3:30 PM EST, ABC – Line: Fresno State -4, Over/Under: 53.5
After another entertaining season, it’s now time to kick off the annual parade of Bowls as the Twenty-First-Ranked Fresno State Bulldogs meet the Arizona State Sun Devils in the Mitsubishi Motors Las Vegas Bowl from Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas, Nevada. Some would certainly argue that the Las Vegas Bowl is a bit below the mark set by Fresno State (11-2, 8-1 in MWC) this season, particular after securing their first Mountain West Conference Title since 2013, which has coincidentally raised their profile to Nineteenth in the AP Poll. After all, this is an eleven-win team that we’re talking about folks, and even if they happen to play in the Mountain West, you think that they would have bene granted a more prestigious Bowl than one on the first weekend of the Postseason. Either way, the Bulldog faithful have to be pleased with the job that Jeff Tedford has done in Southern California, for in two years on the job, the veteran Head Coach has gone 21-6 with the Program, which is a dramatic improvement from the miserable 1-11 state that they were in before he arrived. Long recognized as one of the more respected offensive minds in the collegiate game, Tedford’s Offense has improved greatly in Year Two, particularly with Marcus McCaryion settling in at Quarterback. The former Oregon State transfer has been very impressive this season, completing 69.8% of his Passes for 3,453 Yards on 8.7 Yards per Attempt, with Twenty-Five Touchdowns in comparison to just Three Interceptions, while also making good use of his legs, rushing for seven more scores and 253 Yards. As a team, the Bulldogs are averaging 34.9 Points (26th Overall) on 421.0 Total Yards, including 274.2 Yards through the air and another 146.8 Yards on the ground. What has made this unit so effective is the fact that just about everyone on the field can be utilized as a Receiver, particularly the Tailbacks. Sophomores Jordan Mims (113 CAR, 436 YDS, 3.9 Y/C, 6 TD) and Ronnie Rivers (108 CAR, 531 YDS, 4.9 Y/C, 8 TD) have been the most prominent in a Backfield platoon, but have each topped 270 Receiving Yards, with the tandem combining for Forty-Three Receptions for 564 Yards on 13.1 Yards per Catch, and Five Touchdowns. This has taken pressure off of Senior Receiver KeeSean Johnson (93 REC, 1,307 YDS, 14.1 Y/R, 8 TD), who will be playing his final game with the Bulldogs this weekend. Johnson has been a pass-catching machine over the past two years, accumulating 170 Receptions for 2,320 Yards and Sixteen Touchdowns in that timeframe. With that said, when we last saw these guys, they weren’t all that prolific in the Mountain West Conference Championship Game against Boise State, though nonetheless managed to avenge an earlier defeat in the 19-16 Overtime Victory. You can chalk this one up to the Defense, folks, which for all intents and purposes has been the proverbial backbone for this team since Tedford took over last season, relegating the Broncos to just Sixteen Points and 350 Total Yards. Then again, that’s nothing new for anyone who has kept an eye on Fresno State this term, for they’ve allowed a paltry 13.7 Points per Game (3rd Overall) on 323.8 Total Yards, including 194.1 Yards against the Pass, and another 129.8 Yards versus the Run. However, where they’ve really made their money has been in Takeaways, forcing Twenty-Four thus far, Seventeen of which have been Interceptions, with ten different players logging a Pick, including three of them with a trifecta apiece. A veteran Secondary consisting of the likes of Mike Bell (77 TKL, 3.5 TFL, 0.5 SK, 3 INT, 8 PD), JuJu Hughes (70 TKL, 3 INT, 7 PD), and Anthoula Kelly (55 TKL, 3 INT, 16 PD, 1 TD, 1 FF) have made play after play for the Bulldogs, who have held seven opponents below 200 Passing Yards and 50.0% Completions. This weekend’s trip to the Las Vegas Bowl will be Tedford’s second straight since arriving in Fresno, leading his charges to a 33-27 victory over Houston in last year’s Hawaii Bowl, while owning a 6-3 record in such contests, including his previous reign at the University of California.
Meanwhile, progress is the name of the game in Tempe, as Arizona State (7-5, 5-4 in Pac-12) looks to end their first season under the watchful eye of Herman Edwards with a victory. After Todd Graham was relieved of his duties following his third straight campaign with seven or fewer wins, Edwards surprisingly accepted the job, heading back to the sidelines after a nine-year hiatus spent largely working in television. Of course, Edwards had a solid career in the NFL as a Cornerback with the Philadelphia Eagles (and later the Atlanta Falcons and Los Angeles Rams) from 1977 to 1986, before embarking on a lengthy coaching career, where he served as the Head Coach of the New York Jets from 2001 to 2005 followed by the Kansas City Chiefs from 2006 to 2008, earning a career record of 54-74, including three trips to the Playoffs. With that said, it’s anyone’s guess as to what exactly drew Edwards out of the studio and into the collegiate ranks, other than the 64-Year Old simply getting that particular itch to return to the sidelines after a near decade away from the game. However, it’s become quite clear that he hasn’t lost his coaching touch, and he certainly hasn’t forgotten how to motivate young football players. After a difficult midseason stretch which saw the Sun Devils lose four out five games, Edwards managed to light a fire under his team, finishing the term on tear with wins in four out of their final five contests, including victories over the likes of USC (38-35), Pac-12 South Champion Utah (38-20), and bitter rival Arizona (41-40). When we last saw them, Arizona State rallied back on numerous occasions to topple the Wildcats, at one point erasing a 40-21 deficit late in the Third Quarter, scoring on four consecutive drives in the final stanza. Despite getting gashed for 520 Total Yards, the Defense did manage to force a pair of crucial Turnovers, while the Offense caught fire in the second half, led by Quarterback Manny Wilkins (63.0%, 2,896 YDS, 8.0 Y/A, 19 TD, 4 INT) and Tailback Eno Benjamin (277 CAR, 1,524 YDS, 5.5 Y/C, 15 TD). Wilkins, who has certainly endured his share of ups and downs over the past three years as the Starting Quarterback, made plays when his tea needed him most, completing just 18-of-31 Passes for 265 Yards and a Touchdown, while rushing for another Fifty-Seven Yards and a score (a crucial 11-Yard Run to cut the lead to Eight midway through the Fourth Quarter) on Nine Carries, while Benjamin, who has flourished in his Sophomore campaign, rushed for Eighty Yards and Three Touchdowns on Twenty-One Carries, while hauling in Two Receptions for Thirty-Three Yards as well. All-Pac-12 Receiver N’Keal Harry (73 REC, 1,088 YDS, 14.9 Y/R, 9 TD) was relatively quiet with Fifty-Five Yards on Four Receptions, though his fellow Wideout Brandon Aiyuk (24 REC, 413 YDS, 17.2 Y/R, 3 TD) was anything but with 106 Yards and a Touchdown on Five Catches. Harry, a Junior, is unlikely to play in this weekend’s contest after declaring for the NFL Draft, where he is currently expected to be selected fairly early. Then again, we would expect him to receive some strong advice on the subject from Edwards. Even without the 6-4, 213 lb Pass-Catcher, the Sun Devils possess no shortage of weapons for Wilkins to target, with Kyle Williams (39 REC, 411 YDS, 10.5 Y/R, 1 TD), Frank Darby (21 REC, 421 YDS, 20.0 Y/R, 2 TD), and the aforementioned Aiyuk having each proven themselves capable of making plays downfield. However, in regards to making plays, it would be nice if the Defense continued to do so. After getting torched during the midseason swoon, Arizona State’s D stepped up forcing Eleven Turnovers over the final five outings, giving them Eighteen on the season, which led to a sorely-needed Plus-9 Turnover Differential. Turnovers are oftentimes the most decisive factor in football games, and it’s been really the only way that this team has managed to overcome yielding 402.8 Total Yards per Game. Edwards must continue to keep building on this side of the football, for there are a few playmakers to be found, including Freshman Linebacker Merlin Robertson (77 TKL, 8.5 TFL, 5.0 SK, 1 INT, 2 PD, 1 FF, 1 FR) and fellow Freshman Safety Ashari Crosswell (39 TKL, 1.0 TFL, 3.0 INT, 9 PD, 1 FR), who figure to be fixtures on the unit for years to come.