Bowl season did not treat the Pac-12 Conference kindly a year ago. The league sent a record nine teams to the postseason and proceeded to limp into the offseason with a more dubious record of 1-8. A new year of bowl games kicks off the collective opportunity at a measure of redemption.
Fresno State's turnaround under head coach Jeff Tedford is nothing short of remarkable. The Bulldogs finished 1-11 in 2016, one year prior to the former Cal head coach's arrival in the Valley. Tedford's first team won 11 games and appeared in the Mountain West Championship Game. This year, Fresno State won the MW title on the road at Boise State and has the opportunity to claim a program-record 12th victory.
Mitsubishi Motors Las Vegas Bowl: Arizona State vs. Fresno State
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 15 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Where: Sam Boyd Stadium (Las Vegas)
Spread: Fresno State -4
Three Things to Watch
1. ASU's offense without N'Keal Harry
The most dangerous weapon in Arizona State's offense is not risking his possible first-round NFL draft status. Harry will not play in the Las Vegas Bowl, leaving Sun Devils offensive coordinator Rob Likens to make adjustments against one of college football's premier defenses.
Harry caught for 1,088 yards in the regular season, more than double the team's second-leading receiver, Kyle Williams (432), and Harry's nine touchdown grabs equal the rest of the Sun Devils' pass-catching rotation combined. Breakout star running back Eno Benjamin may need to shoulder a heavier load, but will face stiff resistance from a Fresno State defense that has held opponents to 122.9 rushing yards per game, 3.6 yards per carry, and surrendered just seven touchdowns on the ground all season.
2. Just get him the ball
Although Arizona State's Harry generated plenty of buzz throughout the 2018 regular season, he wasn't the most productive pass catcher of the two Las Vegas Bowl teams. That honor belongs to Fresno State's KeeSean Johnson, who at 1,307 yards ranks eighth in the nation.
Johnson's the favorite target of quarterback Marcus McMaryion, a savvy passer not often prone to mistakes. McMaryion heads into the Las Vegas Bowl completing almost 70 percent of his pass attempts with a staggering 25 touchdowns to just three interceptions. Look for McMaryion to target Johnson on big plays early in an attempt to exploit the thinnest area of Arizona State's defense.
The Sun Devils found some standouts up front this season, but the secondary's been inconsistent. The freshman corps of Merlin Robertson, Tyler Johnson and Darien Butler must disrupt McMaryion in the backfield, a hallmark of defensive coordinator Danny Gonzales' 3-3-5 stack. Fresno State knows the scheme well, though, facing its innovator, Rocky Long, and San Diego State during MW West Division play.
3. The importance of possession
In much the same vein as Fresno State's McMaryion, Arizona State quarterback Manny Wilkins rarely makes mistakes. As a result, the Sun Devils rank No. 12 nationally in turnover margin — not far behind No. 6 Fresno State.
Takeaways were important to Arizona State's wild, come-from-behind win over Arizona to close out the regular season, with two coming deep in Wildcats territory. Replicating that success against Fresno State may not be in the cards. However, giving away possession could become a factor for the Sun Devils, with the Harry-less wide receiving corps up against a Fresno State secondary with three defensive backs — Mike Bell, Juju Hughes and Anthoula Kelly — who each have three interceptions on the season.
A common refrain from the general punditry with regard to bowl games is that they are not sufficient for motivating players. While that might certainly be true in some cases, Fresno State comes to the Las Vegas Bowl with the opportunity to cement a final Top 25 ranking, and the most wins in a season in program history.
Meanwhile, the trip to Sin City will be a test for Arizona State's determination, with its best player sitting out. Still, head coach Herm Edwards has an opportunity to close out his first year at ASU with eight wins, and lay the foundation for a strong Year 2, thanks to the core of freshmen leading the defense who will return.
The pairing of Arizona State's youthful defense and Fresno State's outstanding D should make for a grind of a bowl game. The first team to reach 20 points may well be the winner. Fresno State's well suited to such a contest.