There were such high hopes for West Virginia and Arizona State coming into the 2015 season. The Mountaineers were considered a dark horse to compete for a Big 12 Conference championship while the Sun Devils were considered a contender to compete for a spot in the College Football Playoff.
Four months later both schools finished the season in disappointing fashion. West Virginia’s loss to Kansas State in its regular season finale derailed a four-game winning streak. Arizona State struggled mightily over the second half of its schedule, losing four of its last six games to finish 6-6.
On paper, the Mountaineers and Sun Devils are so evenly matched this could turn out to be one of the most interesting bowl games to watch this postseason.
Motel 6 Cactus Bowl: West Virginia vs. Arizona State (Phoenix)
Kickoff: 10:15 p.m. ET (Saturday)
Three Things to Watch
1. Arizona State rush defense vs. Wendell Smallwood
Arizona State enters this game with the 20th-ranked rush defense in the nation, allowing only 124.4 yards per game. The Mountaineers enter this weekend with the 14th-ranked rushing offense per game, averaging 235.3 yards per game. Something will have to give.
The Sun Devils have only faced one other top 25 rushing attack this season and that was the Arizona Wildcats (No. 23). The Sun Devils held the Wildcats to only 109 rushing yards in a 52-37 victory on Nov. 21.
The Mountaineers’ Smallwood is ranked 12th in the nation and second in the Big 12 in rushing with 120 yards per game. The Sun Devils will have to shut down Smallwood to keep the Mountaineers off the scoreboard, while this will be the toughest rush defense West Virginia’s ball carriers have faced all season.
2. Skyler Howard vs. Mike Bercovici
Both quarterbacks have had similar seasons although Bercovici has 128 more pass attempts than Howard. Neither team has a receiver with more than 1,000 yards, meaning both quarterbacks like to spread the ball around.
Both have struggled at times this season but Bercovici does come into the game ranked 18th in the nation in passing with 286.8 yards per game.
The Mountaineers’ defensive stats against the pass are somewhat skewed due to facing the likes of Baylor and TCU. The Sun Devils come in with the worst pass defense in the nation, allowing 321.7 passing yards per game.
This game could come down to which quarterback can be more effective through the air. Statistically, both teams appear to be in good shape, but West Virginia’s defense will be without All-Big 12 cornerback Daryl Worley, who was ruled academically ineligible, a development that could become a determining factor in this matchup.
3. This could become a chess match
Although these two teams have only faced each other once (1979) they are still familiar with each other. Arizona State head coach Todd Graham is familiar with West Virginia from his time as Pittsburgh’s head coach in 2011.
Arizona State defensive coordinator Keith Patterson left the Mountaineers after the 2013 season to join the Sun Devils. West Virginia’s offense has changed its philosophy since Patterson was in Morgantown, shifting from a pass-heavy approach to more of a ground-oriented one. But as has already been referenced, Arizona State’s struggles on defense have been against the pass.
There is a reason Vegas is considering this game a pick ’em when it comes to the spread. Both teams seem to counter each other’s strengths very well.
Wendell Smallwood and Mike Bercovici will be the key players in this game. With the Mountaineers well versed going up against pass-heavy offenses, the Sun Devils’ aerial attack shouldn’t be that much of a surprise.
During their current three-game losing streak the Sun Devils have allowed a 100-yard rusher in each game. If Smallwood is able to get traction on the ground the Mountaineers could control the tempo. However, if West Virginia is unable to find balance on offense, the Sun Devils’ 20th-ranked rush defense could make things tough for the Mountaineers.
West Virginia struggles to do much damage via the pass, which also is biggest weakness of Arizona State’s defense. If quarterback Skyler Howard can rediscover his early-season form, the Mountaineers could be in the driver’s seat in Phoenix.
Prediction: West Virginia 31, Arizona State 30
— Written by Jeremy Simon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and editor-in-chief of BlueGoldSports.com, a must visit for any and all West Virginia Mountaineer fans. Follow BlueGoldSports.com on Twitter @Blue_GoldSports.