College football’s pre-Christmas bowl slate concludes on Sunday night in Honolulu, as Houston meets Fresno State in the Hawaii Bowl. With no NFL game scheduled for Sunday night, this matchup between the Cougars and Bulldogs should provide the football fix for any holiday party.
Under first-year coach Jeff Tedford, Fresno State is one of college football’s best storylines from the 2017 season. The Bulldogs finished 1-11 last fall but showed marked improvement under Tedford. Fresno State improved its win total by eight games (9-4), claimed the Mountain West’s West Division title and lost the conference championship by three points at Boise State. The Bulldogs also knocked off defending Mountain West champ San Diego State (27-3) on Oct. 21. Tedford pushed all of the right buttons this year, but his best coaching decision came over the offseason with the hire of defensive coordinator Orlondo Steinauer. The former CFL coordinator transformed Fresno State’s defense into one of the best in the Mountain West after giving up 30.9 points a game last fall.
Just like Tedford, Houston coach Major Applewhite is also in his first season. Applewhite inherited big shoes to fill after Tom Herman left for Texas, but the former Longhorn quarterback guided the Cougars to a 7-4 record this season. Houston opened its season with a victory over Arizona, which propelled this team to a 4-1 start. But the Cougars lost back-to-back games (Tulsa and Memphis) before pulling off an upset victory at USF. Applewhite’s team had momentum on its side at the end of the regular season, as Houston won three out of its last four games and defeated Navy to clinch second place in the AAC West.
This is the first meeting on the gridiron between Fresno State and Houston. The Cougars are 2-2 in their last four bowl trips. The Bulldogs have lost six postseason games in a row.
Hawaii Bowl: Houston (7-4) vs. Fresno State (9-4)
Kickoff: Sunday, Dec. 24 at 8:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Houston –2
Three Things to Watch
1. Houston DT Ed Oliver Against Fresno State’s Offensive Line
The skill positions and quarterback play will always receive the most interest from fans at home, but the battle in the trenches is the must-see matchup on Sunday night. Houston tackle Ed Oliver has thrived since stepping onto campus as a five-star recruit in 2016. Over the last two seasons, Oliver has recorded 37.5 tackles for a loss, five forced fumbles, 10.5 sacks and 135 overall tackles. The sophomore is already assembling a deep collection of hardware, as he claimed the 2017 Outland Trophy, earned the American Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year this fall and also was a consensus All-American.
Oliver’s presence is a big reason why Houston ranks second in the American Athletic Conference, limiting opponents to 23 points a game and 5.4 yards a play. Additionally, the Cougars rank second in the AAC against the run and have allowed the fewest plays of 30 yards or more (18) of any team in the conference.
Fresno State will counter Oliver with an offensive line that ranked among the best in the Mountain West. The Bulldogs allowed only nine sacks and cleared the way for rushers to average 4.3 yards a carry. Senior center Aaron Mitchell was a second-team All-Mountain West selection, with the other four starters earning honorable mention all-conference accolades.
Mitchell and the offensive line will be tasked with keeping Oliver and the Houston defense away from quarterback Marcus McMaryion, who threw for 2,384 yards and 14 touchdowns after transferring in from Oregon State in early August. McMaryion’s favorite target has been KeeSean Johnson (69 catches for 918 yards), with Da’Mari Scott (53) and Jamire Jordan (21) filling secondary roles. And when Fresno State wants to run, freshman Jordan Mims (609 yards) is the lead back, with Josh Hokit (519) and Ronnie Rivers (473) also vying for snaps.
Will Oliver win the battle at the point of attack, stuff Fresno State’s rushing attack and disrupt McMaryion’s timing in the passing game? Or will the Bulldogs keep the talented sophomore in check and away from McMaryion?
2. Fresno State’s Defense
As mentioned in the intro, Fresno State’s defense has showed marked improvement under Steinauer. The Bulldogs rank first in the Mountain West by limiting opponents to 17.2 points a game and are third in the conference in yards per play allowed (4.87). Fresno State has been tough against the run (3.5 ypc allowed) and also registered 81 tackles for a loss.
With the extra time to prepare, what type of gameplan will Steinauer have for Houston’s offense? With offensive coordinator Brian Johnson leaving for Florida, Applewhite will have to handle more on gameday in terms of play-calling. The Cougars finished seventh in the AAC in scoring offense (28.4 ppg) and struggled to generate big plays (only 11 of 40 yards or more).
The focal point of the attack is quarterback D’Eriq King, with receiver Steven Dunbar (66 catches) likely to be a handful for Fresno State’s defensive backs. On the ground, the Cougars lean on Duke Catalon (621 yards), but senior Dillon Birden was cleared to practice after missing the last four games due to injury.
Fresno State’s aggressive and opportunistic defense will have opportunities to create takeaways against Houston’s offense. The Cougars have lost 21 turnovers and enter Sunday’s game with a minus-two margin overall.
Fresno State has allowed only one of its last 10 opponents to score more than 25 points. Will that trend continue on Sunday night? The Bulldogs are going to put a lot of pressure on Houston’s offense. In a tight game, one mistake or two could be the difference.
3. Houston QB D’Eriq King
As we mentioned previously, King is the focal point of Houston’s offense. However, that wasn’t the case at the start of the season. Kyle Postma and Kyle Allen opened 2017 as the top two options at quarterback, with King sidelined for the first two games due to a knee injury. The sophomore eventually assumed the No. 1 role after leading Houston to an upset victory at USF in late October. King started the final three games under center and threw for four touchdowns and one pick over that span. Additionally, King eclipsed at least 69 percent in completion rate in each of his three starts and rushed for 141 yards against Tulane.
King’s playmaking ability on the ground will be valuable against Fresno State’s defense. If the Bulldogs are able to get into the backfield, the sophomore can create on the run, potentially opening up big plays through the air as the defense breaks down from the initial rush.
King hasn’t solely spent his entire Houston career at quarterback, as he owns 58 catches from a stint at receiver. With that in mind, the extra time to prepare is valuable. King hasn’t work for an extended stretch in practice as the starter, but the bowl preparation should allow him to work with Applewhite and this staff to refine his skill set under center.
Don’t expect much in the way of points in this game. Fresno State is allowing just 17.2 points per contest, while Houston is giving up 23. And when this game kicks off, the best player on the field resides on the Cougars’ sideline in defensive tackle Ed Oliver. Just how dominant will the sophomore be on Sunday night? If Oliver is disruptive and keeps Fresno State in third-and-long all night, Houston should come out on top. However, if the Bulldogs can find a way to block Oliver, this offense can run the ball and take some of the pressure off of McMaryion. Bowl games haven’t been kind to Fresno State in recent years. While the matchup against Oliver will be tough to overcome, the guess here is the Bulldogs find a way to pull out a win in the fourth quarter.