The last of college football’s pre-Christmas bowl games kicks off on Thursday, Dec. 24, as Cincinnati and San Diego State make the trek to Honolulu for an intriguing matchup in the Hawaii Bowl. The Aztecs are making their sixth consecutive postseason appearance, which is more than the program had combined from 1969-2009. The Bearcats have been a frequent visitor to the postseason since 2000, earning 13 trips to bowl games in that span.
Cincinnati was picked as one of the frontrunners to win the American Athletic Conference this preseason, but the Bearcats stumbled to 7-5, snapping a streak of four consecutive seasons with at least nine wins. Turnovers were a huge problem for coach Tommy Tuberville’s team, as Cincinnati recorded a minus-16 margin in 12 games. The defense was a concern entering the year, and the Bearcats surrendered 5.8 yards per play and 30.3 points per game. Despite the problems on defense and in the turnover department, Cincinnati wasn’t far from winning a few of its biggest games this season. The Bearcats lost by eight to Temple, by seven to Memphis and by three to Houston.
With a win over Cincinnati on Dec. 24, San Diego State would tie a school record for the most victories in a season (11). The Aztecs started 1-3 but finished 2015 by winning nine consecutive games, including the Mountain West Championship over Air Force. The victory over the Falcons secured San Diego State’s first outright conference championship since 1986 and the program’s first double-digit win season since 1977.
San Diego State and Cincinnati have only one previous matchup in program history. The Bearcats defeated the Aztecs 52-23 in 2007. This is the first time either team has played in a postseason bowl game in Hawaii.
Hawaii Bowl: Cincinnati vs. San Diego State
Honolulu, Hawaii – Aloha Stadium
Kickoff: Thursday, Dec. 24 at 8 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: San Diego State -1.5
Three Things to Watch
1. San Diego State RB Donnel Pumphrey
San Diego State running back Donnel Pumphrey might be one of the nation’s most underrated players. The 5-foot-9, 180-pound junior rushed for 1,554 yards and 16 scores this season and is the focal point for the Aztecs’ offense. Pumphrey also leads the team with 27 catches and tied for first among Mountain West running backs with four runs of 50 yards or more this year. The junior isn’t the only option at running back for this offense, as Chase Price (940 yards) and Rashaad Penny (351 yards) are capable of spelling Pumphrey when he needs a break. Also, fullback Dakota Gordon is a 5-foot-10 power blocker and a key cog in a rushing attack that also boasts two all-conference linemen in guard Nico Siragusa and tackle Pearce Slater. Establishing the run is critical for San Diego State, as this offense isn’t built to come from behind. The Aztecs average 48 rushing attempts per game, compared to just 19 pass attempts. Starting quarterback Maxwell Smith suffered an ACL tear against Nevada on Nov. 28 and did not play in the win over Air Force on Dec. 5. Smith is delaying surgery in an attempt to play in the bowl, but all signs point to freshman Christian Chapman (9 of 14, 203 yards against Air Force) making his second start. Smith’s injury only adds to the pressure on Pumphrey and the San Diego State ground attack. Stopping the run has been an issue for Cincinnati this season, as the Bearcats ranked ninth in the American Athletic Conference, surrendering 190.8 yards per game. Additionally, this defense gave up at least 200 yards on the ground in four of the last five games.
2. Cincinnati QB Hayden Moore
Cincinnati’s quarterback position has experienced its share of twists and turns in the 2015 season. Gunner Kiel opened the season as the starter, but Hayden Moore received more playing time after Kiel was injured against Memphis and finished the regular season with two starts. Kiel was the better quarterback in 2015, throwing for 2,777 yards and 19 touchdowns. However, Kiel won’t make the trip to due a personal matter, leaving Moore as Cincinnati’s starter on Thursday night. The freshman had his bright spots (4 TDs against Memphis) but also tossed eight picks on 195 attempts. Moore has a tough assignment against San Diego State’s 3-3-5 defense, which wreaked havoc on Mountain West quarterbacks in 2015. The Aztecs allowed only 4.68 yards per play, gave up 17.2 points per game, generated 33 sacks and forced 31 takeaways. The Bearcats have a deep receiving corps, but San Diego State’s secondary is anchored by the Mountain West’s Defensive Player of the Year Damontae Kazee and all-conference selection J.J. Whittaker. Can Moore avoid turnovers and connect on a few big plays against the stingy Aztec secondary?
San Diego State doesn’t have a huge margin for error in this game. The Aztecs should be able to establish the run against Cincinnati, but coach Rocky Long’s offense cannot afford to fall behind the chains or on the scoreboard. San Diego State’s passing game is not built to rally from a large deficit. On the other sideline, Cincinnati is capable of putting up points in a hurry. Of course, scoring points and establishing drives also depends on holding onto the ball. The Bearcats ranked No. 124 nationally with a minus-16 in turnover margin this season. San Diego State finished the regular season ranked first nationally in turnover margin, losing only 12 turnovers all year. If the turnover margin totals hold true on Thursday night, Cincinnati is going to have a tough time earning the victory over the Aztecs.
This is a classic matchup of a high-powered offense (Cincinnati) versus a stingy defense (San Diego State). Which style of play will establish control of this game early in the first half? If the Aztecs get the ground game on track, win the time of possession battle and force a few turnovers, coach Rocky Long’s team should earn its 11th win of the season. The Bearcats have the edge in offensive firepower and need to push the tempo early to get San Diego State out of its comfort zone. The Mountain West has lost its last eight trips to this bowl. That losing streak ends on Christmas Eve, as the Aztecs cap one of the best seasons in school history with a close victory over the Bearcats.
Prediction: San Diego State 27, Cincinnati 24
(Credit to SDSU athletic media relations for top photo of RB Donnel Pumphrey)