It’s a battle between two teams who didn’t meet regular-season expectations but can end their season with a feel-good victory.
On Saturday, the Arizona State Sun Devils (6-6, 4-5 Pac-12) will play a “home” game of sorts when they take on the West Virginia Mountaineers (7-5, 4-5 Big 12) in the Motel 6 Cactus Bowl at Chase Field in Phoenix.
Here are three questions and a prediction for the late-night matchup, which begins at 8:15 p.m. on ESPN.
1. Will Berco go out a winner?
Mike Bercovici wasn’t able to lead ASU to the big-time bowl game it sought, but there’s no questioning the ability of the fifth-year senior quarterback. He has been maddeningly inconsistent this season, as he has the habit of following up a what-was-he-thinking kind of pass with a brilliant downfield throw – but he has put together a few stellar performances, including five games with a passer rating above 150.
West Virginia boasts one of the nation’s better pass defenses, allowing just 221.8 passing yards per game and a 51.1 opponent completion percentage, and recording a Big 12-best 23 interceptions. But the Devils caught a break when junior cornerback Daryl Worley, an All-Big-12 selection, was ruled out of Saturday’s game for academic reasons. Will Berco take advantage and end his ASU career with a bowl championship?
2. Can the Devils slow down Smallwood?
The Mountaineers’ rushing offense is second best in the Big 12 with 235.2 yards on the ground per game. Most of those yards came courtesy of junior Wendell Smallwood, whose 1,447 rushing yards (6.4 yards per rush) were just nine yards short of the conference’s best mark.
But Smallwood may not find much room to run Saturday, as ASU’s rushing defense is the second best in the Pac-12, allowing just 124.8 yards per game and 3.6 yards per carry. The Devils held UA’s one-two rushing punch of Nick Wilson and Jared Baker to just nine combined yards on as many carries; will they have similar success against Smallwood and the Mountaineers?
3. Will Howard have his way with the Devils’ defense?
As stellar as ASU’s rushing defense has been, its pass defense has been equally bad for most of the season. The Devils allow a Pac-12-worst 321.3 yards per game through the air and are third worst in the conference in pass defense efficiency.
Enter WVU’s Skyler Howard, a dual-threat QB who struggles with throwing accuracy but doesn’t make many mistakes. He has thrown 21 TDs with 12 INTs this season and has rushed for 479 yards and six touchdowns. Will ASU’s secondary step up Saturday, or will Howard pick the Devils apart like Cal QB Jared Goff did (542 yards, five TDs) in ASU’s regular-season finale?
Defense is often optional in the Big 12, but West Virginia boasts one of the best all-around defensive units in the conference: They’re second in total defense, third against the pass and fourth against the run. If WVU can keep the ASU running-back tandem of Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage in check, the pressure will be on Berco to make enough plays with his arm.
ASU will have a home-field edge Saturday, but the Mountaineers are a slightly more well-rounded team and have played better in the second half of the season, as they’ve won four of their last five games after opening the season 3-4. Look for WVU to head back to Morgantown with the hardware.
West Virginia 38, ASU 34