West Virginia Mountaineers (7-5, 4-5 Big 12) vs Arizona State Sun Devils (6-6, 4-5, Pac-12)
Kickoff: 10:15 p.m. ET/8:15 p.m MT
Television: ESPN (Dave Neal, Matt Stinchcomb, Kayce Smith)
Radio: Arizona Sports 98.7 FM | Sirus 125 (Tim Healey, Jeff Van Raaphorst, Doug Franz)
Betting Line: The Sun Devils open Thursday morning as one-point underdogs at most popular betting sites/sports books, and are 1.5-point underdogs at Westgate. The over/under ranges from 63.5 to 64.5.
All-Time Series: Arizona State has won the only meeting between the Sun Devils and the West Virginia Moutaineers, winning the November 1979 contest by a score of 42-7.
West Virginia in 2015: After going 3-0 in non-conference play, the Moutaineers struggled through the early stages of Big 12 play, dropping their first four conference games before winning four straight. They went on to finish the year 7-5 with a conference record of 4-5.
West Virginia boasted one of the program's most wholesome defensive units of recent memory, including an elite secondary, touting the heralded safety duo of K.J. Dillon and Karl Joseph.
The Mountaineers lost Joseph in early October, but have seen Jared Harper perform well in his place. Meanwhile, Dillon has efficiently manned the SPUR role alongside converted-SAM linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski.
The Mountaineers defense ranked as the fourth-best unit in the entire country in 2015, according to the Fremeau Efficiency Index.
Surprisingly, it was the West Virginia offense (which ranked 83rd in the nation based on the FEI metric) which was more-often-than-not the team's Achilles' heel.
After losing star wideout Kevin White to the NFL, his younger brother Ka'Raun White was a serviceable target for quarterback Skyler Howard, but much less explosive. Meanwhile, Howard played at a rather sporadic level this year amidst dealing with hand and ankle injuries.
Freshman quarterback-turned-receiver David Sills has arguably displayed the most promise of anyone in the Mountaineers receiving corp in 2015.
While the passing game sputtered through the year, the Mountaineer rushing attack headed by Wendell Smallwood (225 rush, 1,447 yd, 9 TD) and Rushel Shell (152 rush, 677 yd, 8 TD) managed to provide Dana Holgorsen with some explosive playmaking ability on the offensive side of the ball on a consistent basis.
Since reaching the Orange Bowl in Holgorson's first year at Morgantown, the Mountaineers have yet to win more than seven games in a single season, but the stage is set for this year's group to break that streak.
ASU on Offense: At times, the Sun Devils have had difficulties manufacturing points on the board, but it certainly doesn't mean that this unit isn't a group that can run away with a contest.
Fifth-year senior quarterback Mike Bercovici will look to close off his lone single season as the full-time starter with a bowl win. Devin Lucien has grown in to arguably the team's best receiver after hauling in nearly 400 yards in the team's final two games alone. Tim White and D.J. Foster also provide some intriguing playmaking ability with the ball in their hands as well.
It often appeared that the offense generally flowed according to the play of their 4,000-yard-passing signal caller, so a big performance from Bercovici and the receiving core on Saturday would bode very well for the Sun Devils.
On the ground, ASU will present a two-headed rushing attack in the form of sophomores Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage. Richard topped 1,000 yards for the first time in his career this season, and will look to further extend those numbers against a good West Virginia defense.
Ballage will also look to extend his numbers from a season that began with him being sidelined with mononucleosis.
The play of the offensive line will be key in establishing the advantage at the line of scrimmage in order to allow both the rushing and passing attacks to flourish.
Finish Drives: Too many times throughout the season, ASU settled for field goals once in the red zone (in fact, the Sun Devils led FBS in red zone field goals made, totaling 20 field goals out of their 59 red zone chances in 2015. They were the only team to make that many, and that's including bowl games played through December 30).
Against a high-octane offense like West Virginia, the Sun Devils will need to ensure themselves a chance to keep up should the game become a shootout, meaning three-point trips into the opponent's 20-yard line just won't do in this one.
Finishing drives with touchdowns will also allow ASU to comfortably hold on to a lead as well, should they get ahead like they did against Cal earlier in the season before having it slip away. It would be nice to see the team not only finish the season off strong, but do so by converting possessions into six points, too.
Establish the Line Of Scrimmage: West Virginia's defense is a solid unit, and the Sun Devils offensive line will need to have a big day in order for the ground game to have any sort of success, as well as the passing game. Expect the Sun Devils to utilize a short up-tempo passing game in order to ease the pressure off the offensive line to block for extended periods of time and allow Bercovici to get into a rhythm early on.
Protect the Football: As stated before, what ASU does with its possessions will be crucial, and a part of that will include protecting the football. Bercovici can't afford to get ancy against the ball-hawking Mountaineers defense that was +11 in turnover margin and intercepted 13 passes this season. Ball carriers out of the backfield also need to make a point of holding on to the football too, as we've seen Richard have fumbling issues before.
Protecting the football also encompasses the play of the receivers and their knack for dropping passes. If ASU wants to put up points, the receiving corp will need to come in with a focused mentality.
Contain Wendell Smallwood: In years past, there would be three or four players to truly be concerned of with the ball in their hands, but in 2015-16 the lone playmaking threat the Mountaineers truly pose is Smallwood. The junior was second in the Big 12 in rushing yards and fifth in yards per attempt.
The Sun Devils have been very good against the run throughout the season, but a lackluster performance against the explosive Smallwood would put their hopes of a victory in jeopardy.
Limit explosive plays: While West Virginia ranked 69th in the explosive play category, the two aggressive styles of play between the Mountaineer offense and Sun Devil defense will be sure to provide the de facto visitors with a chance to produce some fireworks on the offensive end as they feature an Air Raid offensive scheme.
In 2015, the Sun Devils are 0-2 against teams that utilize the Air Raid (Washington State, Cal). Since Todd Graham has arrived in Tempe, the Sun Devils are 3-3 against teams that utilize the scheme, including 0-1 in bowl games (Texas Tech, 2013). All three of ASU's victories have come against Washington State.
While West Virginia doesn't offer the same playmaking ability at receiver that Wazzu and Cal did, Howard is a mobile threat out of the backfield, meaning he'll manage to extend plays and potentially gash the defense for chunks of yards or even allow his receivers more time to get open.
How the Sun Devils offense performs against the Mountaineers defense will ultimately determine the outcome in this one. If the ASU offense manages to carry the form it closed the year with, expect fireworks and a very favorable outcome for the Sun Devils.
However, if the Sun Devils inefficiencies on the offensive side of the ball begin to influence the game, it could be a closer ball game than it should.
Prediction: ASU 41, West Virginia 38