Bowl Season Begins

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Athlon previews the New Mexico, Humanitarian and New Orleans Bowl.

New Mexico Bowl

Teams:
UTEP (6-6) vs. BYU (6-6)
Date: Dec. 18, 2010, 2 p.m. ET
Location: University Stadium, Albuquerque, New Mexico

Analysis: Two former WAC rivals renew acquaintances in a bowl that will draw attention from Miners, Mormons and gamblers. UTEP returns to a bowl for the first time since 2005, but did so by navigating an exceedingly easy schedule that required them to beat just one team ranked in Sagarin’s top 125 in order to get to 6-6. The bowl-clinching victory was a 28-14 win over SMU in early November, the Miners’ one semi-respectable win. Coach Mike Price has been flirting with bowl eligibility the last few years – winning five, four, five and four prior to this season, so the New Mexico Bowl does represent a sort of breakthrough for fourth-place finishers in the Conference USA East Division.

BYU played its final season in the Mountain West Conference to a disappointing 6-6 mark, its worst record since Bronco Mendenhall’s first season in 2005. The Cougars are venturing out as an independent starting in 2011, which means they will lose their MWC bowl tie-ins. As long as bowls such as the New Mexico Bowl survive, however, a .500 record should still get the Cougars to the postseason without a conference. BYU is coming off a heart-breaking 17-16 loss to Utah in the season-finale when BYU’s 42-yard field goal was blocked on the last play of the game. Playing in a bowl other than the Las Vegas Bowl for the first time in five years, BYU is eager to kick off the bowl season with a win that give them momentum to take into their first season as an independent.

When BYU Has The Ball: The Cougars will try to lean on junior running back JJ Di Luigi, who earned second-team All-MWC honors in his first season as a starter. Di Luigi rushed for 819 yards and averaged 5.2 yards per carry in front of an offensive line that had one first-team All-MWC performer (Matt Reynolds) and  three MWC honorable mention players (Jason Speredon, Terence Brown, Braden Hansen). Freshman quarterback Jake Heaps has set several school freshman passing records, but his 11-to-8 TD-to-INT ratio and 56 percent completion percentage are not ideal. Heaps played well in the final month of the season, but Mendenhall said the QB job will be up for grabs in the spring. With UTEP giving up 181 yards per game on the ground, look for BYU to run the ball before opening up Heaps and the passing game.

When UTEP Has The Ball: The Miners struggled with injuries on the offensive side of the ball this season. Top back Donald Buckram set UTEP's single-season rushing record in 2009, but a knee injury limited him to just 325 yards in seven games this year. Quarterback Trevor Vittatoe, a four-year starter, battled shoulder and ankle injuries and had his least productive year in El Paso, though he still threw for 2,511 yards and 19 touchdowns. Price expects both Buckram and Vittatoe to be healthy. The Miners should be in attack mode and try to pass first, taking advantage of leading receiver Kris Adams, who has four 100-yard games this season. The BYU pass defense has been strong, however, allowing just 188 yards through the air per game and picking off 13 passes.

Special Teams: UTEP kick returner Marlon McClure has returned a kickoff for a touchdown in the Miners’ last two games, so BYU must be attentive on kick coverage. UTEP kicker Dakota Warren appears to have range of about 40 yards – he was 8 for-10 on field goals of 40 yards or less and 3-for-9 beyond 40, though he did nail a 57-yarder against Memphis. BYU kicker Mitch Payne was dependable, making 80 percent of his field goals (16-for-20), but had his biggest of the season blocked in the final seconds against Utah.

BYU NCAA Rankings

Rush Offense: 46 (163.8 ypg)
Pass Offense: 86 (190.3 ypg)
Scoring Offense: 84 (24 ppg)
Rush Defense: 61 (151.2 ypg)
Pass Defense: 21 (187.8 ypg)
Scoring Defense: 32 (21.4 ppg)
Turnover Margin: T-48 (+.08)

UTEP NCAA Rankings

Rush Offense: 69 (149.5 ypg)
Pass Offense: 60 (221.5 ypg)
Scoring Offense: 70 (26.2 ppg)
Rush Defense: 90 (181.2 ypg)
Pass Defense: 73 (223 ypg)
Scoring Defense: 58 (25.4 ppg)
Turnover Margin: 80 (-.33)

Prediction: The Cougars generally rolled through overmatched opponents, and UTEP qualifies as such. BYU comes into the game winning four of its last five, while the Miners have lost five of six. UTEP has the geographical edge, but the Cougars have the personnel edge.

BYU by 28
 

Humanitarian Bowl

Teams:
Northern Illinois vs. Fresno State
Date: Dec. 18, 2010 at 5:30 p.m. ET
Location: Bronco Stadium, Boise, Idaho

Analysis

The second game of the bowl season will feature the 10-3 Northern Illinois Huskies from the MAC and the 8-4 Fresno State Bulldogs of the WAC. The Huskies will be looking for their first bowl win since a 34-21 victory over Troy in the 2004 Silicon Valley Classic. On the other side, Fresno State has played on the blue turf in the postseason previously, as they won a 40-28 decision over Georgia Tech in 2007 Humanitarian Bowl.

One of the main storylines of this contest will be coaching stability. After dropping a heartbreaker in the MAC Championship, Northern Illinois lost coach Jerry Kill (and both coordinators) to Minnesota. Interim head coach Tom Matukewicz will lead the Huskies in this game before Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Doeren takes over in DeKalb next season. Conversely, coach Pat Hill has been on the Bulldog sideline since 1997 and has led Fresno to four bowl wins in 10 postseason appearances during his tenure.

When Northern Illinois has the ball

The Huskies boast the seventh-ranked rushing attack in the nation, led by MAC Offensive Player of the Year Chad Spann. The senior running back topped the conference with 1,239 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns on the ground. Junior quarterback Chandler Harnish, another first-team All-MAC performer, was very efficient this season with 20 touchdown passes against only five interceptions. He also added 764 rushing yards and five scores which helped lead Northern Illinois to an average of 37.8 points per game, a total that ranked 13th in the country.

The Bulldogs struggled to stop the run for much of the season, finishing 65th in nation in that category. Despite beating Illinois in their last game, Fresno State gave up a staggering 318 rush yards to the Illini. Pat Hill’s crew, led by WAC Defensive Player of the Year Chris Carter, will have to be better than that against Spann and Harnish on Saturday. To make matters tougher, the Bulldogs have only forced 13 turnovers in 12 games this season. They will also play this game without suspended linebacker Kyle Knox, who was second on the team with 74 tackles.

When Fresno State has the ball

The Bulldogs are led by running back Robbie Rouse, who ranked 13th in the nation with an average of 109.7 rushing yards per contest despite missing two games with hand and rib injuries. He was not available for the season finale versus Illinois, but the dynamic sophomore practiced with the first team all week and should be good to go on Saturday. Senior quarterback Ryan Colburn was inconsistent during WAC play, but he did have four-touchdown pass games earlier in the season against Cincinnati and Ole Miss. He also threw for 304 yards and three scores in the Bulldogs’ victory over Illinois.

The Northern Illinois defense is led by all-conference performers Sean Progar at defensive end and Chris Smith at cornerback. The Huskies have been fairly solid against the run this season, but a healthy Rouse could provide a tough challenge. Northern Illinois only had 24 sacks in 13 games, but they did have a solid total of 16 interceptions this year. If the Huskies can keep Colburn from getting into a rhythm like he did against non-conference opponents this season, they should perform well on the ‘smurf turf’.  

Special Teams

One area where Fresno State looks to have an advantage is in the kicking game. Kevin Goessling, the first-team All-WAC placekicker, made 20-of-24 field goals on the year including all 11 from less than 40 yards. Additionally, Andre Shapiro put 20 of his 56 punts inside the 20-yard line. However, one potential issue for the Bulldogs is that they gave up two kick returns, as well as one punt return, for touchdowns this season.

Northern Illinois has struggled with field goals this season, only making 17-of-28 attempts between two kickers. Additionally, the Huskies rated 105th in the country in net punting. Returner Tommy Davis averaged 23.6 yards on his 20 kick returns, including taking one all the way for a touchdown against Toledo.

Northern Illinois NCAA Rankings (out of 120 teams)

Rush Offense: 7 (264.8 ypg)
Pass Offense: 89 (181.2 ypg)
Scoring Offense: 13 (37.9 ppg)
Rush Defense: 27 (130.5 ypg)
Pass Defense: 35 (202.1 ypg)
Scoring Defense:  T-16 (19.1 ypg)
Turnover Margin: 17 (+.77)

Fresno State NCAA Rankings (out of 120 teams)

Rush Offense: 55 (157 ypg)
Pass Offense: 67 (214.3 ypg)
Scoring Offense: 45 (30 ppg)
Rush Defense: 65 (154.8 ypg)
Pass Defense: 34 (201.2 ypg)
Scoring Defense: 79 (29.2 ppg)
Turnover Margin: 111 (-.83)

Prediction: Despite the coaching uncertainty, Northern Illinois appears to be the stronger team in this matchup. Pat Hill’s bunch has played a tougher schedule this season, but we’ll take the squad with the better overall running game and the vastly superior turnover margin.

Northern Illinois by 4
 

New Orleans Bowl

Teams:
Ohio (8–4) vs. Troy (7–5)
Date: Dec. 18, 2010, 9 p.m. Eastern
Location: Superdome, New Orleans, La.

Analysis

Two solid but under-the-radar programs with similarly unsung coaches clash in the Superdome. Frank Solich’s Ohio Bobcats are playing in bowl for the second consecutive season — a first in program history — after a second-place finish in the MAC East, while Larry Blakeney’s Troy Trojans are one of only five programs in the nation to win five consecutive conference titles.

Despite a recent history of success for these two, there’s still a degree of hunger that should add some intensity to the matchup. The two schools are woefully short on postseason success, having combined for a record of 1–8 in bowl games. Ohio is seeking its first bowl win in its fifth appearance, while Troy is 1–4 in its postseason appearances.

When Ohio has the ball

What the Bobcats lack in explosiveness, they compensate for with balance. Ohio just might be the most balanced offensive team in college football; the Bobcats are averaging 168.8 yards on the ground and 168.5 yards through the air, meaning that Troy can’t focus on one at the expense of the other. Senior quarterback Boo Jackson (a school-record 35 career TD passes) and senior wideout Terrence McCrae (a school-record 19 TD catches) present a formidable pass-catch combo, while the Bobcats can also turn to running specialist Phil Bates at the quarterback position.

Troy’s defense has proved vulnerable this season, ranking 93rd nationally in total defense (418.3 ypg) and 92nd in scoring defense (31.0 ppg). But the Trojans do have a weapon in sophomore end Jonathan Massaquoi, who led the Sun Belt with 17½ tackles for a loss and was tied for seventh nationally with .92 sacks per game.

When Troy has the ball

The Trojans bring a potent spread attack to New Orleans keyed by quarterback Corey Robinson, who led the Sun Belt with 3,320 passing yards. Troy racked up a conference-best 441.1 yards per game, including 303.6 through the air, and scored 30 or more points nine times, including three times in a losing effort. In their most recent appearance, the Trojans scored 30 first-half points against FAU and piled up 483 yards of total offense.

They’ll get more than token resistance from an Ohio defense that surrendered only 332.7 yards per game. Still, Robinson figures to find some success against a Bobcat secondary that allowed Ohio State’s Terrelle Pryor to complete 16 straight passes at one point in a 43–7 Buckeye win.

Special Teams

The Trojans possess an effective all-purpose weapon in receiver-returner Jerrel Jernigan, who ranks eighth nationally in all-purpose yardage with 165.08 and helps the Trojans enjoy a decided advantage on special teams. Jernigan took a kickoff back for a score against Oklahoma State earlier this season.

Troy NCAA Rankings (out of 120 teams)

Rush Offense: 64 (151.3 ypg)
Pass Offense: 12 (289.8 ypg)
Scoring Offense: 27 (32.9 ppg)
Rush Defense: 80 (170.8 ypg)
Pass Defense: 101 (247.6 ypg)
Scoring Defense: 92 (31 ppg)
Turnover Margin: 66 (-.17)

Ohio NCAA Rankings (out of 120 teams)

Rush Offense: 39 (169.2 ypg)
Pass Offense: 105 (158.4 ypg)
Scoring Offense: 53 (28 ppg)
Rush Defense: 14 (115 ypg)
Pass Defense: 61 (217.7 ypg)
Scoring Defense: 34 (21.8 ppg)
Turnover Margin: T-85 (-.42)

Prediction

Troy by 3

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