Pac-12 followers spend every fall comparing their teams to Big Ten programs, all with the hope of meeting an ideal Midwest opponent in Pasadena. When those hopes crumble with the cannibalization of the conference, the SRS Distribution Las Vegas Bowl–and sometimes even the Duke’s Mayo Bowl–remain.
Arizona State (8-4) and Wisconsin (8-4) both were preseason Rose Bowl contenders, but found themselves dropping out of the equation at different points during the season. They will meet in the Las Vegas Bowl on Thursday night.
These teams also find themselves with distinctly different roster situations heading into the January 30th bowl game. ASU will be a shadow of its regular season self without a myriad of players who started games in 2021. These include Rachaad White, Darien Butler, Jack Jones, and Chase Lucas, all of whom opting to prepare for the NFL draft.
Other players missing who have entered the transfer portal or transferred already include: Chip Trayanum, Johnny Wilson, Geordon Porter, Cam Phillips, and Jordan Banks.
Wisconsin is expected to play at full strength, but the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported Saturday that there are concerns over a potential COVID-19 spread within the program upon arrival to Las Vegas.
A B1G-Time Defense
Wisconsin’s defense is a year-in, year-out powerhouse that often is overshadowed by subpar offensive production. Look to the success of the Baylor program with former Badger defensive coordinator Dave Aranda at the helm. Current defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard is highly-regarded within coaching circles, and is likely to make a leap to the NFL sooner rather than later.
This season is no different, with the Badgers earning the label of highest-ranked defense in the FBS, giving up 241 total yards per game. However, the lapses have been present in high-pressure games, including losses to Notre Dame (41 points allowed), Michigan (38 points allowed), and a 23-13 loss to Minnesota in the battle for Paul Bunyan’s axe.
Like the Sun Devils, Wisconsin’s defense is led by a veteran corps of players with a plethora of collegiate experience. The linebacker-room consisting of seniors Jack Sanborn and Noah Burks, as well as the junior Leo Chenal and the sophomore Nick Herbigl, combined for 21 sacks on the year.
With ASU down three of its key offensive threats from this season, it will take a miraculous effort from the Sun Devil offensive line and Jayden Daniels to produce offensively. This will be the strongest defense Zak Hill’s offense has faced all season.
Uncanny Quarterback Parallels
Graham Mertz and Jayden Daniels both wore four-star rankings coming out of high school in 2019, and both were hailed as the future in their respective college towns. While Daniels stepped up to the starting role immediately, Mertz’s opportunity came after an injury to Jack Coan in 2019. Mertz won the job, Coan shipped off to the holy land (albeit having the last laugh).
Both were granted the benefit of the doubt after mediocre performances in a non-traditional 2020 season, and hopes were high once again in 2021. Neither took the next step necessary to get their team to the Rose Bowl.
Jake Ferguson (417 yards, two touchdowns) was Mertz’s primary target in the air, and he is the Badger’s best offensive draft-prospect for this year. Veteran receivers Kendrick Pryor and Danny Davis III showed flashes, but never rose to prospect-level play. Sophomore Chimere Dike will be the receiver of the future to watch in Madison.
Mertz’s disappointments are largely swept under the rug thanks to the 17-year-old sensation that is running back Braelon Allen. Allen was a 2022 safety/running back recruit who left high school early, and reclassified to the 2021 class. The rest is history.
Allen stepped onto the scene later on with a 130-yard performance against Illinois, and did not fall back under 100 yards in a game until Wisconsin's last game against Minnesota. The 6-foot-2, 240 pound back will terrorize the Big Ten for at least two more years.
Daniels (10 touchdowns, nine interceptions) and Mertz (nine touchdowns, 10 interceptions) will have an opportunity to carry some momentum into the spring with a strong performance on national television, and both will be under-center in August of 2022 barring something drastic. They have had disappointing seasons, but the Las Vegas Bowl could be a chance for redemption.
How They Match Up
ASU and Wisconsin did not share a common opponent in 2021, and are both 8-4 heading into the Las Vegas Bowl. After the regular season, Wisconsin held the seventh-toughest schedule in the FBS, compared to ASU down the chart at 57th. With Wisconsin expected to play most of its starters, the Badgers are favored by six points.