Poinsettia Bowl Preview and Prediction: BYU vs. San Diego State

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Old Mountain West rivals meet in the Poinsettia Bowl.

<p> Poinsettia Bowl Preview and Prediction: BYU vs. San Diego State</p>

Former conference rivals meet up again in what should be a matchup of contrasting styles between BYU and San Diego State. The Cougars earned a trip to their eighth straight bowl game in as many seasons under head coach Bronco Mendenhall on the strength of the defense, which is ranked No. 3 in the nation and has given up only 14.7 points per game. Four of the Cougars’ five losses have come to teams ranked in the top 25 of the BCS Standings, including a three-point loss on the road to No. 1 Notre Dame.

San Diego State boasts one of the top rushing attacks in the country and is scoring more than 35 points per game. The Aztecs are playing in their third straight bowl game and second in a row with head coach Rocky Long, who took home Mountain West Conference Coach of the Year honors, at the helm. Long led the Aztecs to just their second nine-win season in more than 30 years thanks to their current seven-game winning streak. This also represents San Diego State’s final game as a member of the Mountain West Conference, as the school is scheduled to join the Big East next season.

These two teams are no strangers to one another, as they have been members of both the Western Athletic Conference (1978-98) and Mountain West Conference (1999-2010) together. BYU holds a 27-7-1 edge in the series and has won the last six meetings. These two last faced each other on Oct. 9, 2010 in Provo, Utah, with BYU winning 24-21 on its home field. 

San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl – BYU (7-5) vs. San Diego State (9-3)

Date and Time: Dec. 20 at 8 p.m. ET
Network: ESPN
Location: San Diego, Calif.

When the BYU Cougars have the ball:

The Cougars have shown the ability to both run (161.6 ypg, No. 62 in the nation) and pass (247.5 ypg, 51st) the ball this season. They have averaged 29 points per game, but scoring also is one of the reasons for their 7-5 record. While they have put up nearly 38 points per game in their seven wins, they have managed less than 16 points per contest in their five losses.

Senior quarterback Riley Nelson has started the majority of the games for BYU, posting only modest passing numbers (2,011-13-12) to this point. He also missed three games because of injury, including the regular-season finale against New Mexico State in which senior James Lark got the nod under center. Lark proceeded to throw six touchdown passes in the Cougars' 50-14 rout of the Aggies, and he could get the call again for this game if the coaching staff doesn't think Nelson is 100 percent healthy.  It's also entirely possible that Lark and Nelson share the snaps, a strategy designed to not only present more options for the BYU offense, but also to add to San Diego State's defensive preparations and in-game adjustments.

BYU lost junior running back Michael Alisa to a broken forearm back in late September, but that just set the stage for freshman Jamaal Williams to emerge. Williams leads the team with 744 rushing yards and 12 total touchdowns. He is averaging 4.9 yards per carry, has three 100-yard games to his credit and has yet to lose a fumble.

Junior wide receiver Cody Hoffman is the Cougars’ top target, as he’s caught 90 passes for 1,134 yards and 11 touchdowns. Hoffman has five 100-yard efforts, including three in a row and is coming off of a 12-catch, 182-yard, five-touchdown performance against New Mexico State. Fellow wideout JD Falslev and tight end Kaneakua Friel are the only other Cougars with more than 30 receptions and Friel is second to Hoffman with five touchdown receptions. BYU likes to spread the ball around, as evidenced by the fact that 19 different Cougars have caught at least one pass this season.

San Diego State’s defense has held up pretty well throughout the season. Statistically, the Aztecs are ranked higher in rushing defense compared to passing defense, which is impressive considering some of the run-heavy teams they have played like Army and Air Force. BYU’s balanced attack could cause San Diego State’s defense some problems, especially if the Cougars are able to throw the ball consistently, but the Aztecs may be able to neutralize the passing game by getting pressure on the quarterback. The Aztecs are No. 23 in the nation in sacks with 2.5 per game, while the Cougars are allowing 2.3 per game.

When the San Diego State Aztecs have the ball:

The Aztecs boast the 16th-ranked rushing attack in the nation, as they are generating more than 229 yards on the ground per game. Even with the loss of standout running back Ronnie Hillman to the NFL, the Aztecs have found their next superstar in sophomore Adam Muema.

Muema is averaging nearly 113 rushing yards per game, 6.4 yards per carry and has rushed for more than 200 yards twice. Meuma, who was named second-team All-Mountain West, also has scored 17 total touchdowns. He is joined in the backfield by senior Walter Kazee, who has 822 yards rushing (5.1 ypc) and eight touchdowns.

Just like at running back, the Aztecs had to replace a NFL-caliber quarterback with the departure of four-year starter Ryan Lindley. Ryan Katz, a transfer from Oregon State, got the starts early, but suffered an ankle injury against Nevada in October and has since been replaced by sophomore Adam Dingwell. Dingwell led the comeback overtime win over the Wolf Pack and followed that up for with more victories, as he’s completed more than 63 percent of his passes with eight touchdowns and four interceptions since taking over for Katz.

Inexperience and injury are two reasons why San Diego State’s passing offense is No. 102 in the nation. The Aztecs are generating less than 180 yards through the air per game and their leading receiver is two-time first-team All-MWC tight end Gavin Escobar. The junior leads the team in receptions (41), yards (519) and touchdown catches (6), while no other Aztec has more than 23 receptions or 343 yards receiving. Those are senior wide receiver Brice Butler’s numbers, who also is second to Escobar in touchdown receptions with four.

BYU’s defense is top five in the nation in both yards (266.3, third overall) and points (14.7, fifth) allowed. The Cougars have given up 24 or more points only twice (Utah and Oregon State), while holding BCS No. 1 Notre Dame to just 17 points and No. 19 Boise State to seven. The Cougars also boast the No. 2 rushing defense in the nation, one that is surrendering less than 85 yards on the ground per game. How successful it is in slowing down the Aztecs’ running game will likely determine the outcome of this game.

Final Analysis

San Diego State has more wins and has scored more points than BYU, but the Cougars have faced tougher competition and feature one of the nation’s stingiest defenses. In order to be successful, the Aztecs must be able to run the ball, but that also happens to be the strength of the Cougars’ defense. Both teams could struggle to move the ball consistently early on, but look for BYU’s balanced attack to eventually wear down San Diego State. This bowl game at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego may be on the Aztecs' turf, but I think it will be the Cougars who earn their fourth straight postseason victory by defeating their former conference rival.

Prediction: BYU 24, San Diego State 20


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