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Riley Nelson and the BYU passing attack will be a handful for the Tulsa secondary.
by Mark Ross
Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl
BYU (9-3) vs. Tulsa (8-4)
Date: Dec. 30 at 12 p.m. ET
Location: Gerald J. Ford Stadium, Dallas, Texas
Former conference foes will meet up once again when BYU and Tulsa face off on Dec. 30 at the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl in Dallas. From 1996-99 the two schools were in the WAC together and this game represents the eighth time they will play each other.
BYU is finishing its first season as a FBS Independent and come into this game having won eight of its nine and have scored 41 points or more in its last three contests. Tulsa had a seven-game winning streak snapped by Houston in its final game of the regular season and during that streak averaged 42 points per game. So by all accounts, there should be plenty of offensive firepower on display, fittingly, at this year’s Armed Forces Bowl.
This is the seventh straight year BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall has led his team to a postseason appearance in his seven years at the helm. The Cougars are 4-2 in bowl games under Mendenhall, including last year’s 52-24 victory over UTEP in the New Mexico Bowl.
This is the second straight bowl appearance for Tulsa, who defeated Hawaii 62-35 in last year’s Hawaii Bowl, and the Golden Hurricane’s first under head coach Bill Blakenship, who took over the reigns from Todd Graham this season. Tulsa also has won the last three bowl games it has played in, averaging 56.6 points per game during this streak.
BYU comes into this game with one more win than Tulsa, but of the Cougars’ nine wins only one of them was against a team that is playing in a bowl. The Cougars went 1-3 against bowl teams this season, defeating Utah State (who is playing in the Potato Bowl), while losing to TCU (Poinsettia), Texas (Holiday), and Utah (Sun).
On the other hand, Tulsa played six bowl teams and went 2-4 against them with all four of their losses coming to teams that were ranked in the top 10 at the time — Boise State (playing in the Las Vegas Bowl), Houston (TicketCity), Oklahoma (Insight) and Oklahoma State (Fiesta). So at least on paper, Tulsa has played the much more difficult schedule.
WHEN BYU HAS THE BALL:
BYU’s offense is led by quarterback Riley Nelson. Nelson, a junior, assumed the starting role from sophomore Jake Heaps halfway through the season and hasn’t relinquished it since. Nelson has completed 61 percent of his passes on the season for 1,467 yards with 16 touchdowns and just five interceptions.
Nelson suffered lung and rib injuries against Idaho on Nov. 12, forcing him to the following week’s game. He returned for the Cougars’ season finale against Hawaii and set career highs for pass attempts (37), completions (25) and yards (363) to go along with three touchdowns in BYU’s 41-20 win on the road.
Nelson appears healthy and primed to take advantage of a Tulsa defense that’s given up an average of 289.3 passing yards per game. That ranks the Golden Hurricane 118th out 120 FBS schools in the nation.
Overall, BYU’s offense is averaging 410.8 yards per game. Of that total, 165.8 yards per game are gained on the ground. The Cougars’ rushing attack is more of a committee with five different players having more than 200 yards on the season, including Nelson, who has rushed for 376 yards.
The leading rusher is senior running back J.J. Di Luigi who has 546 yards and three touchdowns. Di Luigi has combined with sophomore Michael Alisa to rush for 1,001 yards and six scores. Senior running back Brian Kariya leads the team with six rushing touchdowns.
Much like the ground game, the Cougars’ aerial attack is fairly balanced as well with nine different players having at least 11 receptions and 10 with at least one touchdown reception.
BYU’s leading pass catcher is sophomore wide receiver Cody Hoffman who leads the team with 53 receptions for 821 yards. Hoffman also has seven touchdowns, second to freshman wideout Ross Apo’s nine. Four different Cougar tight ends have caught touchdowns as well, further evidence of BYU’s tendency to spread the ball around.
The Cougars’ offensive line has done a good job of keeping the quarterback as they are tied for 25th in the country for fewest sacks allowed with just 14 on the season. The line will need to maintain this consistency against Tulsa’s defense, which is averaging two sacks per game, and especially since Nelson is just over a month removed from sustaining those lung and rib injuries.
Someone BYU’s offense should keep a close eye on is Tulsa linebacker Curnelius Arnick. The senior is a tackling machine as his 91 solo tackles were the third highest total in the nation and his 142 total stops were tied for fifth. Not surprisingly, Arnick was named first team All-Conference USA.
WHEN TULSA HAS THE BALL:
Tulsa has the 24th-ranked offense in the country when it comes to total offense, averaging more than 450 yards per game. It’s a fairly balanced attack, one that averages 204.6 yards rushing and 249.8 yards passing per contest.
The Golden Hurricane attack is led by senior quarterback G.J. Kinne. Kinne has started 37 consecutive games and is 23-14 as the Golden Hurricane’s starter. The 2010 Conference USA Offensive Player of the Year, Kinne currently ranks second in Tulsa history in total offense and touchdown passes and is third in passing yards.
This season Kinne, a second team all-conference selection, has completed 64 percent of his passes for 2,876 yards and 25 touchdowns. Kinne, like BYU’s Nelson, is also a capable runner, having gained more than 400 yards rushing with three touchdowns.
Kinne is one of three Tulsa playmakers with 108 or more carries this season. The team’s leading rusher is sophomore Ja’Terian Douglas, who has 884 yards on just 108 carries. His 8.2 yards per carry average leads the entire nation.
Trey Watts leads the team with 147 carries and is second in rushing yards with 843 yards. Together Douglas, Watts and Kinne have combined for 2,132 rushing yards, which is more than BYU has as a team (1,990). And that number doesn’t include junior running back Alex Singleton, who has 279 yards and a team-leading eight rushing touchdowns.
Just like BYU, Tulsa likes to spread the ball around. Fourteen different Tulsa players have caught at least one pass this season and the team’s leading receiver is a running back. Junior H-back Willie Carter has nearly five times as many receptions (61) as he does carries (13) this season. He finished sixth in Conference USA in receiving yards (868) and he also caught seven touchdowns. Watts also has caught three touchdowns out of the backfield.
Junior wide receiver Bryan Burnham leads the way with eight touchdown receptions and is second on the team in catches (50) and yards (737). Tight end Clay Sears also is a popular target for Kinne and comes into this game with 35 catches for 438 yards and six touchdowns.
BYU’s defense comes into this game ranked No. 17 in the nation, surrendering less than 317 yards per game. The Cougars have given up less than 119 yards on the ground and 200 yards through the air on average.
This season BYU has faced two other teams that are averaging close to Tulsa’s 454.4 yards per game in TCU (443.9) and Utah State (458.7). The Cougars went 1-1 in those games, defeating Utah State 27-24 and losing to TCU 38-28. The interesting thing is that they actually gave up more yards to the Aggies (406) than they did to the Horned Frogs (283), but in both games they held the opponent to less than their season averages. It remains to be seen if they can do the same thing to the Golden Hurricane.
Neither BYU’s nor Tulsa’s special teams units stand out, statistically speaking. BYU has returned one punt and one kickoff for a touchdown, while Tulsa has one special teams touchdown on a 94-yard kickoff return by Watts.
Tulsaappears to have the edge when it comes to placekicking with first team All-Conference USA kicker Kevin Fitzpatrick. The senior was the conference’s most accurate kicker, missing just two of his 17 field goal attempts, and made all three of his attempts from 50 yards and longer. On the other side, BYU’s Justin Sorensen made all 45 of his PAT attempts, but only 14 of 24 field goal attempts.
BYU comes into this game with more wins, but Tulsa played a more difficult schedule, both non-conference and as a Conference USA member, than the Independent Cougars. BYU’s defense has played well and has the statistics to support this; including giving up just over 20 points per game, but containing Tulsa’s potent offense will be a difficult task.
On the other hand, BYU’s offense has been productive in its own right and its overall numbers (410.8 yards and 30.6 points per game) aren’t too far behind those of Tulsa.
The difference lies with the defenses. Tulsa’s defense comes into this game surrendering more than 420 yards and nearly 28 points per game, and is the third-worst in the nation when it comes to defending the pass.
It is fair to say that Tulsa comes from a conference known for offenses which, along with its own offensive philosophy and production, could explain some of its defensive numbers. But the flip side of that is other than Boise State, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, Tulsa hasn’t played any teams known for their defense, either. So the real question is this — is BYU’s defense more likely to slow down Tulsa’s offense or can the Cougars feast on the Golden Hurricane’s defense?
In the end, I think it will be a little of both as BYU will gain plenty of yards and points on the board on offense, while the defense will slow down Tulsa just enough and come up with a big play of its own in the fourth quarter to help seal a close, hard-fought victory.
BYU 34, Tulsa 31