Avoiding the sights and sounds of Honolulu will be challenging for Fresno State and Rice, as the two programs meet for the first time since 2004 in the Hawaii Bowl on Christmas Eve. The Bulldogs and Owls had to overcome their share of issues to reach the postseason, but both teams were rewarded with a trip to Hawaii to close out the year and an opportunity to build momentum for 2015.
Fresno State was 3-6 in mid-November, but the Bulldogs rallied to finish the regular season at 6-6. Coach Tim DeRuyter’s team lost to Boise State in the Mountain West Championship, yet getting to a bowl and winning three out of the last four games is a positive sign for a team that had to replace offensive standouts in quarterback Derek Carr and receiver Davante Adams heading into 2014. Rice also started 2014 slow by losing its first three matchups of the season. However, the Owls played a tough schedule – Notre Dame, Texas A&M and Old Dominion – and coach David Bailiff’s team eventually settled and won six consecutive games before a loss at Marshall on Nov. 15. Rice has had to overcome injuries to two of its standout players, as defensive tackle Christian Covington had season-ending knee surgery in November, and receiver Jordan Taylor missed the first three games of 2014.
Fresno State and Rice have met six previous times. The Bulldogs have won all six matchups against the Owls. These two programs are former rivals from the Western Athletic Conference.
Fresno State vs. Rice
Kickoff: Wednesday, Dec. 24 at 8 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Rice -2.5
Fresno State’s Key to Victory: Protect QB Brian Burrell
Replacing Derek Carr at quarterback wasn’t expected to be easy, and Fresno State averaged only 233.8 passing yards per game after recording nearly 400 yards through the air per contest last season. Brian Burrell was left with big shoes to fill under center, and the junior experienced his share of ups and downs in 2014. Burrell finished the season with 2,576 yards and 22 passing scores and should have an opportunity to shine in the Hawaii Bowl against a struggling Rice secondary. The Owls ranked 10th in Conference USA in pass efficiency defense and allowed 27 scores through the air this season. While the pass defense has been a problem for Rice, getting to the quarterback is not. The Owls tied for first in Conference USA with 35 sacks, and Fresno State’s offensive line allowed 36 sacks to opposing defenses in 2014. Ends Zach Patt and Brian Nordstrom (combined 16 sacks) led the charge off the edge, while six other players have at least two tackles for a loss. Burrell does have mobility (328 yards, 3 TDs), which should come in handy against a solid Rice defensive line. If Burrell has time to throw, he should hit on big plays, especially to receiver Josh Harper (86 receptions, 1,072 yards, 7 TDs). Also, running back Marteze Waller (6.2 ypc) is a big-play threat on the ground, and his presence could help slow the Rice pass rush.
Rice’s Key to Victory: Balance on Offense
Partially due to its inability to establish a ground game against Marshall and Louisiana Tech, Rice lost two out of its last three games this season. The Owls were held to 34 rushing yards in a 76-31 loss to Louisiana Tech and only 81 yards on 35 attempts against Marshall. There’s not a 1,000-yard rusher on this team, but Rice has three players capable of making plays on the ground. Running back Jowan Davis (910 yards) leads the team in rushing yardage, with the bigger Darik Dillard pacing the offense in rushing touchdowns. Quarterback Driphus Jackson is also a factor on the ground (360 yards), but the junior also has an opportunity to take advantage of a Fresno State secondary that ranks 116th nationally in pass efficiency defense. While the overall statistics leave plenty to be desired, the Bulldogs have held their last four opponents to only 23.2 points per game and generated 10 sacks over the final three contests. Balance on offense is critical for Rice’s victory hopes on Dec. 24. In three losses this season, the Owls attempted 34 or more passes. In Rice’s seven victories, passers never attempted more than 28 throws. Fresno State has made improvement on defense over the last few weeks of the season. Can the Bulldogs continue that into the postseason? Or will Rice’s balance and mistake-free game-plan be enough to maintain successful drives (and win) against Fresno State’s defense?
Fresno State’s last appearance in the Hawaii Bowl wasn’t a trip to remember. The Bulldogs lost 43-10 to SMU, and coach Tim DeRuyter is looking for his first bowl win at Fresno State after losing to USC in the Las Vegas Bowl last year. Rice is 2-1 in its last three bowl matchups and is making its first trip to Hawaii since 2003. It’s hard to find a glaring edge for either of these two teams in this game. Conference supremacy doesn’t mean much in bowl games, but Fresno State played in a better league and had a more challenging non-conference slate. Does that mean anything for this game? Hard to say. However, the Bulldogs were playing better defense at the end of the year, and Burrell to Harper combination will be tough for Rice to stop.