Manny Wilkins and the Sun Devils take on the Wolfpack in El Paso
In one of the most interesting aspects of bowl season, the Sun Bowl features an interregional, ACC vs. Pac-12 matchup as NC State and Arizona State are set to meet in El Paso. The Wolfpack, 8-4 overall and 6-2 in conference play, come in following a 33-21 victory over rival North Carolina, ending the regular season on a high note after three losses in the previous games. The Sun Devils posted a 7-5 record during the regular season, including a 6-3 mark in league play after three wins in their final four games, highlighted by the 42-30 victory over Arizona in the season finale.
Hyundai Sun Bowl: NC State vs. Arizona State
Kickoff: Friday Dec. 29 at 3 p.m. ET
Where: Sun Bowl (El Paso, Texas)
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: NC State -6.5
Three Things to Watch
Both NC State and Arizona State have talented veteran quarterbacks at their disposal. Ryan Finley (above, right) completed 63.9 percent of his passes for 3,200 yards and 16 touchdowns with just six interceptions during the regular season. Finley threw for at least 300 yards five times, but only once in his last three contests. In his second full season as a starter, the junior also ran for 190 yards and three TDs on 63 carries.
Manny Wilkins, also a junior in his second season as a starter, has completed 63.5 percent of his passes for 2,918 yards and 17 touchdowns with five interceptions. The strong-armed California native threw for at least 300 yards in three of his first four games this season, but has surpassed 260 yards through the air only once since. Wilkins also has 269 rushing yards and six scores on 130 carries.
Both QBs are likely to be NFL prospects after their college careers come to a close, and each also has a standout sophomore target to throw to. Kelvin Harmon leads the Wolfpack and ranks second in the ACC with 993 receiving yards on 65 catches, including four touchdowns. N’Keal Harry (right) also ranks second in his conference in receiving yards (1,000), and is No. 2 in the Pac-12 with 73 receptions, seven of which have gone for TDs.
2. Pass rush
The Wolfpack ended up in the middle of the pack in the ACC in most major defensive statistics, such as scoring defense (24.8 ppg, seventh in the conference), total defense (377.2 ypg, eighth) and yards allowed per play (5.47, seventh) during the regular season. However, led by defensive end Bradley Chubb, NC State had one of the most talented front sevens in the league, if not the country. Chubb, a surefire first-round NFL draft pick, led the ACC with 10 sacks and 25 tackles for a loss during the regular season, good for eighth and second in the FBS. Overall, the Wolfpack have recorded 25 sacks during the season, including at least one in all but two games.
Arizona State has a similarly effective pass rush led by Alain Latu (7.0 sacks), JoJo Wicker (6.0) and D.J. Calhoun (5.5). The Sun Devils check in at fourth in the Pac-12 and 17th in the FBS with 35.0 sacks, and have registered multiple sacks in all but two games. However, Arizona State has struggled in several other categories, including scoring (31.3 ppg, eighth in conference) and total defense (447.0 ypg, eighth). The Sun Devils also are giving up 6.3 yards per play, which sits second to last in the Pac-12 and No. 110 in the nation.
The big difference comes on the other side of the football. Arizona State enters this game with 38 sacks allowed, that's one every 10.1 percent of passes. Contrast that to NC State's 12 sacks surrendered or a solid 2.6 percent sack rate. Given the presence of Chubb and his fellow Wolfpack pass rushers, this stat does not bode well for the Sun Devils.
3. Coaching turnover
Arizona State has undergone one of the most unique coaching changes in recent memory. The decision-makers in the athletic department fired Todd Graham, who led the Sun Devils to a 46-31 record in six seasons as head coach, and replaced him with veteran NFL coach Herm Edwards. Edwards, who hasn’t held a college coaching job since he was an assistant at San Jose State from 1987-89, had a 56-78 record as the head coach of the Jets and Chiefs from 2001-05 and '06-08, respectively.
Interestingly enough, Arizona State athletic director Ray Anderson publicly announced his intention to have Edwards play a CEO-type role instead of the typical college head coach. Anderson also planned to have Edwards retain most of Graham’s coaching staff, including offensive coordinator Billy Napier and defensive coordinator Phil Bennett. Alas, Napier was hired as the head coach at Sun Belt member Louisiana and Bennett left the program for personal reasons.
NC State avoided a similar turnover, but head coach Dave Doeren reportedly had conversations with Oregon State and Ole Miss before he was offered the head coaching job during Tennessee’s wide-ranging search. Doeren turned down the Volunteers and instead signed an extension with the Wolfpack.
NC State and Arizona State come into their bowl matchup riding similar levels of momentum, as well as pro prospect quarterbacks, productive receivers and though neither has been dominant defensively, both have benefitted from a talented pass rush. However, the Wolfpack have a huge advantage on the offensive line, and NC State also has a more stable coaching situation, which could be a benefit in bowl preparation. As a result, expect Dave Doeren to lead his Wolfpack to victory.
Prediction: NC State 31, Arizona State 24
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen