2021 Las Vegas Bowl Preview: Wisconsin at Arizona State

The Wisconsin Badgers and Arizona State Sun Devils have competed on the gridiron a total of four times over 54 years since their first matchup in 1967. They will meet again on December 30th when the two teams face off in the SRS Distribution Las Vegas Bowl at Allegiant Stadium.

Sports is often a metaphor for life – an expedition full of highs and lows. When the two teams were announced for the 2021 Las Vegas Bowl, Badger fans were reminded of a nightmare they prayed never to relive. Arizona State fans were reminded of a night lady luck hit big…and they weren’t even in Las Vegas.

It was 95 degrees that September 2013 evening at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe. The Badger faithful had made the journey from Madison to the valley of the sun for the non-conference contest.

With Wisconsin trailing 32-30, 18-seconds remaining, and the Badgers perfectly positioned to kick a game winning field goal to win it all, Badger quarterback Joel Stave set off a series of events that Wisconsin fans will never forget. In an attempt to position the ball near the center of the field, Stave took the snap, ran a few steps left, started to kneel, and then bumped into a lineman before setting the ball down.

In a moment of utter confusion, players and refs alike contemplated what had just happened. A lineman from ASU decided to lay on the ball. The PAC-12 officials called the ball dead, picked up the ball, but the clock never stopped and in a matter of seconds, it was over. ASU fans rushed the field, Wisconsin fans sat in disbelief, and the referees were escorted off the field by extra security.

Eight years later, the Wisconsin Badgers are headed back to the desert southwest to face Arizona State. The Badgers (8-4) will arrive in “Sin City”, a place known for second chances, as seven-point favorites.

The Sun Devils also bring an 8-4 regular season record in this game. Both teams entered the 2021 season with high expectations. Despite winning records, most would agree both teams had mediocre seasons.

The Las Vegas Bowl gives the Badgers and the Sun Devils an opportunity to cap off the 2021 campaign with a bowl victory and carry momentum into 2022.

Here are key factors to watch in the upcoming Las Vegas Bowl.

Wisconsin Badger Offense:

Sophomore quarterback Graham Mertz leads the Badger offense. In 2021, Mertz completed over 58% of his passes totaling 1,821 yards. He threw nine touchdown passes, many to wide receivers Kendric Pryor and Danny Davis. He scampered for another four TD’s, so has plenty of versatility and is not afraid to run.

Running Back Braelon Allen will be key for Wisconsin to pull off a win against ASU. In 2021, Allen rushed over 1,100 yards and averaged 7.1 yards a carry. He finished the season with 12 touchdowns and currently ranks # 2 in rushing across the Big Ten.

Back-up RB Chez Mellusi scored five touchdowns and averages 4.7 yards a carry. The Badgers will need all four offensive weapons – Mertz, Davis, Allen, and Mellusi – to be on their game if they want to taste victory.

Wisconsin Badger Defense:

The Wisconsin Badger defense has been nothing shy of outstanding this season, currently leading all of college football in total defense, including holding opponents to just an average of 240-yards per game.

Linebacker Leo Chanel leads the defensive unit with 106 tackles, seven sacks, and two forced fumbles in 2021. He currently ranks # 1 in tackles for a loss across the Big Ten. The other player to watch is nose tackle Keeanu Benton, who is predicted to play on Sundays after his collegiate career. If Benton can break the line, he will create havoc for ASU quarterback Jayden Daniels.

Arizona State Offense:

Sun Devil quarterback Jayden Daniels had an incredible 2021 season exceeding 2200 total passing yards, 10 passing touchdowns, 670-yards rushing and six rushing TD’s. Similar to Mertz, he had nine interceptions, so something to definitely watch against the solid Badger defense.

The biggest key factor for ASU is who will not be on the field come game day. Running Back Rachaad White has opted to sit out the Las Vegas Bowl as he preps for the NFL Draft. This is a gigantic loss for Arizona State as White finished the season with over 1000-yards rushing and 15 trips to the big house. Running backs Deamonte Trayanum and Daniel Ngata will need to step up the run game and support Jayden Daniels in their quest for a win.

Arizona State Defense:

Arizona State ranks 21st in the country on defense. The Sun Devil defensive core is led by linebacker Kyle Soelle, who finished the regular season with 82 tackles and an interception. He is joined by linebacker Darien Butler who had 68 tackles and 3 interceptions. ASU allowed an average of 20.9 points per game in 2021, while the Badgers typically score north of 25 points, so key for ASU will be applying pressure to Graham Mertz and stopping the Badger running game.

Bowl History:

The Las Vegas Bowl marks the 20th consecutive bowl game for Wisconsin. In 2020, Wisconsin beat Wake Forest in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl, so are looking to continue their winning ways.

Arizona State played in the Las Vegas Bowl in 2018 and lost in Herm Edwards first year as Head Coach. They went on to win the 2019 Sun Bowl over Florida State. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, ASU opted out of their bowl game in 2020.

Win, lose, or draw, the SRS Distribution Las Vegas Bowl is certain to be a competitive match-up. Will Wisconsin be able to lick their wounds from the painful 2013 loss in Tempe? Will ASU continue their winning ways and put another win under their belt over Wisconsin?

In the words of Michael McDonald, “Las Vegas is a city built on hopes, dreams, and a little bit of crazy.” I’m certain we will see all three when Wisconsin takes on Arizona State in the 2021 Las Vegas Bowl.

Kick-off is set for 7:30pm PST at Allegiant Stadium with ESPN covering the game.

Written by Scott Finkelmeyer

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