In Holiday Bowl, ASU has chance to make good season great

In their second year under Todd Graham, the Sun Devils have a chance to win the Holiday Bowl for the first time and reach 11 wins for just the sixth time in program history.

Ross D. Franklin/AP

In Arizona State coach Todd Graham’s eyes, there is only one way to wrap up a season that saw the Sun Devils win the Pac-12 South, host the Pac-12 title game and reach their best bowl game since 2007.

"Our guys are focused on getting our 11th win," Graham said. "This is a big deal for our program.

"That puts them up there in elite company, and that’s the only way we want to end this 2013 season."

Winning is obviously the preferred option in any game, but in the Holiday Bowl, the No. 14 Sun Devils have the opportunity to turn what’s already been a good season into one of the best in school history.

Graham is not being hyperbolic, as he and most coaches tend to be at times. A win over Texas Tech on Monday in San Diego would give ASU (10-3) 11 wins for just the sixth time in program history. The last ASU team to win that many games appeared in the 1997 Rose Bowl. Legendary coach Frank Kush led the other four.

Our guys are focused on getting our 11th win. This is a big deal for our program. That puts them up there in elite company, and that’s the only way we want to end this 2013 season.

ASU coach Todd Graham

Certainly, the Sun Devils sought to cap the year with a trip to Pasadena, and no doubt the disappointment of losing to Stanford in the Pac-12 title game lingers, but there’s great pride to be had in finishing as one of the best six teams in program history.

"That 11th win is really going to seal the deal for a lot of us seniors and propel the next team that’s stepping up next season," senior linebacker Chris Young said. "We’re definitely going to have to go out there and play our hearts out."

ASU is 0 for 3 in Holiday Bowl appearances, losing there in 1985, 2002 and 2007. The Sun Devils have not reached a bowl of this caliber since the 2007 game, in which Texas brushed ASU aside with ease.

Further, ASU has not won a bowl game of this caliber in the past 26 seasons. There was last season’s Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, the 2005 Insight Bowl before that, two Sun Bowl wins and a Fredom Bowl win. While ASU’s current postseason opportunity doesn’t match the 1997 Rose Bowl appearance, a win would be its best postseason victory since John Cooper’s 1986 Rose Bowl team beat Michigan.

"We talked about the mental aspect of ‘Yeah, our goal was to be in Pasadena,’ but we need to treat this just like we’re going to Pasadena," Graham said. "It’s not a disappointment or anything because obviously this is a major bowl. This is an upper tier bowl for our school and one that has great heritage and prestige."

Midway through in ASU’s bowl practices, there seemed to be a lull in enthusiasm. The Sun Devils had fallen short of their stated goal and were perhaps a bit worn out by the grind of a season. But as practice in Tempe wrapped up, there was a renewed energy about the group.

The significance of 11 wins — which only 22 FBS teams could finish with — seemed to hit them. The seniors were forced to confront the reality of their collegiate careers ending. The team saw that a win in San Diego is the only fitting way to conclude such a season.

"It’s a chance for our seniors and our program to go out on a win," quarterback Taylor Kelly said. "This program hasn’t had 11 wins in a long time. It’s great motivation for our seniors and all the time they invested to get that 11th win and end on a win."

While the motivation is there, the matchup may not be. Texas Tech, which started the year 7-0 before finishing 0-5, is one bowl slot higher than it would be otherwise thanks to a shakeup at the top of the rankings. When Oklahoma received a BCS bid, every other Big 12 team moved up a slot.

Breaking down the five key questions that will decide the Holiday Bowl.

The Red Raiders’ slide, however, is understandable to a point. Four of the five losses came against top-25 teams, including two (Baylor and Oklahoma) that are playing in BCS bowls.

"The more and more I look at film, these guys are a very formidable opponent," Graham said. "You’ve got a team coming in that, yeah, they’ve lost five games straight, but they lost to four of the top teams in the country. They’ve played them very close, and really what’s hurt them is two things: turnovers and penalties."

Under first-year coach and Texas Tech alum Kliff Kingsbury, the Red Raiders’ "Air Raid" offense has thrived, achieving the nation’s No. 2 passing attack. Complicating matters, though, is the recent transfer of freshman quarterback Baker Mayfield, who started seven games and won the Big 12 Offensive Freshman of the Year award.

Freshman Davis Webb, who started five games, or sophomore Michael Brewer will start the Holiday Bowl.

ASU should be plenty familiar with Texas Tech’s offense no matter who is throwing passes. Kingsbury played quarterback at Texas Tech under current Washington State coach Mike Leach, one of the pioneers of the "Air Raid." While Kingsbury has tweaked the system a bit with more running, ASU has essentially faced the offense this season and last.

"We’re definitely comfortable with what they’re running," Young said. "We’re not really surprised by anything, but they have more decent players than Washington State did."

Added Graham: "Very, very similar. I think they’re more athletic. I think they run the ball more. They’re bigger up front on the offensive line. But you can definitely see it’s the same fast-tempo ‘Air Raid’ offense."

Of high priority for ASU’s defense will be stopping All-American tight end Jace Amaro, Texas Tech’s leading receiver and the leading receiver among tight ends nationally. The 6-foot-5, 260-pound junior has 1,240 receiving yards and seven touchdowns this season.

"He’s a big boy," Young said. "We have to tackle him hard and bring him down and limit his catches."

Throughout ASU’s bowl preparation, Graham has emphasized that bowl games are won by the team that wants it more and prepares better. He has also reiterated what he said last season: He doesn’t want to just go to a bowl game; he wants to go and win.

To those ends, Graham believes the Sun Devils are focused and ready to make a good season great.

"The focus is winning 11 games and finishing up as one of the top six teams to ever play here," Graham said. "That’s a big deal."

— Run the ball. ASU will be without star running back Marion Grice. Backup D.J. Foster is plenty capable, although he has been dealing with a knee injury that isn’t expected to keep him out. Deantre Lewis (knee) is also expected to play. That should still be enough to gash Texas Tech’s porous run defense, which has allowed 294.0 rushing yards per game amid a five-game losing streak.

— Pressure the quarterback. Whoever starts for Texas Tech — Davis Webb or Michael Brewer — the Sun Devils need to get him off balance to contain the nation’s No. 2 passing offense. This should be doable, as Tech ranks 108th nationally in sacks allowed.

— Turnovers. Big mismatch here, as ASU ranks sixth in the nation with 1.1 turnovers per game while Texas Tech ranks 121st with minus-1.1 per game. ASU might be able to turn the game on a few takeaways.

— ASU and Texas Tech have met just once previously, when the Sun Devils beat the Red Raiders to open the 1999 season. The teams on Thursday announced a home-and-home series to be played in 2016 (Tempe) and 2017 (Lubbock).

— ASU offensive line coach Chris Thomsen stands on the opposite sideline this season. He served as interim coach at Texas Tech in its Texas Bowl win last season after coaching its offensive line all year.

— Sun Devils coach Todd Graham has a 4-1 career record in bowl games. Three of the past four teams he has coached in bowl games (ASU and Tulsa twice) have scored more than 60 points in the game, making Graham the only coach in college football history whose teams have done so multiple times.

Probable: RB D.J. Foster (knee), RB Deantre Lewis (knee). Questionable: S Villiami Moeakiola (knee). Out: RB Marion Grice (leg).

ASU could win its first Holiday Bowl in four tries. It would also be the program’s best bowl win since the 1987 Rose Bowl and give ASU just the sixth 11-win season in school history. There’s also the momentum involved with ending the year with a win.

Texas Tech probably isn’t as bad as its five-game losing streak would indicate, but the matchup isn’t a good one with the No. 14 team in the country, especially given that ASU has an elite defense and often-unstoppable offense. The Sun Devils should cruise as long as they are focused.

ASU 52, Texas Tech 31