Two evenly matched teams will take the field today during the 84th playing of the second-oldest bowl game in the nation, the Hyundai Sun Bowl, as the Pac-12’s Arizona State University Sun Devils square off against the Atlantic Coast Conference’s North Carolina State University Wolfpack.
Both teams finished second in their respective conference divisions behind two of the country’s top teams. NC State finished the season with an 8-4 record and ranked 24th in the final College Football Playoff Rankings. The Wolfpack finished conference play at 6-2, good enough for second in the ACC Atlantic, one game behind the current No. 1 team in the nation, Clemson. The six conference wins tied a school record.
After losing its first game of the season, NC State reeled off six-straight wins, including wins over ranked Florida State and Louisville teams, before falling to a top-10 Notre Dame team and then losing a thriller in the final minutes to Clemson, 31-38. The Wolfpack finished on a high note, however, defeating rival North Carolina to end the regular season.
“When we lost the season opener, our season could have gone two ways,” said fifth-year Wolfpack head coach Dave Doeren. “Our team chose to use it as motivation to work harder and get better.”
Arizona State defeated then No. 24 Oregon in a barnburner, 37-35, before collecting what was probably its biggest win of the season, a 13-7 victory over undefeated and fifth-ranked Washington.
Arizona State finished the season at 7-5 and 6-3 in the Pac-12 South; right behind division and Pac-12 champion USC. Like NC State, the Sun Devils had big victories over ranked opponents and finished the season by defeating their in-state rival, Arizona.
“This is a great opportunity for us to compete against a top-notch program and close out the 2017 season right," said Arizona State head coach Todd Graham, who is in his sixth and final season with the program. "We look forward to representing our university in El Paso with character, class and dignity."
This will be the third all-time meeting between the two programs, a rubber match 43 years in the making. Both previous meetings were played in Arizona with the Sun Devils taking the first meeting in 1960, 25-22, and the Wolfpack prevailing in the most recent meeting in 1974, 35-14.
Both teams head to El Paso with similar bowl game records. This will be the 30th bowl game for Arizona State, which looks to improve on its .500 record in bowl games (14-14-1).
The Sun Devils are no strangers to the Sun Bowl. This will be their sixth appearance in the game. Arizona State’s first-ever bowl game was a bid to play in the 1940 Sun Bowl. Their last appearance came three years ago when they defeated Duke, 36-31 in a wild game. After a tie in 1940, they lost the next year during the 1941 Sun Bowl but have since gone 3-0, winning in 1997, 2004 and 2014.
NC State will be making its 31st appearance in a bowl game, with a current bowl record of 16-13-1. But unlike their opponents today, the Wolfpack are making their first-ever trip to El Paso to play in the Sun Bowl.
Graham, a Mesquite, Texas native, returns to his home state to lead the Sun Devils to their fifth bowl appearance in his six years at the helm of the program. Graham is 3-1 in bowl games while at Arizona State, including that 2014 Sun Bowl victory, and 7-2 overall in bowl games as a head coach, having previously taken Tulsa and Rice to bowl games.
“Being a proud native of the great state of Texas, the Sun Bowl and the people of El Paso are very important to me,” Graham said. “We enjoyed the fine hospitality of the Sun Bowl three years ago and we look forward to making the trip once again.”
Unfortunately, Graham will finish his Arizona State head-coaching career in El Paso. He was relieved of his duties following the season finale against Arizona but was allowed to coach in today’s game. The Sun Devils have since hired former NFL head coach and ESPN analyst Herm Edwards as their new head coach. Edwards coached the New York Jets from 2001-05, the Kansas City Chiefs from 2006-08 and has spent the last nine years working for the worldwide leader in sports.
There was a distinct possibility that NC State’s head man would also be coaching his final game with the program as Doeren was a highly sought-after commodity by many universities, most notably Tennessee. But after much deliberation, Doeren turned down the Volunteer gig and signed a new five-year contract to continue coaching the Wolfpack.
Doeren did not take NC State to a bowl game during his first season in 2013, but has since led the Wolfpack to four-consecutive postseason appearances, going 2-1 in bowl games. He is 3-2 overall as a head coach in bowl games as he also took Northern Illinois University to consecutive bowl games both years he was there (2011-12). In all, he has taken his team to a bowl game six out of the past seven seasons.
Like Graham, Doeren has previously participated in the Sun Bowl, but not as a head coach. He came to El Paso in 1998 as a graduate assistant with the USC, a game that the Trojans lost to TCU, 28-19.
The similarities between today’s combatants continue on the field. Both teams are led by well-balanced offenses that average over 425 yards and over 30 points per game. Both teams average a little under 180 yards per game on the ground. NC State averages 271.8 yards per game through the air while Arizona State isn’t far behind averaging 247.7 passing yards.
The Wolfpack offense is led by quarterback Ryan Finley and running back Nyheim Hines. Finley, a graduate student who transferred from Boise State, actually hails from the land of the Sun Devils, Phoenix, Ariz. He passed for 3,200 yards this season and 16 touchdowns. He did not have an interception through the first seven games of the season and finished with only six picks.
Hines was selected as a first-team All-ACC player after finishing the season with 1,040 rushing yards and nine touchdowns. He also added a 92-yard touchdown on a punt return. During the final game of the season versus rival North Carolina, Hines rushed for a season-high 196 yards and scored two touchdowns.
The Sun Devils are led by quarterback Manny Wilkins, who needs 82 yards in the Sun Bowl to reach 3,000 yards passing this season. Wilkins threw 17 touchdown passes in the regular season while only throwing five interceptions. His favorite target is wide out N’Keal Harry, a first-team All-Pac-12 selection who finished with 73 catches and 1,000 yards receiving.
Arizona State senior running back Demario Richards is no stranger to El Paso. Richards, who scored 12 touchdowns this year and is 23 yards away from a 1,000-yard season, was a freshman when the Sun Devils played in the Sun Bowl in 2014. All he did that day was tie a Sun Bowl record with four total touchdowns and walk away with the C. M. Hendricks Most Valuable Player Award. He will try to become only the third player in Sun Bowl history to win two MVP awards. Charley Johnson won the Sun Bowl MVP in consecutive years (1959-60) while at New Mexico State and UTEP’s Billy Stevens is the only player to win it in non-consecutive years (1965, 1967).
With the offenses putting up similar numbers, the game might come down to who has the better defense, which favors the Wolfpack and All-American Bradley Chubb. The senior defensive end and ACC Defensive Player of the Year is this year’s recipient of the Ted Hendricks Award as the nation’s top defensive end and the Bronko Nagurski Trophy as the nation’s top defensive player. Chubb anchors an NC State defense that was one of the stingiest in the ACC.
“Bradley has worked tirelessly to become the best defensive player in college football,” Doeren said. “His development from a 235-pound linebacker to a 275-pound end has been incredible and is a tribute to his work ethic and our developmental program at NC State.”
Many in the know have Chubb projected as a top-5 draft pick next season, many in the top 3. If this comes to fruition it will be the second-straight year a Sun Bowl participant has been drafted within the first three picks of the NFL Draft after former North Carolina quarterback Mitch Trubisky was selected with the second overall pick during the 2017 NFL Draft by the Chicago Bears, while Stanford’s Solomon Thomas was chosen as the No. 3 overall draft pick.
The 84th edition of the Hyundai Sun Bowl is sure to have something for everybody. And to put a ribbon on it all is the fact that this will be the 50th consecutive season that the game will be televised by CBS, a partnership that began in 1968 with Lindsey Nelson and Hall-of-Famer Frank Gifford as the announcers. Only one other sporting event, The Masters, which also airs on CBS, has been on one network longer than the Sun Bowl.