It's time to go bowling, Sun Devil style. Arizona State is in San Diego to take on Texas Tech in the National University Holiday Bowl in the school's biggest bowl game since 2007, when the Sun Devils lost to Texas in the Holiday Bowl.
This game should be different. In 2007, the Longhorns were still perennially in the national conversation, while the Sun Devils were an overrated squad that never beat a quality opponent and probably shouldn't have been in the Holiday Bowl to begin with.
This year, the tides have turned. Arizona State was a heart-breaking loss to Notre Dame away from being in the BCS conversation. Texas Tech, meanwhile, has backed into a better bowl game than it ever deserved. The Red Raiders have lost five in a row, progressively getting worse until finally getting blown out by Texas in late November.
Then, because things couldn't get much worse, the Red Raiders starting quarterback, Baker Mayfield, decided he needed a change of scenery and left the program, reportedly intending to transfer to Oklahoma. Mayfield was one of the best stories in college football in 2013. A walk-on true freshman, Mayfield started the team's first five games before injuring his knee. He reclaimed the starting job late in the year, but announced he was leaving the program in early December.
Matchup of the Week: Texas Tech's Offense vs. The First Half
Mayfield's departure opens up a lot of questions for Texas Tech. Head coach Kliff Kingsbury, a legend in his day piloting the Tech offense, has yet to name a starting quarterback for the Holiday Bowl. The Red Raiders' offense slowed down when Davis Webb - also a true freshman - took the reigns. Some think sophomore Michael Brewer could get the call, but he has just 58 attempts through his two seasons in Lubbock.
Why is this problematic for the Red Raiders? Because they need to get off to a hot start or this game could be over at halftime. The Sun Devils are outscoring opponents two-to-one in the first half. Arizona State has scored 312 first-half points, while allowing just 158 so far. Texas Tech, meanwhile, has played about even to its opponents all season; the Red Raiders are +21 in the first half, and + 33 in the second half.
Texas Tech has a turnover problem - it has lost the ball 31 times so far - and allows a staggering 194.3 yards per game on the ground. If Arizona State gets out to a big lead early, the Sun Devils attacking defense is going to force turnovers. On offense, ASU will turn the ball over to D.J. Foster and run the ball, producing long, time-consuming drives. Long possessions and turnovers; two things a team trailing can ill-afford.
Another reason Texas Tech needs to keep pace through the first half is style. While the Red Raiders have been synonymous with throwing the football for over a decade, the Air Raid offense employed by Texas Tech is often misunderstood.
Most assume that because Texas Tech throws the ball a lot that it can score quickly. In fact, the opposite is usually true. The Air Raid is not a vertical passing system. Most of the passing plays send just one of the five receivers deep, while the other four work crossing routes and the flats. It's an east-west passing attack, designed to get players in space with slants, drags and curls and produce opportunities after the catch.
Will the Red Raiders try and take a few shots? Absolutely. But neither Webb nor Brewer is going to succeed if they have to consistently try and take the top off the Sun Devil defense.
Just look at the Red Raiders' receivers for further proof of the east-west attack. Tight end Jace Amaro, the leading receiver for Texas Tech with 98 receptions, is averaging just 12.7 yards per catch, also a team high. The Sun Devils have three targets over 14 yards per catch.
Texas Tech's passing game is its running game; the team averages a pedestrian 3.8 yards per carry. The Sun Devils are going to be prepared for the pass, but knowing what type of play is coming isn't the primary concern. Arizona State's biggest problem on defense this year has been open-field tackling, and a missed tackle here or a slipped tackle there will allow the Red Raiders to keep moving the chains.
Carl Bradford and Will Sutton should have big games, because both can pin their ears back and get after the quarterback without having to worry too much about the run. How Texas Tech handles those two will play a big part in whether or not the Red Raiders can score with the Sun Devils.
Popular opinion from those who cover the Big 12 has been that Texas Tech will be able to play with ASU for the first half before losing pace late. I don't think that's the case. If the Red Raiders can hang with the Sun Devils through halftime, this game becomes problematic for Arizona State. The team just hasn't been the same after halftime in any game this year. In fact, an argument could be made that the only two games the Sun Devils played considerably better in the second half than the first half were the Wisconsin and Utah games.
I think the outcome of this game hinges on how Texas Tech, with the turmoil at quarterback and a team not built to play from behind, comes out of the gate. The Sun Devils are going to score, period. Texas Tech's defense is porous and Arizona State only struggles against big, mauling teams, and nobody is mistaking the Red Raiders for Stanford or Notre Dame.
But if the Sun Devils can't contain Amaro, don't get to the quarterback or allow some of the Red Raiders' smaller but elusive receivers to find space consistently, this will be a game down to the wire.
The more likely outcome, however, is Tech struggling to move the ball on an athletic defense, Taylor Kelly finding an open Jaelen Strong a lot, and D.J. Foster making a statement in a relatively easy victory.