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Holiday Bowl preview: Arizona State ready to bounce back against Texas Tech

Dec 29, 2013

The National University Holiday Bowl features two teams looking for a bit of redemption. On one side is No. 14 Arizona State, hungry to return to its dominant ways after a lackluster performance in its Pac-12 title defeat. Then there’s Texas Tech, hoping to go back to winning after five straight losses to end the regular season. The game also pits Texas Tech’s high-powered passing attack, which is second-best nationally with a 392 yard-per-game average, against a stout Arizona State defense that allows 363.8 total yards a game and features two-time Pat Tillman Defensive Player of the Year Will Sutton.

The Rundown

Who: No. 14 Arizona State (10-3, 8-1 Pac-12) vs. Texas Tech (7-5, 4-5 Big 12)

What: National University Holiday Bowl

When: Monday, Dec. 30 at 7:15 p.m. PT

Where: Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, Calif.

Where to watch: ESPN with Joe Tessitore (play-by-play), Matt Millen (analyst) and Maria Taylor (sideline)

The Series

All-time record: Arizona State leads Texas Tech 1-0

Last meeting: 1999 season (ASU won, 31-13, in Tempe)

Stat matchup

Rushing offense: Arizona State 184 ypg (tied 47th in NCAA), Texas Tech 121.3 ypg (107th in NCAA)

Passing offense: Arizona State 276.8 ypg (28th in NCAA), Texas Tech 392 ypg (2nd in NCAA)

Scoring offense: Arizona State 41 ppg (9th in NCAA), Texas Tech 35.7 ppg (26th in NCAA)

Rushing defense: Arizona State 142 ypg (31st in NCAA), Texas Tech 194.3 ypg (92nd in NCAA)

Passing defense: Arizona State 221.8 ypg (50th in NCAA), Texas Tech 224.8 ypg (56th in NCAA)

Scoring defense: Arizona State 25.8 ppg (57th in NCAA), Texas Tech 31.2 ppg (tied 89th in NCAA)

How they got there

Arizona State

The Sun Devils lost to Stanford in their conference opener on Sept. 21, and then promptly ran through a difficult Pac-12 slate without another conference loss. The week after falling to the Cardinal, Arizona State trounced USC, 62-41, behind four touchdowns from Marion Grice. The running back led the Pac-12 in scoring, 10.9 points per game, totaling 20 touchdowns in 11 games.

Save for a nail-biter against Utah in Salt Lake City, the Sun Devils cruised through the middle of the conference season, piling up double-digit wins heading into their showdown with UCLA, last season’s Pac-12 South Division champion. In a battle for first place in the division, Arizona State rushed for 223 yards as a team to outmuscle the 14th-ranked Bruins, 38-33. The Sun Devils’ 37-point triumph over rival Arizona the next week put them in the Pac-12 title game opposite Stanford.

Clearly the cream of the crop in the south, Arizona State was exposed as a step below elite in the Pac-12 Championship Game as the Sun Devils were squashed, 38-14, in their second try against the Cardinal. In the Holiday Bowl, ASU is gunning for its 11th win, an impressive mark nonetheless.

Texas Tech

It has been a classic tale of two seasons for Texas Tech. The Red Raiders opened Kliff Kingsbury’s inaugural season as head coach with a 7-0 start, surging to a No. 10 national ranking. The offense seemed to be clicking on all cylinders, putting up at least 33 points in all but one of those games, while the defense allowed under 20 points in four of the seven. 

Then came a cold dose of reality. Texas Tech played the Big 12’s five other bowl-eligible teams and lost all five matchups to end the season. First was a 38-30 loss on the road at Oklahoma. But that was followed by four games in which the closest margin was 18, including a 63-34 trouncing against Baylor. On the season, the Red Raiders allowed 194.3 rushing yards per game, the second-worst mark in the conference

Now, Texas Tech has an opportunity to finish a once-promising season on a high point against a nationally ranked opponent. But to win their first game since Oct. 19, the Red Raiders will have to out-play a feisty, defensively sound Arizona State squad that won the Pac-12 South Division, a feat that required consistency as much as talent.

Coaching matchup

Todd Graham was named Pac-12 Coach of the Year after leading the Sun Devils to a 10-2 record, including 8-1 in conference play, and a Pac-12 South Division title. This is all the more remarkable considering that, when Graham took the job before last season and promptly hit the 10-win mark, Arizona State had not finished with a winning season in five whole years. The coach, who preaches discipline and defense, saw his squad place first in the Pac-12 in fewest penalty yards and third in total defense.

Kliff Kingsbury’s first year at the helm at Texas Tech was a bit of a roller coaster. Despite leading the Red Raiders to seven wins, a ranking as high as No. 10 and a bowl game, Kingsbury saw his squad finish the regular season on a five-game losing streak. The school’s second all-time leading passer presided over a passing offense that ranked second nationally in yards, though the defense proved to be a work in progress.

Key players

Arizona State

Quarterback Taylor Kelly —  The redshirt junior ranked fourth in the Pac-12 with an average of 306.4 total yards of offense en route to second-team All-Pac-12 honors. He completed 62.9 percent of his passes with 28 touchdowns to 11 interceptions running the Sun Devils' hurry-up offense.

Defensive tackle Will Sutton — The two-time Pat Tillman Defensive Player of the Year finished the regular season with 10.5 tackles for loss, three sacks and one interception. The redshirt senior anchored a stout Arizona State defense that ranked third in the conference in total defense, fourth in rushing defense and tied for first in sacks.

Texas Tech

Tight end Jace Amaro — The unanimous first-team All-American led the Big 12 in receptions with 98, an average of 8.2 per game that ranks seventh nationally. The 6-5, 260-pound junior hauled in 1,240 receiving yards, the country’s 11th-highest total.

Stat pack

- This is the Sun Devils’ fourth Holiday Bowl appearance, their first since 2007.

- Texas Tech's Amaro is 14 receptions and 90 receiving yards short of the respective all-time NCAA records.

Keys to the game

On Taylor Kelly: “He's got the best character of any guy in our program,” ASU head coach Todd Graham said at the Holiday Bowl press conference. “He's like having an offensive coordinator on the field. It's been great to have such a great leader and a great young man leading our team.”

On Will Sutton: “Probably all the years that I've been coaching, 28 years, he's the best football player that I've ever coached,” Graham said. “I think Will is the guy that is kind of the passion behind our team and a guy that really has done just a tremendous job of maturing.”

On Texas Tech: “They've got an offense that's putting up over 500 yards a game, playmakers all over the field, as good of a tight end as there is in the country – phenomenal – their outside players can stretch the field vertically, propose a lot of challenges for us, and so obviously I'm expecting an explosive game and a game that will be fun for fans to watch,” Graham said.

On Will Sutton: “I have not seen a more dominant player in the years I've been coaching, on film,” Texas Tech head coach Kliff Kingsbury said. “He creates havoc each and every time he comes off the ball.” 

On Arizona State: “It's one of the most talented teams that I've seen since I've been coaching, both sides of the ball,” Kingsbury said. “Protecting up front is going to be a huge factor for us, and, offensively, Kelly (is) one of the best quarterbacks in the country ... So it will be a huge challenge for us, and I know our kids are excited to be playing such a quality opponent.”

On Texas Tech’s five losses to end the season after 7-0 start: “I think we started playing really good teams and that never helps,” Kingsbury said. “We had some young guys and some young quarterbacks and you look at our turnover margin, we're second-to-last in the country and it's hard to be consistent and be a good team doing that. Penalties have plagued us all year and those two areas slowed us down.”