Who doesn’t love a trip to Las Vegas? This year’s Las Vegas Bowl features two fan bases that should be excited to go up to Sin City and fill Sam Boyd Stadium for the 12:30 p.m. PT kickoff on December 15 between Arizona State and Fresno State. The Mountain West Conference champs are favored by 4.5 points with a total of 52 in a game that has already been altered by an NFL Draft announcement.
The line was -3.5 in favor of Fresno until Arizona State’s star wideout N’Keal Harry announced that he would bypass the game and sign with an agent in advance of April’s NFL Draft. This won’t be the only game affected and it seems to be less controversial than it was in the past.
Considering Harry has caught 73 passes for 1,088 yards and nine touchdowns, it makes sense that the line would move with him absent from the game. The next leading receiver is Kyle Williams with 40 catches for 432 yards and one touchdown. Harry leaves with 32 percent of the team’s receptions, 37.6 percent of the team’s receiving yards, and nine of the team’s 19 receiving touchdowns.
Arizona State’s reliance on Eno Benjamin will increase as a result. The Sun Devils are 7-5 straight up and 7-4-1 against the spread, due in large part to what Herm Edwards has done with this defense and what Benjamin has done on the ground. Harry has the highlight reel film, but Benjamin has 277 carries for 1524 yards and 15 rushing touchdowns. Quarterback Manny Wilkins has taken care of the football with a 19/4 TD/INT ratio and he also has eight rushing touchdowns. Harry’s loss is big, but this offense isn’t completely wrecked for the Las Vegas Bowl.
To say that the hire of Edwards was met with skepticism would be one of the biggest understatements of the year. But, Edwards ran the team more like an NFL head coach and that allowed the coordinators to do their thing. He had to say goodbye to Billy Napier very early in his tenure when he took the Louisiana job, but Rob Likens was a great replacement and he made a savvy hire of Danny Gonzales from San Diego State to be the DC. The Sun Devils allowed less than six yards per play for the first time since 2014 and improved to 25.1 points per game, the lowest since 2012. This is the first time since 2014 that the Sun Devils have had a positive yards per play differential.
Speaking of great coaching jobs, Jeff Tedford has absolutely killed it at Fresno State. Tedford’s name is being bandied about for all sorts of jobs. Surprisingly, USC kept Clay Helton, which was a job that would have made sense for Tedford, who has deep roots in the state of California. This is a Fresno State team that went 1-11 in 2016. Since Tedford took over, the Bulldogs have two Mountain West Title Game appearances, one conference crown, a 21-6 straight up record, and a 19-6-2 ATS record.
Fresno State’s star wide receiver will be in this game. Senior KeeSean Johnson has good size at 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds, so it is in his best interest to stand out a bit in this game. He’s caught 93 balls for 1,307 yards and eight touchdowns this season. He caught 77 balls for 1,013 yards and eight scores last season. He and fellow senior Marcus McMaryion developed some chemistry very quickly and should shine in this game. McMaryion has a 25/3 TD/INT ratio on the season with a 69.8 percent completion rate. One of the simplest ways to have a good team is to avoid turning the football over. Fresno State only had 11 turnovers. One of the teams with fewer turnovers? Arizona State.
What makes the performance of the Fresno State defense so impressive is that defensive coordinator Orlondo Steinauer went back to his CFL roots as the head coach of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats before the season. That meant a DC change for the Bulldogs. Bert Watts went from linebacker coach to DC and this unit didn’t miss a beat. Fresno went from 4.9 yards per play allowed in 2017 to 4.8 yards per play allowed in 2018. The defense held the opposition to 3.6 yards per carry, which ranked 28th. Fresno did regress quite a bit in the sack department, but had 24 takeaways.
Las Vegas Bowl Free Pick: Arizona State +4.5
These two teams mirror each other in a lot of ways, but Arizona State played the much tougher schedule. Per Sagarin, the Sun Devils played the 46th-ranked schedule and Fresno State played the 81st-ranked schedule. These are two well-coached teams, as crazy as it is to say. For the Sun Devils, the loss of Harry is a big deal and will likely entice public action on the favorite. Wait this line out and look to take Arizona State at a better number. Given the fan base there in Tempe, it’s safe to say that five-hour drive isn’t going to be too much of a hindrance when it comes to attending the game in Vegas, especially with a reason to celebrate the end of finals.