Arizona State Football Vice President for University Athletics Steve Patterson got his wish. He told KTAR-620 AM last Tuesday that because of the issue with finals week from Dec. 13-19, the Gildan New Mexico Bowl was his least favorite option stating “We just can’t go there.”
The Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl selected the 7-5 Arizona State Sun Devils to face the 7-4 Navy Midshipmen in Dec. 29 at 4pm ET in AT&T Park. The Midshipmen, an independent team, still have to play the traditional Army-Navy game this weekend and have won six of their past seven games.
An interesting sidenote about this game is the venue. Arizona State is 2-0 while playing bowl games in baseball stadiums. They beat Rutgers in 2005 in the Insight Bowl at Chase Field and after the 1986 season in the Freedom Bowl in Anaheim Stadium. Let’s hope the baseball stadium luck stays in the Sun Devils favor.
After an embarrassing showing in the Las Vegas Bowl last year, missing the postseason for three years prior to that, and losing their bowl games the two years prior to that, the Sun Devils need to make an impact in this bowl game.
I have outlined the 10 most important things that Arizona State needs to do to win this game and raise their bowl record above .500 to 13-12-1.
10. Taylor Kelly Needs to Be the Field General
First and foremost, sophomore quarterback Taylor Kelly needs to solidify his place as Arizona State’s field general.
Kelly, who is third in the Pac-12 with a passer rating of 153.3, has been dead-on for the past two games against Washington State and Arizona.
His 25 touchdowns and 2,772 yards place him fourth in the Pac-12 in both categories and his completion percentage of 65.9 ranks third in the conference.
The Navy Midshipmen only give up an average of 23.5 points per game while Arizona State’s 21st most prolific scoring offense manages an average of 36.4 points per game. Kelly needs to bring it early and often against a team that surrendered two 40+ points games as well as two 50+ points games.
9. Will Sutton Needs to Be 100-Percent Healthy
The recipient of the Pac-12 Pat Tillman Defensive Player of the Year has been lights-out this year, but he needs some time for a sprained toe that he suffered against Arizona in the Territorial Cup to heal. He has been wearing a protective boot on his right foot and has not practiced, although he has dressed.
The Sun Devil defense led by Sutton is second in the FBS with 49 total sacks and third with 327 yards lost on sacks and Sutton ranks third in the conference and tied for 16th in the country with 10.5 sacks.
With all these accolades, it is mind-boggling to think what he could have achieved if he had not injured himself in the opening drive against Oregon, missed the next week versus UCLA and played at approximately 60-percent against Oregon State.
Will Sutton is the heart and soul of the 41st ranked defense in the country giving up an average of 24 points per game and he needs to be on the field, at 100-percent and ready to motivate this team to victory.
8. Marion Grice Needs to Be a Dual Threat
The nation’s leading running back in receiving touchdowns with eight had a monster game at Arizona the day after Thanksgiving with three rushing touchdowns to bring his total to 17 total touchdowns on the year.
The three rushing touchdowns equaled his output of rushing touchdowns in his previous 10 games. His 102 points is the third most in the conference and the first non-kicking Sun Devil to eclipse 100 points since Terry Battle in the historic 1996 season.
Grice is a dual threat that leads the team in rushing touchdowns as well as receiving touchdowns. His average of 43.3 rushing yards a game is second on the team and his receiving average of 33.8 yards is fourth.
He needs to shine against this Navy defense whether it is out of the backfield or down the field in receiving.
7. Brandon Magee Needs to Make an Exclamation Point
The redshirt senior was on fire against the rival Arizona Wildcats after Thanksgiving. He feasted on the Wildcats with 17 tackles, 14 of them solo. The 17 tackles was his career-high and his 14 solo tackles is the most ever in Territorial Cup history.
Earlier this year, Magee signed with the Boston Red Sox and was an integral part of the Sun Devils outfield playing in two College World Series with Arizona State.
Magee needs to put an exclamation point on his Sun Devil football career in San Francisco on Dec. 29 to keep his NFL draft options open or ride away into the sunset as one of the best linebackers in Arizona State history.
6. Chris Coyle Needs to Step Up His Production
The Sun Devils leading receiver was once again a tight end in 2012. Following in the footsteps of former greats Todd Heap and Zach Miller, Chris Coyle has big shoes to fill at a school some have titled “Tight End U.”
In two of the last three games, Colvin has averaged over 17 yards per reception with catches for 29 and 34 yards. He was rather quiet against Arizona in the Territorial Cup and with only two receptions for 20 yards, so he needs to step up and become the down-field threat that he has been in the past.
5. Kicking Game Needs to Be Perfect
Place kicker Jon Mora was brought in to kick field goals for the Sun Devils after starter Alex Garoutte struggled in the first three games. Mora went 0-2 against Utah and was benched the following week at Cal. He then came back against Colorado and missed a PAT and sat the following week at home vs. Oregon.
Coach Graham decided to split duties with his kickers making Mora the full-time field goal kicker and allowing Garoutte to handle kick-offs and extra point attempts.
Mora has hit 8-of-9 field goals since the change and Alex Garoutte is perfect on 51 straight extra point attempts, the only kicker in the Pac-12 who hasn’t missed this year.
If the Sun Devils are going to defeat Navy on Dec. 28, they cannot have a miss—period.
4. Win the Turnover Battle
It pretty much goes without saying that whoever wins the turnover battle wins the game.
It was never more evident than against Arizona in the Territorial Cup when the Wildcats turned the ball over four times to which the offense scored a touchdown off every turnover.
With 20 interceptions and 14 forced fumbles, the Sun Devil defense ranks second in the conference and fourth in the country.
The Sun Devil defense has returned three interceptions for touchdowns this year ranking them second in the conference and tied for third in the country. Junior Onyeali also recovered a fumble for a touchdown.
With 12 interceptions and 11 lost fumbles, they are winning the turnover game with a +11 on the season and need to build on that against Navy.
3. Stop Senseless Penalties
They are still in the top 10 with an average of only 4.42 penalties and 35.75 penalty yards per game. Their 53 penalties for 429 yards are the 14th least in the country.
As anybody that knows how much Arizona State used to be penalized, this is a huge improvement. The new regime under Coach Todd Graham is one of discipline, respect and honor. Unlike the lackadaisical attitude that Dennis Erickson had, the Sun Devils need to maintain their composure and play good, clean football.
It isn’t hard to believe that the two least penalized teams in the country are service academies — Air Force and Navy. Through 11 games, Navy has only been penalized 37 times for 291 yards.
This will be tough battle to win as Navy only averages 3.3 penalties per game with a 26.45 average yards per game ranking them second in the country, once again behind the Air Force Academy.
2. Properly Utilize Time Outs
Arizona State coach Todd Graham has been quite liberal with his time outs this year, routinely calling them while on defense. The final game against Arizona took the cake, Graham called all six of the team’s time outs while on defense.
I understand slowing down the tempo or momentum of the other team, but it stands to reason that the offense or maybe even the kicking unit might need a time out somewhere down the line.
Clock management and the successful use of time outs is the true mark of a great head coach.
I’m not saying that I know how to coach this team better than Graham as I have zero coaching experience, but I do know that calling all six time outs on defense is ridiculous.
1. Offense Needs to Convert on 3rd and 4th Down
Arizona State has been poor on converting their third downs this year, only getting it done 40.11 percent of the time. Thankfully, their defense is only allowing third-down conversions 35.05 percent of the time.
Their fourth-down conversion isn’t any better hitting only 7-of-17 tries for a 41.18 percentage. This ranks 93rd out of 120 FBS teams.
Although they have a great punter in Josh Hubner who leads the conference and is third in the nation with an average of 47.1 yards per punt, they can’t rely on him to save the offense when they don’t convert.
Hubner’s longest punt of 73 yards ranks eight in the country and he excels at placing the ball within the 20-yard line, having done it over 40 times in his two years as ASU’s punter.
Arizona State can win this game easily if they follow these simple things. A victory will spell their first eight-win since 2007 when they had 10 wins and a share of the Pac-12 Championship.
Things are on the rise for Graham and the Sun Devils and I, for one couldn’t be happier.