WHO: No. 21 Fresno State (11-2) vs. Arizona State (7-5)
WHAT: The 27th Mitsubishi Motors Las Vegas Bowl
WHEN: 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC
WHERE: Sam Boyd Stadium, Las Vegas, Nevada
THE SKINNY: Two of the biggest head-turners West of the Mississippi converge in the desert as they take part in a super appealing bowl matchup between Mountain West champion Fresno State and Pac-12 South runners-up Arizona State.
The Sun Devils, who had an up-and-down first season under head coach (and master motivator) Herm Edwards, enter fresh off a wild Territorial Cup victory and sport one of the more explosive offenses in the Pac-12. Quarterback Manny Wilkins (2,896 yards, 19 TDs, 4 INTs) naturally leads the way with his ability to move around the pocket and launch bombs down the field but the veteran signal-caller will be without his top weapon in the passing game as star receiver N’Keal Harry is skipping the contest in favor of the NFL draft. Either way, it’s worth tuning in alone for seeing what dazzling tailback Eno Benjamin can do with the ball in his hands and the sophomore will be well motivated coming in considering he needs just 42 yards on the ground to set a school record for rushing yards in a season.
Defensively, ASU has looked far stouter than the numbers suggest (allowing over 400 yards per game coming in) but will need several players to step up on that side of the ball considering top linebacker Merlin Robertson will miss the game due to a personal issue. A win would mean plenty to the program considering the team hasn’t won eight games since 2014 and would naturally like to cap the first year under Edwards by notching one more win over a ranked opponent in 2018.
That won’t be easy by any stretch given how good the Bulldogs are. Head coach Jeff Tedford has done a marvelous job since taking over a previously 1-11 team and has since turned his alma mater into a powerhouse, capping things off this year with a win at Boise State to secure the MWC title in overtime. That puts the team right back in the Las Vegas Bowl where they are hoping for a much different trip than their last time in 2013, a disappointing loss to USC.
Optimism is running wild at Fresno State this time around though because their defense is among the best in the country, giving up just 13.7 points per game despite facing numerous high-powered offense. Linebacker Jeff Allison captains the unit and has already racked up 121 tackles this season — a number he won’t mind adding to while trying to contain Benjamin and company on the other side. The Bulldogs are no slouch on offense either, as their QB-WR combo of Marcus McMaryion (25 TDs, 3 INTs) and KeeSean Johnson (1,307 yards, 8 TDs) is as good as they come — even if they don’t get the press of others out West.
Perhaps even more enticing to the pair could be what’s at stake on Saturday afternoon as Fresno State has never won 12 games in a season before. They haven’t finished ranked in the final polls since 2004 either and knocking off Arizona State would certainly tick that box off as they look to beat two Pac-12 programs (UCLA being the other) in the same season as well. Despite the relatively close proximity of the two schools, this will also be the first time since 1941 that the Sun Devils and Bulldogs have met on the field and a little preview of a future series the two have on the docket beginning in 2023.
It goes without saying that both sides won’t lack for motivation coming into this one and looking to end the year off on a high note by leaving Sin City with a rare win. While ASU can put up some points, they’ll likely struggle to find much consistency against one of the most well-rounded teams in the country, leaving Tedford and company to finish off a season to remember just off the Strip.
THE PICK: Fresno State 28, Arizona State 17