ASU, Fresno St on the ascent heading into Las Vegas Bowl
LAS VEGAS (AP) — Fresno State finds itself in the Las Vegas Bowl as the champion of the Mountain West Conference in coach Jeff Tedford’s second season, less than two years removed from a 1-11 record.
Arizona State, in its first season under coach Herm Edwards, hopes to use its trip to the postseason as a launching pad to similar success.
The Sun Devils and No. 19 Bulldogs each find themselves on the ascent heading into their Las Vegas Bowl matchup on Saturday.
Fresno State (11-2) can set a school record for wins in a season, which would be the latest accomplishment for a team that has already won the conference title, picked up its first-ever win on the blue turf of Mountain West standard-bearer Boise State and defeated a Power 5 team.
“I think, myself, if we went and get 12 wins we’ll probably be considered the best Fresno State team ever, so that’s my goal right now, to get that 12th win,” safety Mike Bell said.
Edwards was hired to propel Arizona State (7-5) to the top of the Pac-12 and he hopes to use the Las Vegas Bowl as a launching pad. Edwards placed an emphasis on skill development in practices leading up to the bowl game and plans to use a significant number of players still eligible to redshirt this season.
The Sun Devils found plenty of significant contributors on defense from Edward’s first recruiting class, but he will be looking for young options to emerge in the passing game against Fresno State as wide receiver N’Keal Harry is not playing after declaring for the NFL draft. Harry had 73 receptions for 1,088 yards receiving as a junior and caught nine of quarterback Manny Wilkins‘ 19 touchdown passes.
“There will be some young guys that haven’t played a lot of football that will get an opportunity to play in this game,” Edwards said. “And I think it’s important because you’re looking at next year as well and you want to see them in live action all of a sudden.”
Fresno State will start 11 seniors, led by quarterback Marcus McMaryion, and Tedford had limited opportunities to work with less experienced players in preparation for the bowl game. Fresno State had six practices focused on Arizona State after defeating Boise State 19-16 in overtime in the Mountain West title game on Dec. 1.
Here are some things to know when Arizona State and Fresno State play for the first time since 1941:
DOWN ANOTHER DEVIL: Harry isn’t the only star player Arizona State will be missing. Freshman linebacker Merlin Robertson has not been with the team this week because of a family situation. Robertson leads the team in tackles (77), tackles for loss (8 1/2) and sacks (5). Redshirt junior Khaylan Kearse-Thomas is expected to start in place of Robertson.
MASTER MARCUS: McMaryion has thrown for 3,453 yards and 25 touchdowns this season. What stands out to Tedford is the three interceptions McMaryion has thrown, with his selfless nature key in avoiding turnovers. “Marcus understands when to get rid of the football. If it’s not there, he’s not the ego guy that is going to try to force things for his stats,” Tedford said.
BRILLIANT BENJAMIN: Arizona State has never had a player lead what is now the Pac-12 in rushing since joining the conference in 1978. That is about to change because of sophomore running back Eno Benjamin, who has 1,524 yards rushing and 15 rushing touchdowns going into the bowl game. Benjamin leads Washington senior Myles Gaskin, the next-closest Pac-12 running back who will play in a bowl game, by 448 yards.
PAC ATTACK: Fresno State has already shown it can take care of business against a Pac-12 team with a 38-14 win over UCLA at the Rose Bowl on Sept. 15, and the Bulldogs are 2-1 against Pac-12 teams in bowl games. For those interested in transitive properties, Arizona State defeated UCLA 31-28 at home on Nov. 10.
ROAD TRIP: Arizona State decided to bus to Las Vegas, with Edwards preferring the chance to build camaraderie over the nearly five-hour drive instead of making the hour-long flight. Edwards also treated his players and coaches to hamburgers. “As long as I got my milkshake we’re good,” Edwards said.