by Nathan Rush
Southern Miss (11–2) vs. Nevada (7–5)
Date: Dec. 24, 2011 at 8 p.m. ET
Location: Aloha Stadium, Honolulu, Hawaii
How’d you like to spend Christmas on Christmas Island? Well, Southern Miss and Nevada will do just that when the Hawaii Bowl kicks off as the only game on television Christmas Eve.
This is the 10th anniversary of the Hawaii Bowl. Nevada is making its third appearance — having defeated Central Florida, 49–48 in overtime, in 2005 and lost to SMU, 45–10, in 2009. Meanwhile, this is Southern Miss’ first postseason trip to the island of Oahu.
The stars come out to shine in the Hawaii Bowl, whose past MVPs include local Hawaii record-breaking quarterbacks Timmy Chang and Colt Brennan, as well as Notre Dame’s Jimmy Clausen and Golden Tate, Central Florida’s Brandon Marshall and East Carolina’s Chris Johnson, who broke the NCAA bowl record with 408 all-purpose yards in 2007.
USM coach Larry Fedora will pace the sidelines for the final time for the Golden Eagles before taking over at North Carolina. On the other side, 65-year-old Chris Ault still has a few bullets left in the old Pistol offense in his 27th non-consecutive season leading the Wolf Pack. Although Ault has a 226–102–1 record all-time — leading Nevada from Division II to I-AA to I-A in the Big Sky, Big West and WAC — he is only 2–6 in bowl games.
WHEN SOUTHERN MISS HAS THE BALL:
The Conference USA champs ran circles around the nation’s No. 1-ranked offense, Houston, winning 49–28 en route to Southern Miss’ first Conference USA title since 2003.
Fifth-year senior quarterback Austin Davis leads a balanced attack that features several athletic playmakers. Davis passed for 3,331 yards, 28 TDs and 11 INTs this season, while scrambling for another 332 yards and four scores on the ground. Davis was recently awarded the Burlsworth Trophy, which is given annually to the nation’s top player who started his career as a walk-on.
Top receiver Ryan Balentine (742 yards, 8 TDs) and leading rusher Jamal Woodyard (683 yards) are impressive, but the Golden Eagles’ top all-around threat is Tracy Lampley, who accounted for 999 total yards and six TDs this season — saving his best performance for crunch time, with six catches for 125 yards and two TDs, and 14 carries for 71 yards in the title-clinching win at Houston.
The Wolf Pack ranked 52nd in total defense and 58th in scoring defense (25.25 ppg) this season. Senior end Brett Roy has been a terror off the edge, with 10 sacks and 18.5 tackles for a loss this season. But Nevada has produced little pressure (22 total sacks) outside of Roy. But corners Khalid Wooten (4 INTs) and Isaiah Frey (5 INTs) have proven capable cover men and ball-hawks.
WHEN NEVADA HAS THE BALL:
After losing all-everything quarterback Colin Kaepernick — who was a second-round selection of the San Francisco 49ers after becoming the only FBS quarterback in history to pass for over 10,000 yards and rush for over 4,000 yards — there were many question marks surrounding the Wolf Pack offense heading into this season.
But the QB combo of Cody Fajardo (1,647 passing yards, 6 TDs, 5 INTs; 680 rush yards, 11 TDs) and Tyler Lantrip (1,496 passing yards, 10 TDs, 6 INTs) proved effective. A left ankle injury kept star freshman Fajardo out of the season finale, allowing Lantrip his Senior Night start — which he made the most of, completing 24-of-31 passes for 340 yards, four TDs and zero INTs in a 56–3 win over Idaho.
Regardless of who plays quarterback, the ball is going to star wideout Rishard Matthews, who had 91 catches for 1,364 yards and eight TDs this year. On the ground, Lampford Mark (728 yards, 8 TDs) will be more of a feature back following the dismissal of Mike Ball (704 yards), the team’s second leading rusher.
As usual, Southern Miss has fringe-SEC talent and speed on defense. Sophomore cornerback Deron Wilson likely will be lined up on Matthews. Wilson has made teams pay for testing his side of the field, with four INTs for 114 return yards and two TDs — his second straight season with two defensive TDs. All of the Eagles know how to fly to the house, however, as USM has 18 total INTs for 513 return yards (28.5 ypr) and eight pick-sixes this season.
Southern Miss scored on a blocked punt against Houston, and notched three punt-return TDs by three different Eagles this year. Kick coverage has been an issue, as USM allowed two kick return TDs. Kicker Danny Hrapmann is inconsistent and has limited range.
For Nevada, Matthews is a dangerous punt returner, with a 13.3-yard average and one TD. Field goal kicking is a weakness for the Wolf Pack, with three kickers combining to connect on 13-of-19, while going just 2-of-7 from 30 or more yards.
The Golden Eagles are soaring into the Hawaii Bowl as unexpected Conference USA champs. The Wolf Pack should just be happy to hang their stockings on a coconut tree while vacationing on Christmas Island. Fedora’s final game at Southern Miss will end in a Gatorade bath.
Southern Miss 38, Nevada 27