ASU vs. Navy game: an intriguing clash of offensive styles

Tomorrow will be a day of ‘firsts’ for the Arizona State football program.It will mark the first time the Sun Devils have met up with a team from the U.S. Naval Academy.  And their first time playing in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco.

Update: ASU piled up 648 yards of total offense in a dominating 62-28 victory.  In the process, the Devils set new school records for total points scored in a bowl game and most points (28) in a quarter, and tied the NCAA Division I bowl record of 36 first downs.  Taylor Kelly threw for 268 yards and four touchdowns, Rashad Ross had four receptions for 139 yards and three touchdowns, and Cameron Marshall had two rushing touchdowns to give him 38 on the season – the second most in ASU history behind the 43 that Woody Green accumulated 40 years ago.

But even more important, it will be the first time Todd Graham has taken an ASU team to a bowl game.  The first-year head coach will try to cap off the school’s first winning season in five years with a victory in a high-profile bowl game.  Last year, the Devils made it to the MAACO Bowl in Las Vegas, where they were trounced by Boise State, 56-24, in Dennis Erickson‘s final game as a Sun Devil head coach.

The two teams in tomorrow’s contest in the Bay Area are similar in some ways.

Both teams have momentum: Navy is 8-4 and coming off a big win over rival Army in the regular-season finale… and ASU, which enters with a 7-5 record, beat Arizona to claim the Territorial Cup.

Those season-ending wins against rivals influenced the bowl selection committee’s decision to invite ASU and Navy to play in a college football game that will be held on a major league baseball field.  The game is played at AT&T Park, the home of the San Francisco Giants.

“We kind of pioneered playing a bowl game in a baseball venue,” explained the bowl’s executive director, Gary Cavalli, “and I think we have done it pretty well.”  To give the field the feel of a football stadium, crews erected temporary bleachers in right center field that will seat 4,000 fans.

“You are always looking for someone on the upswing or coming off a big win, or finished the season strong,” said Cavalli in explaining how the teams were selected.  “We feel really good having two teams who won their rivalry games, finished on such a high note, and everybody is really excited about the way the seasons ended.”

But that’s pretty much where the similarities between the two teams end.  Which makes this a great match-up because of the contrast in styles.

ASU relies more heavily on its passing game, averaging 258.5 yards a game through the air and 190 on the ground. Navy gains 275 a game rushing and just 110 passing.

Navy is a slow starter.  Their weakest quarter is the first.  But ASU comes out strong and has scored first in 10 of the 12 games this season.  They scored on six of their first seven possessions against Northern Arizona, four of the first five against Illinois, and three of their first four against Washington State.

But they experience a let-down after halftime; their weakest scoring all season has come in the third quarter – but they’re incredibly consistent throughout the other three frames.

But the real difference comes in the offensive styles of each team.

ASU is a hurry-up, spread type of offensive that can score points in a hurry and in a bunch.  Against Arizona, the Devils scored 24 points in the fourth  quarter to pull out a come-from-behind 41-34 victory.

Navy, on the other hand, is a ball-control team that runs a triple-option offense that has enabled the Midshipmen to average 25 points a game and convert 80 percent of their red zone trips into some sort of score, either a TD or field goal.  They have held an average advantage of two minutes a game in time of possession.

ASU really doesn’t care much about time of possession.  Their objective is to keep the chains moving as quickly as possible and keep the defense off balance as much as possible.  They actually hold the ball, on average, less time than their opponents, but have outscored them by 12 points a game.

But defending the triple option, which relies on identifying which of three different players is carrying the ball, is difficult.  Since there are very few teams that run the offense these days, there is little time devoted to practicing against it.  The month-long break since season’s end has given Graham and his staff the luxury of time to devote to stopping the attack.

A defense that has put up impressive numbers this year should be able to slow the Navy attack.  The Devils have 106 tackles for a loss and 48 sacks this season – led by Carl Bradford and Will Sutton, who have more than 10 sacks apiece.  The team’s 4.0 sacks per game is the second-best in the country.

This just may turn out to be one of the more exciting games of the weekend.

(Photo: ASU Athletics)