In his first season as the head coach in Tempe, Todd Graham will lead his Arizona State Sun Devils into the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl against the Navy Midshipmen at AT&T Park in San Francisco.
Graham was one of a number of big-name hires in the Pac-12 this past off-season including Rich Rodriguez at Arizona and Jim Mora at UCLA. Graham managed to push the Sun Devils to their best record since 2007 with a 7-5 mark. The Sun Devils will also be making their second straight bowl appearance after a three-year hiatus from 2007-2010. This will also be the 26th overall bowl bid for Arizona State with the team 12-12-1 in the previous outings, including a current three-game bowl losing streak that was extended last year in a 56-24 loss to Boise State in the Maaco Bowl.
The Sun Devils' postseason hopes were in some jeopardy at the end of the season with the team needing wins in its last two games to punch a ticket. Arizona State was able to accomplish that with wins over Washington State and a road victory over instate rival Arizona.
The Midshipmen came a long way from their 1-3 start to earn a spot in the postseason. During those first three losses Navy was outscored by a 96-17 margin. The Midshipmen recovered from there though, winning five straight and seven of their final eight games overall to finish the regular season with an 8-4 record. It was a marked turnaround from a year ago when the team finished 5-7 and out of bowl contention for the first time in eight years.
"I'm very excited to be a part of a group of seniors to help get the program back on the right track" senior safety Tra'ves Bush said. "We've got a chance to come up with nine wins so we'll keep working hard and see if we can make that happen."
In its previous 17 bowl appearances, Navy has a losing record (7-9-1) and has lost four of its last five, including a 35-14 setback to San Diego State in the 2010 Poinsettia Bowl. Under current head coach Ken Niumatalolo the team is 1-2 in bowl games with the lone victory coming in the 2009 Texas Bowl when the team earned 10 wins for just the third time in program history.
This will be the first matchup between these programs. Navy has faced three other Pac-12 schools in bowl games previously and come away with a 1-1-1 record in those contests.
Navy, like its other military academy brethren, relies almost exclusively on the run game through a triple-option system. The Midshipmen finished the regular season as the sixth most productive rushing team in the country (276.4 ypg). Navy picked up only 1,325 yards total through the air and is near the bottom of the country in scoring (24.8 ppg, 86th) and total offense (387.7 ypg, 79th).
With the Midshipmen constantly handing the ball off there has been a trio of backs sharing the workload. Gee Gee Greene (108 attempts, 765 yards, 3 TDs) is the leading rusher and the most explosive as his 7.1 yards per carry average is far and away the best mark on the team among players with at least 50 attempts. Noah Copeland (152 attempts, 694 yards, 5 TDs) has taken on the bulk of the carries but was a more straight ahead runner. Copeland really turned it on in the last two weeks with efforts of 110 and 99 yards along with three of his touchdowns coming in the final two contests. Quarterback Keenan Reynolds is never afraid to call his own number and has racked up 628 yards rushing and a team-leading 10 touchdowns.
Reynolds has held his own when called upon to throw the ball, completing 57.7 percent of his pass attempts for eight touchdowns and most importantly only one interception. He threw for more than 100 yards only four times but attempted more than 10 throws only five times all year.
Discipline is a big key for Navy this season as the Midshipmen rarely have flags thrown against them. Navy has been called for the second fewest penalties in the league (3.5 pg) which accounted for nearly 30 yards a contest.
On the defensive side of the ball the Midshipmen are right near the middle of the nation in terms of total yards allowed, as they rank 56th by giving up 388.9 yards per game. Navy limits teams in scoring to just 22.7 points per game, ranking 31st in the country. Getting pressure was not a real strength for Navy has totaled only 18 sacks. The squad's 53 tackles for loss were also among the nation's worst totals.
Matt Warrick (84 tackles) and Bush (82) have each surpassed the 80-tackle plateau and are the top two stoppers on the unit. Warrick has also brought in a team-high three interceptions. Keegan Wetzel (74 tackles, 15.0 TFLs, 7.0 sacks) is a lone bright spot in the pass rush on a team that rarely got into the backfield to make plays.
Arizona State's offense differs from Navy in its approach but not so much in its production. While running a spread-style attack the Sun Devils are actually the fourth most productive rushing team in the Pac-12 and the 38th nationally at 190.8 yards per game. The team's rushing total is the third-best mark by an Arizona State team since 1988. Overall the Sun Devils are picking up 449.3 yards, while scoring 36.4 points per game. Arizona State's scoring average is tied for the 21st best mark in the country.
The backfield has a number of versatile playmakers that contribute both in the running game and through the air. Cameron Marshall (524 yards, 7 TDs) is the team leader in rushing yards. Marion Grice (520 yards, 9 TDs) and D.J. Foster (492 yards, 2 TDs) also piled up solid numbers on the ground.
Foster and Grice are perhaps most dangerous coming out of the backfield to catch passes though. Foster brought in 36 passes for 522 yards and four touchdowns, while Grice had 39 catches for 406 yards and eight scores. The Arizona State running backs have accounted for more than 30 percent of the total receiving yards for the Sun Devils and the trio of Marshall, Grice and Foster have scored 31 of the team's 51 touchdowns. Foster has really been the spark for the unit as he has racked up a team-leading 31 plays of 12 or more yards and leads the team in all purpose yards (1,114).
Under center for Arizona State is Taylor Kelly. The sophomore has done a solid job of picking up Graham's system in his first year and is currently third in the Pac-12 in passing efficiency. Kelly has completed a stellar 65.9 percent of his passes, for 2,772 yards and 25 touchdowns, while being intercepted only nine times. Kelly can also get out of trouble with his feet when need be as he has rushed for 435 yards.
The aggressive style isn't limited to the offense though. The Sun Devils have excelled at pinning their ears back and getting into the backfield. Arizona State ranked behind only fellow Pac-12 member Stanford in sacks (47) and tackles for loss (107) nationally. Creating negative plays so frequently allowed the Sun Devils to limit opponents to just 350.8 yards per game. That mark was the second best in the Pac-12 and the 30th nationally. Like Navy, Arizona State did not push itself backwards very often by committing the 14th fewest penalties (54) in the country.
After facing a wide array of high-powered offenses in the Pac-12, Graham is aware of how much of a change it will be to face Navy.
"Obviously it's completely different and defensively it's tough. It's still not very easy because of the blocking and how they go about it, it's a very difficult scheme to defend, "Graham said. "We're preparing for it. It's not easy, but we'll get it done."
Five different players have more than 10 tackles for loss for Arizona State. Chief among them is Will Sutton (58 tackles, 20.0 TFLS, 10.5 sacks). Sutton is third in the country in tackles for loss and tied for 15th in sacks. Sutton was selected as a First-Team All-American and was given the Morris Trophy, which goes to the best defensive lineman in the Pac-12. Carl Bradford (17.5 ppg, 10.5 sacks) is another playmaker up front, as are Chris Young (75 tackles, 14.0 TFLs), Davon Coleman (57 tackles, 10.5 TFLs) and Brandon Magee (team-high 104 tackles, 11.5 TFLs, 6.5 sacks). Keelan Johnson (81 tackles) anchors the secondary and has brought in five interceptions.