SAN FRANCISCO — There are more-prestigious bowls, better matchups with better payouts. But Arizona State has a rare opportunity against Navy in today’s Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl at AT&T Park.
The Sun Devils have defeated rival Arizona and have won a bowl game in the same season just one time since 1978. It happened in 2005. Even those ASU teams considered among the best in school history, John Cooper’s 1986 squad and Bruce Snyder’s 1996 team, could not pull this off.
Doing so this season — the Sun Devils defeated Arizona 41-34 on Nov. 23 — would erase the bad feelings associated with a late-season, four-game losing streak, one that eliminated ASU from Pac-12 South contention. It also officially would label coach Todd Graham’s first season a success, a building block for a program that longs for elite status.
“It’s a giant step for our program,” Graham said of the opportunity. “I mean, eight wins. That’s a heck of a first year, and it takes us to the next level. Expectations change. I think next year we’re facing probably the toughest schedule in the nation.”
Standing in ASU’s way is spunky Navy, an 8-4 team that has won seven of its past eight. The Midshipmen are disciplined, ranking second nationally in penalty yards. They have big-game experience, having faced Notre Dame and Penn State. And they run the triple option, an offense that gives defensive coordinators nightmares.
Graham is familiar with the attack. He ran it himself as a quarterback growing up. He coached against it in high school and a few times at this level. He has no doubt the Sun Devils know what they need to do and where they need to be to slow the Midshipmen. But at the same time, he admits they have had trouble simulating the speed and precision in which Navy operates.
The Sun Devils (7-5) initially used walk-on Parker Rasmussen to simulate Navy freshman quarterback Keenan Reynolds. They later tried sophomore cornerback Rashad Wadood and junior cornerback Robert Nelson to better simulate Reynolds’ athletic ability.
“There’s only one key to this game,’’ said ESPN analyst Brian Griese, who is working today’s game. “How does Arizona State defensively handle the option? Because it’s new for them, and if you don’t handle it the right away, if you don’t play your keys, if you just chase the football and continue to be the defense you’ve been and you don’t adjust, then you will give up big plays.”
The Sun Devils have seen as much on film.
“They kind of lull you to sleep as a secondary,” junior cornerback Osahon Irabor said. “You see the same run play about 10 times in a row, and then all of a sudden it’s a play-action pass, and it all kind of looks the same.”
Navy has similar concerns with ASU’s defense, which ranks among the nation’s leaders in sacks and tackles for a loss. Consensus All-American Will Sutton, a junior defensive tackle, leads the charge, along with sophomore “Devilbacker” Carl Bradford.
“They’re not going to sit back. They’re going to force your hand, so to speak,” Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “They’re fast and physical. They have a lot of playmakers. Our big thing is to make sure we stay ahead of the sticks, keep it second-and-manageable and third-and-manageable, and that’s going to be a super challenge for us.”
For 17 ASU seniors, this is it. Their last game. Linebacker Brandon Magee and running back Cameron Marshall played as true freshmen, but they never have won a bowl game. Magee, out last season because of an Achilles’ tendon injury, has never even played in one. Although they didn’t reach their goals this season, they believe they’re leaving the program in a better place, as long as they walk off the field one last time as winners.
“We better win this game,” Magee said. “There is no other option.”