Manning during his coaching stints at Tennessee and Ole Miss—his 2014 Duke team strikes a near perfect balance of running and passing. Totaling 448 rushes and 438 passes, Duke showcases a sterling 1.02 run-to-pass ratio.
As a result, Anthony Boone, Duke’s senior quarterback, has numbers that scream “game manager.”
Boone has dinked and dunked his way to 2,507 passing yards this season, averaging just 5.94 yards per attempt. Half of those passing yards have been directed at his favorite target in Jamison Crowder, who leads the team with 78 receptions and 942 receiving yards. Crowder also ranks second in school history with 3,539 career receiving yards.
The second half of Duke’s offensive attack is a running game that may look uninspiring on the surface, but is actually quite impressive when considering the committee approach that Cutcliffe employs.
Shaquille Powell, a 5’10”, 205-pound junior is the punch-you-in-the-throat back of the group. His meager two touchdowns, 4.8 yards/carry and zero 100-yard rushing games to date may indicate that he is more plodder than bruiser, but he has received the starting nod in all but two of Duke’s games and leads the unit with 105 carriers.
Shaun Wilson, a 5’9” true freshman, and Josh Snead, a 5’9” senior, both serve as the change-of-pace backs and both showcase speedster numbers to back that up.
Wilson has been particularly impressive, accumulating 590 yards on only 74 carries for an 8.0 yard per carry average. Only once has he received double-digit carries, and probably un-coincidentally busted loose for 245 yards.
Matchup to Watch
Strength against strength always makes for intriguing television, and that’s exactly what watching the battle in the trenches—Duke’s offensive line versus ASU’s blitz-heavy defense—will entail.
Duke has allowed just 40 tackles for loss all season—the lowest mark in the country—and only yielded 13 total sacks as well.
They’ll be tasked with defending an all-or-nothing, blitz-oriented ASU defense that ranks ninth in the nation with 39 sacks and sixth in the nation with 298 yards lost on those sacks.
If Duke is able to neutralize ASU’s pass rush, big plays are bound to open up down the field. If ASU is able to limit the success of Duke’s impenetrable offensive line and get to Anthony Boone, nearly half of Duke’s offensive attack will be shut down.
ASU Wins If…
Duke wins football games by executing the little, but critical, aspects of the game to the letter of the textbook of fundamentals.
The Blue Devils keep the pocket surrounding Boone sparkling; Boone doesn’t throw interceptions; and the rest of the team protects the football.
But over Duke’s last three games, it has abandoned its early-season make-the-other-team-beat-you identity.
Duke has only committed 12 turnovers this season, the 11th in the FBS, yet six of them have come in its last two games. Similarly, Boone has only thrown seven interceptions in 2014, but four of them have come in his last three games. Perhaps the culprit for this uptick has been the normally-good offensive line allowing nine sacks in the team’s last three games.
Of course, ASU is the ranked team and the favorite so even if Duke rediscovers its prior form, the Sun Devils may still be in position for a win.
The point is, if Duke continues to deviate from what notched them nine wins, the game could become a laugher.
ASU Loses If…
There isn’t one precise scenario that could result in an ASU loss. Rather, the area of concern for the Sun Devils is simply that Duke matches up very well with the folks in Maroon and Gold.
Duke excels at kickoff returns, posting the fifth-highest mark in the country at 25.12 yards/return, whereas ASU has shown a tendency to dole out large chunks of yards in the return game due to flimsy coverage.
The Sun Devils’ offense is also primed on getting the ball out of the hands of quarterback Taylor Kelly and into the hands of the playmaking running back DJ Foster and wide receiver Jaelen Strong in open space.
Duke counters that, however, with the sure-fire tackling skills of linebacker David Helton, safety DeVon Edwards and safety Jeremy Cash. All three have logged 100 tackles this year.
Also, with the Sun Bowl being Taylor Kelly’s final collegiate game and Kelly controversially receiving the start over Mike Bercovici, the senior will be looking to prove that he is still the best option at quarterback for ASU.
But looking-to-prove-something can easily transform into trying to unnecessarily force the issue.
Quarterbacks can get away with trying to force said issue against some Pac-12 defenses, but that may be a different story when trying to do too much against a Duke defense that has only allowed 12 passing touchdowns to date—the tenth-best mark in the country.
Numbers aside though, Duke may simply have more for which to play.
Ranked as high as No. 6 and in the thick of the College Football Playoff Race at one point in the season, ASU stumbled down the stretch and disappointed against inferior teams. As much as head coach Todd Graham says otherwise, the Sun Devils will inevitably feel demeaned by having to play in the Sun Bowl.
Duke on the other hand is undoubtedly hungry to win its first bowl game since 1961 and secure its first back-to-back 10-win season in program history.
Juxtaposing Duke’s strengths and ASU’s shortcomings, the Blue Devils may not have the raw talent, but they may have the perfect recipe to exploit to the Sun Devils and win on Saturday.
Making predictions is all about minimizing risk, and making one based on the unpredictable mindsets of each team going into the game is indeed extremely risky.
Better teams and better talent win out more times than not, and accordingly, the Sun Devils will be crowned Sun Bowl champs.