Hyundai Sun Bowl preview: Arizona State vs. Duke
Both Arizona State (9-3) and Duke (9-3) will enter the Hyundai Sun Bowl (Dec. 27, 11 a.m. PT, CBS) in El Paso, Texas, trying to rebound from tough finishes to end their seasons. The Sun Devils lost a shot at the Pac-12 South title with a 42-35 defeat against rival Arizona in the season finale, while the Blue Devils also dropped two of their last three to miss out on a chance to win the ACC Coastal Division.
Even though ASU coach Todd Graham is disappointed his team won't be playing on New Year's Day in the College Football Playoff, he's still guided the Sun Devils to three bowl games in three seasons during his time in Tempe. On the other sideline, Duke coach David Cutcliffe has developed a winning culture at the basketball-crazed school, helping his program reach a bowl game in three straight years after an 18-season absence.
So, if there's one thing we know for sure, it's that the Devils are going to win this game. Now let's take a look at the top storylines and players entering this matchup at Sun Bowl Stadium.
Outlook: All eyes under center for ASU
Graham provided Pac-12 football fans with some fodder in the Territorial Cup matchup against Arizona, when he brought Mike Bercovici off the bench to replace starting quarterback Taylor Kelly in the second half as the Sun Devils were trying to mount a comeback. Alas, ASU fell short as Bercovici threw for two touchdowns and an interception down the stretch.
The quarterback swtich left fans with many questions. Why did Graham make such a big move at a crucial time? Did he lose confidence in Kelly? Who's going to be the main man in the Sun Bowl?
[Related: Latest Sun Bowl news, videos and more]
Regardless, Kelly handed the situation with class.
"It's tough, but adversity happens throughout the year,'' Kelly said of his benching, according to The Arizona Republic. "It's happened a lot to this team this year — it's how you overcome it and make the best of it. When that happened, Berc did a great job of coming in and giving us an opportunity, but it's a team sport."
Kelly missed three games with a right foot injury he suffered on Sept. 13 against Colorado, but Bercovici took the reins of the offense and the team didn't miss a beat. Bercovici even provided ASU with its highlight of the year when he and receiver Jaelen Strong connected on the #JaelMary as time expired to beat USC at the Coliseum on Oct. 4.
Kelly's combination of accuracy, smarts and running ability have elevated him to the top of the depth chart, but he hasn't been as sharp as he's been in years past. The senior has a career-low 57.8 percent completion percentage this season, to go along with 1,874 passing yards, 20 touchdowns and five interceptions. He also has 232 rushing yards and three scores on the ground.
Bercovici might not have the same scrambling ability, but he's shown he possesses a stronger arm and has proved he can deliver on a big stage. The junior made the most of his time on the field this year, amassing 1,445 passing yards, 12 touchdowns and four interceptions with a 61.8 completion percentage.
Graham has already told reporters that Kelly will start the game, but don't be surprised if Bercovici gets some playing time against Duke, which touts a stout defense. The Blue Devils possess the nation's No. 20 scoring defense, giving up an average of 20.6 points per game, making them the toughest defense ASU has faced this year besides Stanford. While teams have been able to move the ball on the ground against Duke, the Blue Devils boast a strong secondary that gives up just 204 yards per game game through the air.
ARIZONA STATE PLAYERS TO WATCH
WR Jaelen Strong (75 catches, 1,062 yards, 10 touchdowns)
Many expect that Jaelen Strong could be a first-round pick if he decides to declare for the NFL Draft after the Sun Bowl. He's got a combination of size (6-foot-3, 215 pounds), speed that you can't teach, and a great ability to catch the ball when he's heavily defended – which is usually the case. It's no wonder why he's become the favorite target for Kelly and Bercovici, and the focus of opposing defenses alike.
RB D.J. Foster (1,002 rushing yards, 59 receptions, 646 receving yards, 12 total touchdowns)
There are plenty of versatile playmakers that make the ASU offense go, but none are more productive and important than D.J. Foster. The explosive junior tailback usually lines up in the backfield, but offensive coordinator Mike Norvell likes to move him around the field to stretch the defense. Shifty and speedy, Foster can be a tough guy to take down when he's in open space. If Duke's run defense is exploited in El Paso, Foster will likely be the one to do it.
S Damarious Randall (101 tackles, three interceptons, 9.5 tackles-for-loss)
It's kind of a catch-22 when your safety is your leading tackler, but that's the case for the Sun Devils this year. Damarious Randall does a bit of everything and certainly has a nose for the ball, ranking fourth in the nation with 7.1 solo tackles per game. Like Strong, Randall was recently named to Sports Illustrated's 2014 All-American Team and looks like he has a future playing football on Sundays in the NFL.
DUKE PLAYERS TO WATCH
WR Jamison Crowder (78 catches, 942 yards, six touchdowns)
They won't woo you with their offense, but the Blue Devils have a top-notch target in Jamison Crowder. He's a little fella at 5-foot-9, 175 pounds, but good luck keeping up with this speedster. Crowder was a first-team All-ACC selection for offense and special teams, as he is also a talented punt return man who took one back 52 yards to the house against Syracuse on Nov. 8.
LB David Helton (125 tackles, five tackles-for-loss)
Duke's menacing defense is led by the man in the middle, David Helton. Moved to the middle linebacker role to replace an injured teammate, Helton has thrived in the new position by leading the ACC with 125 tackles on the season. He is a big, rangy player listed at 6-foot-4, 240 pounds and it will be his responsibilty to direct Duke and keep a lid on ASU's explosive offense.
S Jeremy Cash (103 tackles, 5.5 sacks, 10.5 tackles-for-loss, four forced fumbles)
The Blue Devils have a playmaking safety of their own in second-team All-ACC selection Jeremy Cash. Like ASU's Randall, Cash has been stout against the run and effective against the pass this year. According to Duke, Cash is the only defensive back in the nation to record at least 100 tackles, five sacks and 10 tackles-for-loss this season.
STATS TO KNOW
- (20.6) Duke has given up just 20.6 points per game this year, which is 20th nationally and would have been second-best in the Pac-12
- (39) ASU running back D.J. Foster has registered a catch in 39 straight games entering the Sun Bowl
- (1.08) The Blue Devils have allowed just 1.08 sacks per game this season, which ranks 11th in the FBS
- (9,959) Sun Devil quarterback Taylor Kelly needs 41 more yards of offense to become the third player in school history to reach the 10,000-yard mark
MORE FROM PAC-12 POST
TOMORROW | 6:00pm PTLive
Thu 10/25 | 2:00pm PTLive