The train is still chugging for first-year Arizona State head coach Herm Edwards.
In an up-and-down season, the Sun Devils finished 7-5 to face the Mountain West champion and 21st-ranked Fresno State Bulldogs in the Las Vegas Bowl on Saturday.
ASU got off to a 2-0 start to the season including a win over then-ranked No. 15 Michigan State before losing four of the next five games. Each of those four losses came by exactly seven points.
After falling to Stanford in Week 7, the Sun Devils won four of their last five with victories over Pac-12 South champion No. 15 Utah and rival Arizona to finish 5-4 in the Pac-12. ASU had a chance to win the Pac-12 South division against Oregon on Nov. 17 but suffered a 31-29 loss that came down to a controversial call late in the fourth quarter.
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ASU will head to Vegas as underdogs against the Bulldogs, who rank No. 17 in the nation in total defense. Second-year Fresno State head coach Jeff Tedford is 21-6 since he arrived and won his first bowl game last year against Houston in the Hawaii Bowl.
The Sun Devils will try and earn their first bowl game win since 2014.
Time: Saturday, 1:30 p.m.
Venue: Sam Boyd Stadium, Las Vegas
Radio: 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station
Odds: Fresno State is a 6.0-point favorites, per Bovada
What to watch for
How will the Sun Devils perform without N’Keal Harry?
Senior quarterback Manny Wilkins will play his final game as a Sun Devil without his star receiver N’Keal Harry, who will skip the bowl game after declaring for the NFL Draft.
Harry was clearly the top dog in terms of receiving totals on the team. He caught 73 receptions for 1,088 yards and nine touchdowns.
The next closest? Kyle Williams, who has 40 catches for 432 yards and a score on the year.
Frank Darby (421 yards), Brandon Aiyuk (413 yards) and even running back Eno Benjamin (247 yards) will be leaned upon more in the passing game.
Can Benjamin run effectively against Fresno State’s defense?
It’s no secret, Benjamin has been on a tear this season for ASU.
Not only did the running back set a single-game school record against Oregon State (312 yards and three scores), Benjamin was also a Doan Walker semifinalist and an All-Pac-12 First Team member. He’s compiled 1,524 yards and 15 touchdowns on 277 carries, which leads all Pac-12 rushers.
Benjamin is 42 yards away from breaking ASU’s single-season rushing mark.
But as good as Benjamin has been for the Sun Devils, so has the Fresno State defense on stopping opposing running backs.
Through 13 games, the Bulldogs have allowed 1,687 yards (on 469 carries) and are tied for the lead in FBS in touchdowns allowed on the ground with seven.
Can ASU’s defense get to Marcus McMaryion?
ASU’s defense has been decent against the pass this year for the Sun Devils.
Their last three games, however, painted a different picture as the last three opposing quarterbacks threw for more than 250 yards apiece and combined for seven scores.
The defense has a tough task ahead in Fresno State’s signal caller, Marcus McMaryion.
The quarterback has completed 69.8 percent of his throws for 3,453 yards and 25 touchdowns. He’s thrown just three interceptions through 13 games. He’s also been able to stay upright as he has only taken 12 sacks all season and has a rushing element to his game with 67 carries for 253 yards and seven touchdowns.
ASU will have to put pressure on him without leading sacker Merlin Robertson, who according to AZCentral’s Michelle Gardner is not expected to play due to a family emergency.
Key Sun Devils
QB Manny Wilkins
Through 12 games, Wilkins has completed 63 percent of his passes for 2,896 yards and 19 touchdowns with four interceptions.
And while Fresno State will look to limit Wilkins throws down the field, the quarterback has also been a threat on the ground for the Sun devils.
After scoring just 12 touchdowns in his first three years, a healthier Wilkins has been a factor rushing the ball in 2018. He’s rushed for 416 yards and eight touchdowns on 101 attempts, averaging 4.1 yards a carry.
LB Khaylan Kearse-Thomas
When looking at the ASU defense, freshman Merlin Robertson had been the catalyst.
After receiving Pac-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year honors last week, the linebacker also made USA Today’s Freshman All-America team. In 11 starts, the linebacker recorded 77 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss and 5.0 sacks, leading all Sun Devils.
Now, it appears Kearse-Thomas will step in with Robertson not with the team. Kearse-Thomas has 28 tackles, 6.0 tackles for loss and two sacks this season.
QB Marcus McMaryion
McMaryion is familiar with the Pac-12 as an Oregon State transfer. The senior quarterback has completed 69.8 percent of his passes for 3,453 yards, 25 touchdowns and three interceptions. He ranks No. 9 in the nation in passing efficiency (161.9).
His best game came against Toledo in Week 4 when he completed 24 of 31 passes (77.4 percent) for 368 yards and four touchdowns. He had just one interception.
For the Sun Devils, limiting his main target, KeeSean Johnson, is key.
Johnson paces the team with 93 catches for 1,307 yards and eight scores, all team highs.
LB Jeff Allison
Much like Robertson, Fresno State linebacker Jeff Allison has been a force for his team. The linebacker leads the Bulldogs with 109 total tackles. He’s also made two interceptions and 5.0 tackles for loss. He’s tied for fourth in the Mountain West in total tackles and had five games of 10 or more tackles.
Allison was named the Mountain West Conference Defensive Player of the Year.
In addition to Allison, the Bulldogs had four players make first team all-conference, while six made the second team and four were honorable mentions.
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