Who: #21 Fresno State (11-2) v. Arizona State (7-5)
Where: Sam Boyd Stadium, Las Vegas, NV (Capacity, 36,800)
When: Saturday, December 15, 2018, 12:30PM PT
How to Watch: Game will be Broadcast live on ABC
Now that the high has finally subsided from winning the Mountain West Championship against Boise, the Bulldogs now have one more game to play on Saturday. One last chance for the seniors to don the red, and play for the team they’ve given their careers to. One chance to get a program record 12th win, and a chance for a 2nd PAC-12 win in the season. And a win would close the book on one of the best turnarounds in college football history. These Bulldogs were 1-11 two years, and looked lost before Jeff Tedford and company came in. Now, two years, 21 wins, and a conference championship later, they can re-stake their claim as class of the Mountain West. But first, they’ll have to get past Arizona State in the Las Vegas Bowl.
In their first year under coach Herm Edwards, the Arizona State Sun Devils were the surprise of the PAC-12. After making a hire that seemed like a joke at the time, the Devils upset Michigan State in Week 2, beat PAC-12 South champ Utah, and beat their rival to claim the Territorial Cup. Getting to a bowl game is a strong end to their season, but they have an incredibly tough test ahead of them in #21 Fresno State. ASU will be without their star wide receiver Ny’Keal Harry though, as he preps for the NFL draft. How that effects the offense remains to be seen, but this is still a dangerous offense against a stout Fresno State defense.
By now, everyone knows how good the Fresno State defense is, as they are still 2nd in the country in scoring defense and red zone defense, and are 9th overall in defensive S&P+. An incredibly experienced defense makes up the core of this hard-hitting unit, and they’ve faced their share of great running backs. Now they’ve got one more to handle in Eno Benjamin. Just two weeks after dealing with the No.7 running back in the country in Alexander Mattison, now they have to face No.4. Benjamin has rushed for 1,524 yards on the season, with 15 TDs on the ground. If there is one thing that can comfort Fresno State fans, it’s that they’ve played electric running backs this year, and pretty much shut them all down. Yes, Alexander Mattison did get almost 200 yards in the championship game, but that was on 40 carries. Lexington Thomas was held to only 43 yards, Juwuan Washington got 38, Bryant Koback (Toledo) got 27, Nico Evans got 58, and Toa Taua got 26. So the defense definitely knows how to slow down strong backs. And with Harry sitting out, that could allow the defense the chance to key in on Benjamin and stop him. Especially with the next closest receiver to Harry having 600 less yards.
Now, on the offensive side, this Fresno State team has been masters of balance. They’ve rushed the ball 423 times, and thrown it 411 times. Can’t complain with those sorts of numbers, even if the running game hasn’t quite been as explosive as we had hoped. Luckily this week, they’ll face a defense well outside the Top 50 in both passing and rushing, even with PAC-12 Freshman of the Year Merlin Robertson. Except more of that great balance and play action work to keep the Fresno State offense ahead of schedule, and move the chains. They’ve been hyper-efficient all season, rarely going backwards, and rarely making mistakes. Don’t expect any changes at the bowl game, although maybe we’ll see a few tricks thrown in for the last game of the season. I’m also going to point out that Marcus McMaryion is sitting at 69.8% completions on the year, after just falling below 70 in the championship game. I’m sure he wants to get that back above the 70% mark to end his senior season. Will also improve on his 25-3 TD-INT ratio, and push him closer to 4,000 total yards on the year. He’s only 226 away, and would be the first Fresno State player to cross 4,000 total yards since Derek Carr did in 2013.
Update: Merlin Robertson did not travel to Las Vegas for family reasons. Will not play
Bowl games are always really tough to predict. Which team comes in more excited to be there, who has used their bowl practices better, which team still has all of their players and coaches. I don’t think you’re going to find motivation being a problem for the Bulldogs, with the chance at the program’s first ever 12 win season, and an end-of-year ranking waiting for them if they come out victorious. I’m sure ASU wants an 8th win in Herm Edwards’ first year to carry them on the recruiting trail.
FPI gives the Bulldogs a 59% chance at a win, S&P+ is much more optimistic with a 77% chance, and a 13 point projected margin. The Vegas line has the Dogs as 4 point favorites, which does seem a bit low. Not sure if two touchdowns will be the finish, but I think the Bulldogs take care of business and go in the history books at 12-2.
Score Prediction: Fresno State 31-21 Arizona State