Third and goal: Duke football vs. Arizona State

Duke travels to El Paso, Texas, for its third bowl game in as many seasons to face off against No. 15 Arizona State in the Hyundai Sun Bowl at 2 p.m. Saturday. The Blue Devils will hit the gridiron for the first time in nearly a month seeking their first bowl victory since a 7-6 win in the 1961 Cotton Bowl Classic against Arkansas. A victory would also mark Duke’s first win against a ranked non-conference opponent since 1971, when the team pulled off a 9-3 win on the road against then-No. 10 Stanford. Three keys to a Blue Devil victory:

Get Boone and the passing game going

In his last start as a Blue Devil, redshirt senior Anthony Boone will need to take advantage of the Sun Devils’ porous pass defense, which ranks 103rd in the nation in total yards allowed. Boone threw for a career-high 17 touchdowns and seven interceptions—along with a 56.9-percent completion percentage—during the course of the regular season. But despite Boone’s career year, the Blue Devils passing offense ranked as one of the worst in the ACC and often struggled to replicate the explosiveness it showed a year ago.

A key to moving the ball through the air will be to get the ball to senior wide receiver Jamison Crowder. The Monroe, N.C. native was held to less than 1,000 receiving yards this season after surpassing the threshold his sophomore and junior year seasons. The Boone-Crowder connection showed its potency a year ago in the Chick-fil-A-Bowl when Boone hit Crowder for a momentum-shifting 59-yard touchdown strike. The bowl game was the best performance of Boone’s career—in which he went 29-of-45 for a career-high 427 yards and three touchdowns.

Boone—who is coming off his best game of the season against Wake Forest in which he went 19-of-31 for 275 yards and one touchdown—has been one of the most successful quarterbacks in Duke history and will have another chance to add to his legacy with a bowl victory. But if he is unable to spark the passing game as he did last year, the Blue Devils will likely struggle to hang with a team that averages 37.0 points per game.

Strong red zone play

The Duke defense has been bend-but-don’t-break all season and a key to victory will be holding the Sun Devils to field goals in the red zone. Arizona State has converted 89.7 percent of its red zone opportunities into touchdowns—which is tied for the 16th-best clip in the nation. Arizona State—averaging 446.5 yards on offense per game—will surely find success moving the ball against the Blue Devils, but stiff red zone defense should help keep Duke in the contest.

The Blue Devils won’t be able to play strong red zone defense without being wary of Sun Devil quarterback Taylor Kelly’s favorite target in wide receiver Jaelen Strong. The redshirt junior announced his decision to enter the NFL Draft—where he is slated to be a first-round pick—following this season. At 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds, Strong is an intimidating target by the goal line and has the athleticism to test Duke cornerbacks Breon Borders and Bryon Fields.

On the other side of the ball, the Blue Devils need to find different ways to get into the end zone when given opportunities to put points on the board. Like the Duke defense, Arizona State gives up more than 400 yards per game but prides itself on forcing turnovers and making big plays to change momentum, so the Blue Devils have to make sure they make the Sun Devils pay for their aggressiveness by capping off drives well.

Composure when it gets close

In their last two bowl appearances, the Blue Devils have held fourth quarter leads with a chance to win their first bowl game since 1961. In 2012, Duke led Cincinnati 31-27 before a late-game fumble and interception cost the team the game. In 2013, the Blue Devils led Texas A&M 38-17 before missing a field goal and turning the ball over twice at the end of the game en route to a close 4-point loss.

When Saturday’s game gets tight, Duke will have to be the more composed team in order to change its bowl game luck. In big games against Virginia Tech and North Carolina at the end of the season, the Blue Devils let the pressure get to them—suffering massive letdowns on special teams and committing turnovers at inopportune times.

In addition to strong performances in the three facets of the game, Duke will need key plays from its star performers—along with a few fortunate bounces—to defeat the Sun Devils and clinch back-to-back 10-win seasons for the first time in school history.

Comments powered by Disqus

Please note All comments are eligible for publication in The Chronicle.