Rob Malara

Three Tines to Victory for the Cactus Bowl


On Saturday night the Pac-12 Conference meets the Big 12 Conference in the final game of the bowl season before the national championship takes place. When Arizona State (6-6, 4-5) takes the field against the West Virginia Mountaineers (7-5, 4-5) at Chase Field for the Motel 6 Cactus Bowl, a full month will have passed since their final regular season game of 2015.

At first glance, these two teams should offer conflicting styles in terms of their head coaches with Dana Halgorsen running his flavor of the Air Raid passing offense run by the likes of Washington State and California in the Pac-12. But the Mountaineers offense in 2015 has been lead more by the legs of junior running backs Wendell Smallwood and Rushel Shell than by the arm of junior quarterback Skyler Howard.

Big news broke earlier this week for West Virginia when Holgorsen announced two starters, junior safety Daryl Worley (All-Big 12 first-team selection) and freshman wide receiver Jovon Durante would missed the game due to academic reasons. Losing key players for academic reasons during bowl season certainly isn’t a rare event, but the timing couldn’t be worse for a coach who helped keep his job by winning four of their final five games in 2015 to finish with 7 wins.

First Tine to Victory: Sophomores Setup the Seniors
West Virginia runs a base 3-3-5 set on defense similar to what the Sun DemarioRichard10UofA15Devil offense played against in the Territorial Cup against Arizona, with the caviat that Mountaineers defensive coordinator Tony Gibson runs a much more aggressive scheme. Think Todd Graham with a little less caffeine.

Much like what Graham always looks to do against run dominant teams, Gibson will try to neutralize the Devils offense by bringing down an extra defender into the box to stop the likes of Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage from dictating the pace of the game running the football.

Senior quarterback Mike Bercovici can take this as a dare by Gibson to hit the deep ball to Devin Lucien against a base set on defense with just a single high safety. The senior receiver finished the season on fire with 17 receptions, 290 yards, and 4 touchdowns in his final two games of the regular season. But that doesn’t happen if ASU can’t find early success in the run game at the outset of this contest.

The chess match will be in full-effect as the Arizona State offense will have had 15 practices to look over a West Virgina defense on the scout team and on tape that uses blitzers from all sorts of angles similar to that of the ASU defense. A defense that Bercovici and the offense has obviously gone up in practice week-in and week-out since August.

A subplot to this all happenening of course is how Chris Thomsen does in his one and only game for the Devils as the playcaller on offense with the exit of Mike Norvell to Memphis and 2016 offensive coordinator’s inexperience with the personell after landing the job shortly after his predecessor’s departure in December.

Second Tine to Victory: Go Back to Pasadena
Graham compared West Virgina’s skill on the outside at receiver and their ability to run the football with what they faced earlier in the season against the UCLA Bruins; a critical road win for the Devils to start the month of October. The Mountaineers were at their best in 2015 when they could establish their physical run game to open up the field for Howard on manageable down and distance situations.

In fact fewer teams had more splash plays running the football than West Virginia who had just under 100 plays of 10-plus yards on the ground, ninth in FBS play.

Much like West Virginia, the ASU defense has been making adjustments during bowl practice with who they will be forced to play without on defense. This meant getting sophomore DJ Calhoun reps at the Spur where he will replace junior Laiu Moeakiola. Overall this means the Devils will have now replaced Moeakiola and Jordan Simone, two players critical in communicating how the defense gets set before the snap.

We mention this because the Devils had great success against the Bruins back in October when they were able to communicate effectively en route to effectively pressuring Bruins quarterback Josh Rosen.

For the Mountaineers, they’ll look back to their loss against Oklahoma earlier in the season when they gave up seven sacks and were forced to shuffle the offensive line as a result going forward. A move that ultimately saved their season and showed great success down the stretch.

Third Tine of the Game: Winning the Turnover Battle
DefenseTouchdown6UofA15.jpgBoth of these defensive coaching staffs believe in forcing turnovers to decide the victor. And that can obviously be attributed to the fact each team’s defensive coordinator has ties to the other team’s head coach through previous stops.

We’ve pointed out all season that Todd Graham’s teams find success when the defense can cause pressure that results in forcing turnovers. For Holgorsen’s defense it isn’t much different as they lead the Big 12 in interceptions with 23 in 2015. But losing Worley and his conference leading six interceptions could prove to be a critical factor in Saturday’s game.

With both teams being off for sometime you can assume their will be some rust early on in the contest than if these two teams were playing in October. So expect the team that effectively pressures most successfully to control the flow of the game going into the fourth quarter.

About Rob Malara

Rob Malara

Rob Malara is a 2002 Sun Devil grad having spent the majority of his time in Tempe as a football, basketball, and baseball season ticket holder and front row inhabitant. A member of the Football Writers Association of America, he hosted the ASU Devils podcast and was its sub-optimal technical producer through its lifespan. Currently the president of the ASU Alumni Association's Northern Colorado Club, he is part of a family of maroon and gold residing in Fort Collins with his Sun Devil wife and nearby Sun Devil sister.

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