Arizona State is playing in a bowl game in Southern California, after all. It’s just not the one they were aiming for during the season — the Rose Bowl in Pasadena — but the one they’ve never been able to win, San Diego’s Holiday Bowl.
At 10-3 and ranked No. 16 in the nation, the Sun Devils take the field Monday as 16-point favorites over the Texas Tech Red Raiders, who will ride a five-game losing streak into the bowl matchup.
Arizona State has three times appeared in the Holiday Bowl and they have lost each appearance. Texas Tech, meanwhile, won its only previous Holiday Bowl against Cal in 2004.
ASU has once before faced Texas Tech, back in 1999 — a home game which they won against then-Red Raiders backup quarterback, now-coach, Kliff Kingsbury.
As the Sun Devils look to secure their first 11-win season since 1996 — when they won the Pac-10 and faced the Ohio State Buckeyes in the Rose Bowl — and the Red Raiders look to avoid a six-game losing streak to end the season, here are the key areas for each team.
Keys for the Sun Devils
1. Forget the setting
Yeah, this isn’t the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day. But the Sun Devils still need to play like they’re in a BCS Bowl on Monday, lest the hungry, win-deprived Red Raider sneak up on them and rob them from what is setting up to be an easier matchup than a lot of their previous games this season.
As disappointing as the destination, and even the opponent, may be, an opportunity at the second 11-win season in program history is something to get up for.
Prior to their difficult 38-14 loss to Stanford in the Pac-12 Championship, ASU had strung together seven consecutive wins, and eight in nine games — highlighted by a 27-point blowout of their in-state rivals, a win at the Rose Bowl itself against then-No. 14 UCLA, a 19-point drubbing of Washington and a 62-point performance against USC in Lane Kiffin’s final game with the Trojans. Recapturing the swagger and confidence that Graham’s team found during that stretch will be important against an Texas Tech team with a chip on its shoulder and some pent-up misery to boot.
2. Foot on the gas pedal
Texas Tech has given up an average of 504.6 yards in each of their last five games, beginning with their 38-30 loss to Oklahoma, when they were ranked No. 10 in the nation. Their defensive vulnerabilities, particularly in the passing game, ought to be easily exploited by quarterback Taylor Kelly and key playmakers Jaelen Strong and D.J. Foster.
There’s little risk of losing the ball to Texas Tech, who has only created 18 turnovers on the season — 88th in the nation. Big plays should be sought after and allowing Kelly to throw the ball down field, to a big target like Strong, will open things in the running game, where both the quarterback and Foster have been effective all season long.
Earlier in the season, Baylor’s Bryce Petty — whom Kelly shares similar numbers to on the year — threw for 314 yards against the Red Raiders, and the performance may serve as a benchmark for the ASU quarterback, who has thrown for just 300 less yards than the acclaimed Bears’ signal caller.
3. Anticipate Amaro
The Texas Tech passing game is a saga that need not be delved into here, with the gist being that former starting quarterback Baker Mayfield has decided to transfer after being named Big-12 Freshman of the Year. Since then, Davis Webb has been quite effective, collecting 16 touchdowns to nine interceptions while accruing a QB rating of 133.5 and passing for over 2,300 yards.
Also a freshman, much of Webb’s success has gone through receiving trio Jakeem Grant, Eric Ward and Jace Amaro, who have compiled 707, 904 and 1,240 yards, respectively.
Amaro, a tight end, collected his 1,240 yards with seven touchdowns on the season and constant big-play potential. His presence is of particular importance to ASU, who have had trouble with tight ends throughout the season, particularly against Notre Dame and Oregon State. Now they face one of the best tight ends in the nation and a unanimous All-American in Amaro, a junior, who is 6-foot-6, 260 pounds and has the speed to run a 4.5 40-yard dash.
Keys for Texas Tech
1. Aim for Amaro
Texas Tech may as well stick with their best playmaker, Amaro, when taking the field Monday, given Arizona State’s struggles against receivers of his size.
And when you have a unanimous All-American, a player who the opposition believes is the best tight end in the nation, you really may as well stick with him.
Spreading the ball around the field to create big play opportunities for Amaro will be the Red Raiders’ offense’s best opportunity to keep pace in the sure-to-be shootout with ASU.
2. Strong-arm Strong
Allowing ASU’s top target, meanwhile, to make big plays won’t bode well for the Texas Tech defense at all. Strong, a 6-foot-4 sophomore, has nearly as many receiving yards as Amaro on the season, with 1,094, while matching his touchdown total of seven.
Kelly has been able to successfully utilize back-shoulder passing routes to Strong against opposing defenses all season long, giving the Sun Devils’ offense chunk yards with legitimate consistency as a go-to play.
Double teaming Strong and forcing Kelly to look elsewhere is a positive step in minimizing the dimensions of a complex, big-play ASU offense.
3. Specialize in special teams
Though their opponent has struggled mightily in special teams most of the season — struggling in both punt coverage and place kicking — Texas Tech kicker Ryan Bustin has made 22 field goals this season while senior punter Ryan Erxleben has averaged 44.2 yards a punt on the season, good for top 25 in the country.
The Red Raiders’ 23.4 yards per return is 29th among FBS teams this season.
Exploiting ASU’s weaknesses in the third unit ought to be a major emphasis for Kliff Kingsbury and staff, as it’s the one surefire advantage the Red Raiders have in the Holiday Bowl.