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ASU Football: West Virginia Players to Watch

Evaluating who the Sun Devils be game-planning against for when they take on West Virginia in the Cactus Bowl.

Scott Sewell-USA TODAY Sports

Rather than ending its season before the College Football Playoff semifinals occur, ASU and West Virginia will partake in the Cactus Bowl on January 2nd, looking to stamp their 2015 season with one final win.

Arizona State's trying to jumpstart the end of the 2016 recruiting cycle with a win 12 miles away from their home stadium while West Virginia's aiming to bookend its fourth season in the Big 12 with an 8-5 record.

West Virginia doesn't present the same quality of talent that they had last year, losing its veteran quarterback and top two receivers to graduation and the NFL, and 2015's been a rebuilding year for Dana Holgerson's squad.

But with the opportunity to steal a win in what amounts to essentially a road game for the Mountaineers, West Virginia's offense that averaged 33.3 points per game this season will be ready to go Saturday.

Quarterback Skyler Howard, Junior

In his first season as West Virginia's signal-caller after backing up Clint Trickett last year, Howard's transition into the starting role hasn't come without its bumps. Out of his 12 starts this season he's thrown an interception in all but two of them, including three against Oklahoma in a blowout loss.

So Howard's going to give the Arizona State defense chances at turnovers, but if they don't capitalize he has the arm talent to tear them apart.

With 21 touchdowns through the air and six on the ground this season, the time off Howard's gotten to prepare for the Sun Devils could be valuable towards his progression.

West Virginia relies on its strong running back corps to move down the field, but Howard's gained the trust of his coaching staff as the year has gone on and when let loose, can rack up yards on defenses.

Running Back Wendell Smallwood, Junior

The lead option of the West Virginia rushing attack, Smallwood paced the Mountaineer offense to the tune of 1,447 yards and nine rushing touchdowns on the year.

Smallwood entered the year second on the depth chart behind Rushel Shell but soon asserted himself as the team's best option toting the ball, averaging 120.6 yards per game to blaze his way to national recognition with multiple Big-12 Player of the Week awards.

Against the Big-12's top teams Smallwood put together his best performances, rushing for 460 yards in West Virginia's four-game stretch against Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Baylor and TCU.

Smallwood's size at 5'10", 210 suggests he's a power running back, but he has sneaky speed to the edge as well as not shying away from contact. If ASU defenders try to come at him with arm tackling like they have in many of ASU's six losses this season, Smallwood could be in store for another monster day.

Wide Receiver Shelton Gibson, Redshirt Sophomore

Howard completed touchdowns to six different receivers over the course of the 2015 season but didn't develop a chemistry with any of them quite like he did with Gibson, seeing his first starting action at the collegiate level and immediately demonstrating his big play ability with three catches for 130 yards and a touchdown in West Virginia's opener against Georgia Southern.

Shelton hasn't evolved into a receiver that's going rake in more than five or six catches a game, but he makes those catches count, averaging 22.5 yards per reception this season.

Relying on his speed and ability to get behind defenders and run under throws, Shelton will likely draw coverage from Lloyd Carrington and the Sun Devils will try to press Shelton at the line in order to keep him in front of them.

Linebacker Nick Kwiatkowski, Redshirt Senior

Kwiatkowski represents West Virginia's best hope at a high draft pick in 2016, being a seasoned captain at the linebacker position who evolved into a tackling machine under Holgerson despite not being a Holgerson recruit. He earned a starting spot in his redshirt sophomore season and ranked sixth in the conference in solo tackles.

He backed up that promising campaign with elite performance after elite performance in 2014, leading the team with 103 total tackles and 11.5 tackels for loss.

Coming back as the captain of the defense in 2015, Kwiatkowski again led the Mountaineers with 80 total tackles in addition to three picks on the year. He's above-average in pass coverage and when rushing the passer on occasion can wreak havoc on a quarterback.

With safety Karl Joseph out due to a season-ending injury suffered early on in the year, Kwiatkowski's the Mountaineers best defensive player.