Skip to main content
Publish date:

Boca Raton Preview and Prediction: WKU vs. Memphis

Anthony Wales

Anthony Wales

The third edition of the Boca Raton Bowl won’t be hurting for points or offense, as Memphis and WKU bring their high-powered attacks to FAU Stadium on Tuesday night. The Hilltoppers rank second nationally in scoring (45.1 ppg), while the Tigers aren’t far behind at No. 17 with an average of 39.5 points per contest. WKU and Memphis were two of the top Group of 5 teams this season, but there’s some uncertainty surrounding the Hilltoppers after Jeff Brohm left to be the head coach at Purdue. With Brohm off to Purdue, defensive coordinator Nick Holt will serve as the interim coach. Notre Dame assistant Mike Sanford was hired as the full-time replacement and will assume the duties after the Boca Raton Bowl.

Image placeholder title

WKU won the Conference USA title and claimed back-to-back seasons of double-digit victories for the first time since joining the FBS level in 2007. Brohm was a big reason why this program claimed 22 wins over the last two years and have ranked inside of the top five nationally in scoring offense. Despite losing quarterback Brandon Doughty to the NFL, the Hilltoppers didn’t miss a beat on offense in 2016. USF transfer Mike White stepped in under center and threw for 4,027 yards and 34 scores and earned second-team All-Conference USA honors. WKU lost to Louisiana Tech (55-52) in the regular season but got revenge in the C-USA title game with a 58-44 victory. The only other losses by the Hilltoppers came against two SEC teams – Alabama (38-10) and Vanderbilt (31-30).

Related: College Football's 2016 All-America Team

Memphis had a relatively seamless transition from Justin Fuente to Mike Norvell in 2016. After helping the Tigers show marked improvement from 2012-15, Fuente was hired at Virginia Tech to replace Frank Beamer. Norvell inherited a much better situation than Fuente did in 2012, as Memphis returned 14 starters from a nine-win team. The Tigers continued to thrive on offense under Norvell, as this team scored at least 24 points in every game and finished 8-4 after beating Houston in the regular season finale. Additionally, Memphis has recorded a winning record for three consecutive years for the first time since 2003-05.

Despite being separated by less than 300 miles, this is the first meeting between these two teams. This is WKU’s fourth bowl appearance. The Hilltoppers are 2-1 in their previous three matchups and have won two bowl trips in a row. The trip to Boca Raton is the ninth bowl appearance for Memphis in school history. The Tigers are 4-4 in their previous bowl games.

Memphis vs. WKU (Boca Raton Bowl)

Kickoff: Tuesday, Dec. 20 at 7 p.m. ET

TV Channel: ESPN

Spread: WKU -5.5

Three Things to Watch

1. WKU’s Passing Attack

WKU quarterback Brandon Doughty was one of the best in the nation last season, but Brohm and his staff plugged in Mike White under center and kept the offense performing at a high level. The Hilltoppers finished fifth nationally in passing, averaging 336.8 yards per game. White tossed at least three scores in four of WKU’s final five games and completed 67.4 percent of his passes. The junior is surrounded by a deep supporting cast, including dynamic receivers Taywan Taylor and Nicholas Norris. This duo has combined for 29 touchdown catches and 162 receptions for 2,839 yards. Lucky Jackson (24 catches) is another valuable weapon for White, while running back Anthony Wales has also pitched in 26 catches.

Recommended Articles

Considering White’s development under Brohm and the talent at receiver, the Memphis defense is obviously going to have its hands full on Tuesday night. This offense isn’t just built to attack the short and mid-range throws, as WKU has connected on 25 passes of 40 yards or more – the most in the nation. With Brohm as the play-caller, WKU consistently attacked downfield and put a lot of pressure on the opposing defense with its tempo. Without Brohm calling the plays, how much will this offense change on Tuesday night?

The Tigers rank third in the American Athletic Conference in pass efficiency defense and have surrendered only six plays through the air of 40 yards or more. No Memphis defender earned all-conference honors, but this secondary picked off 15 passes and featured active safeties Jonathan Cook (81 stops) and Chris Morley (73 tackles). Cornerback Arthur Maulet also broke up 13 passes, while the starter on the other side (Chauncey Lanier) recorded seven.

With the firepower in WKU’s passing game, the Memphis secondary is going to give up some yards. However, the Tigers have to limit the big plays and do a better job of getting to the quarterback. Norvell’s defense has only 17 sacks in 2016, which is a big concern against a standout offensive line and an explosive passing game. Can Memphis find a way to slow down White and connections to Taylor and Norris?

Related: Predictions for Every 2016-17 Bowl Game

2. Establishing the Run

These two teams aren’t separated by much in rushing offense per game, but the Tigers and Hilltoppers use a different style in order to get their yardage. WKU relies heavily on one back, as Anthony Wales leads the team with 1,376 yards and 24 touchdowns on just 202 attempts. When Wales needs a break, freshmen Quinton Baker (533 yards) and Marquez Trigg (298) provide plenty of punch on the ground. In addition to having more star power at running back, WKU is also more explosive. The Hilltoppers average 5.4 yards per rush, compared to 4.4 from Memphis. Stopping the run has been a challenge for the Tigers in 2016. This unit ranks ninth in the American Athletic Conference, allowing just over 200 yards (200.2) per game. However, Memphis closed the year by holding Houston to 137 rushing yards and limited Temple to just 86 in early October. Wales gets the headlines for the ground game, but WKU’s offensive line is a standout group, headlined by left tackle Forrest Lamp and center Max Halpin.

Memphis uses more of a committee approach, as three players have at least 78 attempts, including Doroland Dorceus, who has rushed for 783 yards and nine scores. Patrick Taylor ranks second on the team with 512 rushing yards, while Darrell Henderson is third with 469. Will Dorceus find any running room against the WKU defense? The Hilltoppers rank first in Conference USA against the run and limited opponents to just 3.04 yards per carry. Linebacker Keith Brown (123 tackles) is the headliner for Nick Holt, while defensive linemen Chris Johnson and Omarius Bryant combined for 21 tackles for a loss.

3. Memphis QB Riley Ferguson

Ferguson inherited big shoes to fill in replacing NFL first-round pick Paxton Lynch this spring. While the expectations were high, the former Tennessee quarterback (and later JUCO recruit) finished 2016 as one of the top quarterbacks in the American Athletic Conference. Ferguson threw for 3,326 yards and 28 touchdowns in the regular season and ranked second in the conference with an average of 277.2 passing yards per game. If Memphis is going to win on Tuesday night, it’s no secret Ferguson has to deliver a huge performance. In eight victories this year, Ferguson threw for 1,970 yards and 20 touchdowns to just three picks. However, in four losses, Ferguson was limited to 1,356 passing yards, eight scores and six interceptions. WKU’s secondary ranks third in Conference USA in pass efficiency defense but has also surrendered 21 passing scores and 14 plays of 40 yards or more.

Similar to the WKU offense, Memphis has its share of playmakers on the outside. Junior Anthony Miller (84 catches) is a dynamic receiver for Ferguson, while Phil Mayhue (39 grabs), tight end Daniel Montiel (25) and running back Darrell Henderson (20) provide additional support. The offensive line has been problematic for Norvell at times, as this unit gave up 30 sacks in the regular season.

Ferguson should have his chances to make big plays against this defense, but he’s also going to need more help from the offensive line and some balance from the ground game. Will WKU’s secondary limit the damage through the air or get to Ferguson to prevent this offense from getting on track? Or will the junior cap off a solid debut with a huge performance against the Hilltoppers?

Final Analysis

If you like offense, then this is a must-see matchup on Tuesday night. Both teams are capable of putting up points in a hurry, and it’s not crazy to think the offense with the ball last could be the deciding factor. Turnover margin, third-down defense and red zone stops are also a few factors to watch in a game that's expected to be tight on the scoreboard. WKU has been the better team in 2016 and has a few personnel advantages in this matchup. The trio of White, Wales and Taylor is going to present a lot of problems for the Tigers. However, there’s a huge question mark surrounding this team with the departure of Brohm to Purdue. Brohm was the team’s play-caller and designed the WKU attack. Assistant Bryan Ellis will call the plays for the bowl. While the Hilltoppers are the better team, Brohm’s departure is the x-factor and tilts this game in Memphis’ favor. The Tigers use a huge game from quarterback Riley Ferguson and come up with just enough stops in the fourth quarter to pull off the victory.

Image placeholder title

Prediction: Memphis 45, WKU 44