|Finley to lead N.C. State against ASU in Sun Bowl|
The Sun Bowl brings together two programs that have become bowl season staples, but it also could present a bittersweet finale for both No. 24 North Carolina State and Arizona State on Friday at El Paso, Texas.
North Carolina State quarterback Ryan Finley has had an impeccable season and is projected to be among the top quarterbacks taken in 2018 NFL Draft should he decide to forego his final season of eligibility. He has said he will make the decision after the bowl game.
Todd Graham will coach his last game with the Sun Devils after being fired the day following a victory over Arizona in the regular-season finale. Arizona State athletic director and former NFL player agent Ray Anderson hired former client Herman Edwards to run the program, and Graham graciously chose to remain and coach the game.
North Carolina State (8-4) and Arizona State (7-5) will meet for only the third time. Both previous games were held in Tempe, Ariz. The Sun Devils won in 1960 and the Wolfpack in 1974.
N.C. State is making its fourth consecutive bowl appearance under coach Dave Doeren and is playing in its sixth bowl game in seven years. It had signature regular-season victories over Florida State and Louisville.
Finley passed for 235 yards and three touchdowns in the Wolfpack's 41-17 victory over Vanderbilt in the Independence Bowl last season.
"I'm excited about the opportunity either way, to leave for the NFL or to come back," Finley told the Raleigh News & Observer last week.
"To finish my senior year, I heard somebody say it's a champagne problem. So I'm excited about the opportunity I have."
At 6-foot-3, 210 pounds, Finley has NFL size, and he completed 288 of 450 passes for 3.200 yards and 16 touchdowns against only six interceptions. He entered the bowl season as just one of three quarterbacks with at least 390 passing attempts and only six interceptions. Louisville's Lamar Jackson and Troy's Brandon Silvers were the others.
Finley hails from Phoenix's Paradise Valley High and grew up about 15 miles from the Arizona State campus. He faces the stay/go decision because he was granted a sixth year of eligibility in August 2016, after transferring from Boise State, where injuries caused him to miss all but two games of his first two seasons.
"Obviously you want to finish what you started on a high note, and that's with a win in El Paso," Finley said. "We're excited about going down there, and our No. 1 goal is to get the win."
Junior running back Nyheim Hines and wide receiver Kelvin Harmon are the Wolfpack's other main offensive weapons. Hines, who also has been mentioned as an NFL Draft candidate, gained 1,040 yards rushing and scored nine touchdowns.
Harmon has 993 yards receiving and, if he reaches 1,000, the Wolfpack will have a 3,000-yard passer, 1,000-yard rusher and 1,000-yard receiver for the second time in school history.
Senior defensive end Bradley Chubb leads the defense. A consensus All-American, Chubb won the Bronko Nagurski and Ted Hendricks awards as the best defensive lineman in the nation. He has 60 tackles for losses, including 26 sacks, in his career.
Chubb was told he would be a high draft choice last year but chose to return for his final year. Junior defensive end Darian Roseboro is faced with that choice this year.
"Each one of these young men are different," Doeren told the News & Observer. "The NFL gives you different information on all of them. You go through it and try to help them make the decision that's best for them and their families and don't push them one way or the other, since it's a really big decision."
Arizona State is in its fifth bowl game in the last six seasons, but its inability to get to the Rose Bowl since 1997, plus a general downward trend, cost Graham. The Sun Devils had 28 victories in his first three seasons after replacing Dennis Erickson and reached the Pac-12 championship game in 2013, but they have only 18 wins in his final three.
"You always want to leave a place better than you found it, and I think I've done that," Graham said. "I'm a Sun Devil and I think I always will be. This place is not about one person. I'm really proud of what we have done here. There are great things ahead for this program.
"Fired up about going to get our eighth win."
Sun Devils quarterback Manny Wilkins has a season similar to Finley, completing 235 of 370 passes for 2,918 yards. He had 17 touchdowns and five interceptions. Wilkins also rushed for 269 yards and six touchdowns.
All-Pac-12 receiver N'Keal Harry had 73 receptions for 1,000 yards and seven touchdowns, and senior running back Demario Richard rushed for 977 yards and 12 touchdowns for Arizona. Kyle Williams had 59 catches for 678 yards and six touchdowns.
The Sun Devils' stymied Pac-12 champion and Fiesta Bowl participant Washington in their biggest win of the season, a 13-7 victory on Oct. 14 in which the Huskies had only 230 yards total offense.
Defense has been Arizona State's bugaboo this season, however. The Sun Devils have given up an average of 447 yards, 108th among the 129 FBS schools. They have given up 31.3 points a game, about a touchdown more than the Wolfpack.