Arizona State coach Herm Edwards is taking advantage of the extra game Saturday’s Las Vegas Bowl presents by making sure his youngest players get valuable experience against No. 21 Fresno State.
The Bulldogs, the Mountain West Conference champions at 11-2, 7-1 MWC, are playing for respect against a Power 5 opponent and are striving for their first 12-win season in school history.
The pressure of winning is more on Fresno State than it is with Arizona State, which is 7-5 overall with a second-place finish in the Pac-12 Southern Division at 5-4.
“It comes with the territory,” Fresno State coach Jeff Tedford said. “Our goal always is to win the game that we’re playing and this happens to be a 12th one. Is that defining? I think so, for a team that has worked so hard. I think that is a great accomplishment for any program.”
With NFL prospect N’Keal Harry, a junior receiver, opting to not play in the game in order to concentrate on the draft, Sun Devils freshman Geordon Porter is expected to get more snaps. Arizona State freshman running back A.J. Carter is also expected to play.
Edwards has also suggested that sophomore quarterback Dillon Sterling-Cole will play depending on how the game develops in what will be the final college appearance for senior signal-caller Manny Wilkins.
The Sun Devils already play an abundance of freshmen on defense — with six seeing plenty of action this season. One of them is linebacker Merlin Robertson, the Pac-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year who has team-highs with 77 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss and five sacks.
Edwards himself is acting young by saying he can’t wait to stop for milkshakes on the team’s bus ride to Las Vegas. Arizona State opted to take to the road on six buses for the six-hour trip to Las Vegas rather than fly, although the team will take an airplane back to Phoenix after the game.
“I don’t know if it’s ‘Johnson Family Vacation’ or not, but we’re going to make a few stops,” Edwards said. “I’m really excited about the milkshakes (stop) to be quite honest. I know exactly what kind I’m getting. They get strawberry, vanilla or chocolate. I’ve got a special one coming. They’re going to want the one I have.
“It’s like anything, if you make it fun. The Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge (spanning the Colorado River) we’re going to cross, I think that’s important. They’re really excited about going now. I’ve been talking it up for a week. When you do something like this, it just brings your team closer together. I like doing stuff like this.”
Edwards is understandably enjoying the moment after a nerve-wracking, yet successful, first season with Arizona State. In the Sun Devils’ last 11 games, nine have been decided by seven points of fewer.
Arizona State had Harry through all of that. How much the Sun Devils and Wilkins miss Harry’s 73 catches for 1,088 yards remains to be seen. They still have All-Pac-12 first-team selection Eno Benjamin at running back. He rushed for 1,524 yards at 5.5 yards per carry with 12 touchdowns.
“I’ve seen a little bit through the year of the stuff that they’ve done in highlights,” Tedford said of Arizona State. “They’re very explosive. They’ve played a lot of difficult games and won their share for sure — they’re a really good football team.”
Tedford is familiar with coaching against the Sun Devils dating to his days as California’s coach.
Another bit of familiarity is Fresno State quarterback Marcus McMaryion, who transferred from Oregon State after starting seven games with the Beavers as a freshman and sophomore in 2015 and 2016.
McMaryion is 12th among NCAA quarterbacks in yards (3,453) and seventh in completion percentage (69.8). His favorite target, KeeSean Johnson, is tied for fourth in the NCAA in receptions (93) and eighth in yards (1,307).
The Bulldogs’ combination of Ronnie Rivers and Jordan Mims have combined for 967 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns.
Fresno State is familiar with the Sun Devils’ schemes on defense as defensive coordinator Danny Gonzales is a former San Diego State assistant coach who has brought the 3-3-5 defense with him to Arizona State.
“I think it’s a combination of Washington and Colorado of what they do on offense,” Gonzales told the Arizona Republic. “They are a very physical football team. I think in all my times at the previous school, it was the only school that was able to match our physical stature and we had great battles with them so it’s going to be a very, very good challenge.
“They are a great football team. They’re ranked 21st in the country for a reason.”