The Arizona State football team got a small dose of solace in this disappointing season when it landed a spot in the Cactus Bowl against West Virginia at 8:15 p.m. on Jan. 2 at Chase Field.
The announcement came shortly after the College Football Playoff rankings and semifinal matchups were announced on Sunday, with No. 1 Clemson facing No. 4 Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl and No. 2 Alabama facing No. 3 Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl. The winners will advance to play in the second CFP Championship Game at University of Phoenix Stadium on Jan. 11.
Travel costs often negate or surpass profits that schools receive from lower-tier bowls. By staying home, the Sun Devils won’t have to incur those costs and will have a better shot at a seeing a good home crowd just 10 miles down the road in downtown Phoenix.
“This is the bowl we wanted to be in,” ASU coach Todd Graham said. “It’s such a close-knit group of guys that have meant so much to our program. Getting to be here for their families — obviously it’s not a home game for us but it’s right here in our hometown — it’s an advantage for us because this is last opportunity we get for these seniors to be together and for their families and our fan base it’s a pretty neat and unique experience.”
This is the fifth straight season that ASU has played in a bowl game and the fourth straight under coach Todd Graham. Graham is the first coach in school history to lead the Devils to a bowl in each of his first four seasons at the helm. The program’s 34 wins over the past four seasons are the most since 1975-78.
Graham is 5-2 as a head coach in bowl games in his career and is 2-1 at ASU, including a 62-28 win over Navy in the 2012 Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl and a 36-31 win against Duke in the 2014 Sun Bowl. The Sun Devils are 14-13-1 all-time in bowl appearances, including 1-0 in the Cactus Bowl, which was then called the Insight Bowl.
Like most college coaches, Graham touts the value of these additional 15 practices as one of the greatest benefits of playing in a bowl game.
“It’s like an additional spring training almost for your young guys,” Graham said. “It’s just vital to the development of your players, fundamentally. It’s something that’s been a big part of us being successful.”
The Cactus Bowl is normally played at Sun Devil Stadium, but with stadium reconstruction ongoing, it will be played at Chase for three years.
“There’s no better place to go in the country than the Scottsdale area and the Phoenix area especially at the beginning part of January,” West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said. “It’s just unbelievable weather.
“We’re used to playing on the road in some hostile environments. I’m sure that Mountaineer nation will bring some fans as well.”
The Cactus Bowl had the sixth (excluding the Rose Bowl) and final selection among the Pac-12’s contracted bowls, which relegated Arizona, California and Washington to non-affiliated bowls.
ASU (6-6), Washington and Cal all had 4-5 conference records. The Huskies will play Southern Mississippi in the Heart of Dallas Bowl, the Bears will play Air Force in the Armed Forces Bowl and Arizona will face New Mexico in the New Mexico Bowl.
The Pac-12 will send a record 10 teams to bowl games this season. In the higher-tier bowls, Stanford faces Iowa in the Rose Bowl, USC faces Wisconsin in the Holiday Bowl, Oregon faces TCU in the Alamo Bowl, UCLA faces Nebraska in the Foster Farms Bowl, Utah faces BYU in the Las Vegas Bowl and Washington State faces Miami in the Sun Bowl.
West Virginia went 7-5 this season and tied with Texas and Texas Tech for fifth place in the Big 12. The Mountaineers’ offense was led by junior running back Wendell Smallwood, who rushed for 1,447 yards and nine touchdowns this season. West Virginia is making its second appearance in a Cactus Bowl and first since 1999.
Holgorsen and Graham faced each other for two years in Conference USA when Holgorsen was the offensive coordinator at Houston and Graham was the head coach at Tulsa. After the 2009 meeting – a 46-45 Houston win – Holgorsen accused Graham of making his defense fake injuries to slow Houston’s offense.
The two met again in 2010, when Holgorsen was the offensive coordinator at Oklahoma State, and again in 2011 when Holgorsen was at West Virginia and Graham was the head coach at Pittsburgh.
Graham was the co-defensive coordinator at West Virginia from 2001-02 under Rich Rodriguez. Sun Devils defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Keith Patterson held the same two positions at West Virginia from 2012-2013.
ASU has played at Chase Field once before. In 2005, the Sun Devils beat Rutgers 45-40 in the Insight Bowl in front of 43,536.
The Sun Devils will play without offensive coordinator Mike Norvell, who just took the job as the head coach at Memphis. Offensive line coach Chris Thomsen is likely to handle the majority of the play-calling.