Two high-powered offenses square off in Cactus Bowl
The Cactus Bowl is not where Arizona State or West Virginia envisioned themselves to be at the beginning of the season.
Arizona State finished one game out of the Pac 12 South division lead in 2014, returned 17 starters and were ranked 15th in the 2015 preseason AP poll. West Virginia was sporting an elite defense and had faith in its offensive coaching staff to at a minimum be able to scheme their way to a ten-win season. Neither team was able to capitalize. Both teams had a midseason losing streak that doomed their conference title hopes for 2015.
Previewing the matchup
For the most part, both teams beat the bad teams and lost to the good teams. West Virginia had a brutal conference schedule at the start. Their first four conference games were against Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Baylor and TCU. Those four teams combined for a grade of +808. The Mountaineers lost all four. They rebounded nicely with four straight wins, but the combined grade of those teams was -781.
Arizona State’s wins came against teams with a combined grade of -162 and its losses were to teams with a +492 grade. That is where the similarities of these teams end. Arizona State is a very balanced team. Offensively they are led by senior quarterback Mike Bercovici (+16.1). Bercovici has solid players to work with at every skill position. Demario Richard (+10.3) and Kalen Ballage (+8.9) are effective out of the backfield, but the Sun Devils best player is D.J. Foster. After playing running back for his first three seasons, Foster moved to wide receiver in 2015. His grade (-0.2) is mostly because of difficulties associated with the position change.
Foster causes matchup issues for opposing defenses because of his versatility. Devin Lucien (+12.7) and Gary Chambers (+4.2) fill out a very good receiving core. Defensively, ASU is solid against the run, but has struggled to defend the pass. Every cornerback to play a snap for the Sun Devils has a negative grade in pass coverage.
For West Virginia, it’s all about defense. They are PFF’s 15th-ranked defense at +152.8 and have been tested this season by four top 20 offenses. Senior linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski (+31.2) anchors the defense and has a positive grade in every game this season. He and defensive tackle Kyle Rose (+26.1) specialize in taking away the opponents running game.
When forced to defend the pass, the Mountaineers have been up for the task. They are very deep at defensive back with eleven players having a positive grade. West Virginia’s success will be determined by the ability of their offense to take advantage of ASU’s defensive weaknesses. The Mountaineers have a very good offensive line and power running game. Running back Wendell Smallwood (+10.7) ran for over 1,400 yards and averages 6.4 yards per carry.
Players to watch
WVU’s Skyler Howard
Howard has struggled at times this season but has been good overall posting a grade of +7.4. He throws too many interceptions (12) and has a low completion percentage (54.8) put does a good job stretching the defense with 7.38 yards per attempt and a yards in air (YIA) percentage of 59.4 (13th in the nation).
ASU’s Antonio Longino
Longino is one of the premier pass rushing linebacker in college football. He leads the nation among linebackers with a whopping 35 quarterback pressures. His game against Washington in week 11 was literally off CFF’s standard chart with a grade of +12.2. He is equally effective as a pass rusher and run stopper.
In almost all cases, the matchups in this game will be one team’s weakness against the other team’s strength. In the end, West Virginia will be able to run the ball enough to open up a few plays down the field.
West Virginia 31, Arizona State 28