Another day in another year the Holiday Bowl found itself as host to the team vying for the national championship.
This time, there is no undefeated attraction as there was last season in Brigham Young.
Still, No. 12 Arkansas and unranked Arizona State play at Jack Murphy Stadium tonight (5 o’clock, Ch. 5) in a game bowl organizers hope will be as close as the oddsmakers believe. The Razorbacks are two-point favorites.
“I’m not apologizing for a Holiday Bowl invitation becuase there are a lot of teams around the country who would love to trade places with us,” said Arizona coach John Cooper. “It has been a good year for us.”
Cooper has to admit it could’ve been better. The Sun Devils would’ve been up north a bit readying itself for the Rose Bowl had they not blown a 10-point third-quarter lead in their final Pacific-10 game against Arizona.
“Nobody expected us to be 8-3, especially the way we started the season,” Cooper said, referring to a 2-2 record following losses to Michigan and eventual Pac-10 winner UCLA.
Ranked 19th in the nation in total defense, Arizona State expects to be tested by Arkansas’ wishbone offense rarely seen in the West.
“It’s no kind of physical game this week,” safety David Fulcher said. “We have to stop the wishbone if we are going to win the ballgame.”
Cooper is asking his players for near-perfection.
“They (the Razorbacks) put a lot of pressure on the perimeter people like our cornerbacks and outside linebackers,” he said. “You’ve got to have your assignments down. You can’t make one mistake against a great team like this.”
Cooper, in his first year at ASU, saw Arkansas often when he coached at Tulsa.
“I wouldn’t be surprised to see Arkansas come out and throw the football 30 times in this ballgame,” he said. “They aren’t going to hammer inside all day. I hope they do.”
Razorback split ends Donnie Centers and James Shibest average 23 and 22 yards per catch, respectively.
“They have the element of surprise,” ASU cornerback Eric Allen said of the 9-2 Razorbacks. “They run the option 30 or 40 times and then they’ll release the end and there’s the ball.”
The Sun Devils offense is led by quarterback Jeff Van Raaphorst, who threw for 2,200 yards and completed scoring passes of 95 and 93 yards.
Split end Aaron Cox leads Arizona State receiving with 40 catches for 788 yards and five touchdowns. Close to the end zone, however, the Sun Devils try to go to running back Mike Crawford, who averaged a touchdown a game.
The Arkansas defense is small, but it quickly gets to the ball and was ranked third in the Southwest Conference in total defense.
The Razorbacks allowed only two rushing touchdowns all season and none in the last six games.