The Wisconsin Badgers (8-4) will take on the Arizona State Sun Devils (8-4) in the SRS Distribution Las Vegas Bowl at 9:30 p.m. on Dec. 30.
Allegiant Stadium will host the 29th edition of the bowl game, which started in 1992 but wasn’t played last year due to COVID-19.
Wisconsin finished third in the Big Ten West and will be playing in a bowl game for the 20th consecutive year — the Badgers have won six of their last seven bowls. Arizona State, coached by former NFL coach and ESPN analyst Herm Edwards, finished second in the Pac-12 South this season after not qualifying for a bowl game in 2020.
The Sun Devils offense features an effective ground attack, as its 204.4 rush yards per game rank fourth in the Pac-12 and 23rd in the country. Leading the backfield is running back Rachaad White, who has averaged 5.5 yards on his 182 attempts for a 1,006-yard, 15-touchdown campaign. The 6’2”, 210-pound senior runs with a combination of physicality and athleticism somewhat resembling Wisconsin’s Braelon Allen.
Unlike Allen, however, White is a prolific receiver out of the backfield. He’s hauled in 43 passes for 456 yards this season, both of which rank second for the Sun Devils.
Arizona State’s second-leading rusher is quarterback Jayden Daniels, who has averaged 5.6 yards per carry and totaled 670 yards with six touchdowns on the ground. He’s not as well-rounded a threat as Adrian Martinez, but he boasts the mobility to give Wisconsin’s defense similar troubles as Nebraska’s quarterback.
Overall, the Sun Devil rushing attack shouldn’t give the Badgers too many problems. Wisconsin’s outstanding front seven, highlighted by linebackers Leo Chenal and Jack Sanborn, has allowed a nation-low 65.2 rushing yards per game.
Daniels, a 6’3”, 185-pound junior, has had an unspectacular season as a passer. Arizona State’s run-heavy offense has limited him to only 23 pass attempts per game, with which he’s averaged 185 yards while throwing 10 touchdowns and nine interceptions. Daniels most recently completed 10 of 14 passes for 86 yards and two touchdowns in a blowout victory over Arizona. Interestingly, he rushed for 86 yards as well on 10 attempts in that Nov. 27 contest.
The Sun Devils’ leading receiver is wideout Ricky Pearsall, who has caught 44 passes for 515 yards and four touchdowns. Besides him and White, the only other significant contributors have been tight end Curtis Hodges and receiver LV Bunkley-Shelton with 373 and 370 receiving yards, respectively.
Wisconsin’s secondary figures to handle Daniels’ passing attack pretty well, but the unit has been relatively inconsistent all season and is undoubtedly susceptible to downfield throws. Adrian Martinez accumulated 351 yards on 23 completions, albeit with two interceptions in a losing effort against the Badgers. Wisconsin also had a couple of untimely defensive breakdowns at Minnesota, although they were partially attributable to the early ejection of starting safety Collin Wilder on a questionable targeting call.
As they’ve done all season, the Badgers will depend on Braelon Allen to move the ball. The hulking running back was the primary offensive catalyst during Wisconsin’s seven-game winning streak and has totaled 1,109 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns in his freshman campaign.
The Minnesota loss was by far Allen’s worst game since becoming the lead back in early October. He ran for only 47 yards on 17 attempts: a 2.8-yard average by a player who’s averaged 7.1 yards per carry this season. Minnesota’s defense played well, but Allen appeared to lack his usual burst and refusal to be tackled.
Fatigue could have kicked in for the 17-year-old as he approached 150 rushing attempts this season, and understandably so. If so, the month off before facing Arizona State should be huge for Allen’s health and his ability to steal the show in Las Vegas.
The Sun Devils have allowed 129.3 rushing yards per game, third-best in the Pac-12. For context, they’d rank seventh in that category in the Big Ten, slotting between Michigan and Penn State. Although Arizona State has faced some talented running backs this year, namely Oregon State’s B.J. Baylor and UCLA’s Zach Charbonnet, Allen will be one of its toughest tests to date.
Arizona State’s pass defense is similarly competent, ranking fourth-best in the Pac-12 with 199.7 air yards allowed per game. Further, its 15 interceptions are second-most in the conference.
Linebackers Darien Butler and Merlin Robertson have both tallied three interceptions this season and have made 68 and 57 total tackles, respectively. They must be on quarterback Graham Mertz’s radar as he works the middle of the field looking for tight end and trusted target Jake Ferguson.
Mertz struggled against Minnesota, averaging a mere 4.5 yards per attempt for 171 total yards and an interception. Allen’s ineffectiveness on the ground forced Mertz to carry Wisconsin’s offense through the air and make more high-leverage throws than he had throughout the seven-game winning streak. Should Allen struggle once again, the spotlight will remain on the Badger quarterback as he looks to end his sophomore campaign on an encouraging note.
Considering its relative obscurity and late-night kickoff, the Las Vegas Bowl is a disappointing conclusion for a Wisconsin team that, for nearly two months, looked like one of college football’s most dominant teams. That said, it’s a chance for the Badgers to walk away from 2021 with some hardware.
Arizona State, too, will be hungry for the blinged-out Rossi Ralenkotter Trophy and matches up well enough with Wisconsin to suggest the Dec. 30 contest will be a competitive one.