Following a dramatic win over its archrival, Arizona State wants to cap coach Todd Graham’s promising first year with a bowl victory.
Navy ended the regular season in similar fashion and now looks to add another triumph to its bounce-back campaign.
The Sun Devils take on the Midshipmen for the first time Saturday when they play in the Fight Hunger Bowl at AT&T Park in San Francisco.
“I can tell you they’ll be a formidable opponent,” Graham said. “They’re very different, very difficult, very well-coached, very disciplined. I know our guys are excited about the opportunity.”
After Graham led the program to its first winning season since 2007, Arizona State (7-5) enters its 26th bowl appearance having not won one since defeating Rutgers in the 2005 Insight Bowl. The Sun Devils have since lost three appearances by an average of 22.3 points, including a 56-24 defeat to then-No. 8 Boise State in last year’s Las Vegas Bowl.
This is the ninth bowl game in 10 years for Navy (8-4), which missed out on the postseason last year thanks to a 5-7 record.
While the Midshipmen hope to carry over the momentum of last Saturday’s 17-13 come-from-behind win over Navy, Arizona State looks to do the same after beating Arizona on Nov. 23 to claim the Territorial Cup trophy. Trailing 27-17 after three quarters, the Sun Devils stormed back, turning two turnovers and a blocked punt into three touchdowns on the way to a wild 41-34 win over the Wildcats.
After opening the season 5-1, Arizona State dropped four in a row - three to ranked Pac-10 foes - but closed with back-to-back wins to become bowl eligible.
Seven of quarterback Taylor Kelly’s nine interceptions this season came during that four-game skid - he was sacked 17 times in that span. The sophomore passed for 2,772 yards with 25 touchdowns and had thrown at least one in every game until the Arizona win.
“They’re going to be tough and hard-nosed and they’re going to be coming at us,” Kelly said of the Midshipmen. “We have to go out and handle our business and focus on what we can do and don’t get distracted with different things like traveling or going to a bowl game.”
Kelly ranks second in the Pac-12 in yards per attempt (8.15) and third in completion percentage (65.9). He was one of four Sun Devils to rush for more than 400 yards - none had more than 524.
Arizona State had similar balance in the passing game with six players having at least 300 yards receiving, led by tight end Chris Coyle’s 53 catches and 659 yards. Tailback Marion Grice topped the team with eight TD receptions and nine touchdown runs, including three against Arizona as he ran for a career-high 156 yards.
The Pac-12’s third-ranked scoring offense (36.4 per game) should be able to find some holes in a Navy defense that allowed 705 passing yards in two games before facing run-heavy Army in the regular-season finale.
“Arizona State is an outstanding football team with great players on both sides of the ball,” Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “We have played a very tough schedule this year and there is no doubt that Arizona State will be as talented as any team we’ve faced.”
That may have been a slight overstatement considering Niumatalolo’s team lost 50-10 to current No. 1 Notre Dame to open the season. The Midshipmen, though, closed it out by winning seven of eight, capped by claiming the Commander-In-Chief’s Trophy against Army.
Navy and its triple-option offense hope to take advantage of a Sun Devils defense which allowed four of its final six opponents to rush for more than 200 yards. The Midshipmen rank sixth in the nation in rushing yards per game (275.6) while sitting fourth from the bottom in passing attempts (160).
“It’s hard to simulate it in any way,” Graham said of the Navy offense. “… It’s still not very easy because of the blocking and how they go about it, it’s a very difficult scheme to defend.”
Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds threw for just 884 yards and eight touchdowns with one interception while leading the team with 10 rushing TDs, including the game-winner against Army.
Reynolds ran for 588 yards in the final seven games, and fullback Noah Copeland rushed for 209 with three TDs over the last two. Gee Gee Greene led the team with 765 rushing yards but managed just 15 on four carries against Army.