By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
New Mexico Bowl
Temple (8-4) vs. Wyoming (8-4)
Date: Dec. 17 at 2 p.m. ET
Location: University Stadium, Albuquerque, N.M.
The 2011-2012 bowl season kicks off in Albuquerque, N.M. with a matchup of two 8-4 teams. Wyoming is making its second bowl appearance under coach Dave Christensen, while Temple is led by first-year coach Steve Addazio.
Christensen has engineered quite a turnaround after a 3-9 record last year. The Cowboys closed the regular season with wins in three out of their last four games and nearly knocked off TCU in early November.
Temple has been on the rise over the last few seasons. Before departing to Miami, former coach Al Golden went 27-34 in five seasons with the Owls and successfully resurrected the program into a contender in the MAC. Addazio has picked up where he left off, leading Temple to a season of at least eight victories for only the second time since 1979.
This is the Cowboys’ second trip to the New Mexico Bowl, as they defeated Fresno State 35-28 in 2009. Wyoming is also riding a two-game winning streak in bowls after beating UCLA 24-21 in the Las Vegas Bowl in 2004.
Temple is making just its fourth bowl game in school history. The Owls’ last postseason appearance came in 2009, losing 30-21 to UCLA in the EagleBank Bowl.
WHEN TEMPLE HAS THE BALL:
Don’t expect to see the ball in the air much when the Owls are on offense. Junior running backs Bernard Pierce and Matt Brown led the way for Temple to rank seventh nationally in rushing at 256.7 yards per game. Pierce earned first-team All-MAC honors this year, finishing sixth nationally with 125.6 rushing yards per game. He also posted 25 rushing scores.
Chris Coyer assumed the starting quarterback job for Temple’s final three regular season games, but suffered a shoulder injury against Kent State and his status for the New Mexico Bowl is uncertain. Coyer threw only 23 passes in his three starts, but proved to be an effective runner, finishing the regular season with 491 yards and three scores. If Coyer doesn't start, expect to see Chester Stewart or Mike Gerardi under center.
When Temple decides to throw, tight end Evan Rodriguez is the No. 1 target. The senior leads the team with 33 receptions and 427 receiving yards. Rod Streater adds big-play ability to the receiving corps, averaging 18.9 yards per reception this season.
Wyoming’s defense will be tested early and often in this game, particularly on the ground. The Cowboys allowed 230.1 rushing yards per game (115th nationally) and gave up 26 touchdowns on the ground. Temple’s offensive line has a significant size advantage in the trenches, as the Owls average 318.8 pounds per offensive lineman, while Wyoming checks in at 270.3 per defensive lineman.
Although the Cowboys have struggled to stop opposing rushing attacks, the secondary finished 34th nationally against the pass. And safeties Luke Ruff and Tashaun Gipson earned second-team All-Mountain West honors.
Even though Wyoming may give up some yards, it has done a good job of winning the turnover battle this year. The Cowboys have forced 31 turnovers and will need to create a few to win on Saturday afternoon.
The Owls finished seventh in the MAC in total offense, but ranked 10th nationally in time of possession. If Temple wants to win its first bowl since 1979, controlling the clock and getting Pierce on track is essential.
Considering Wyoming’s issues against the run, it has to find a way to get Temple in obvious passing situations. Also, the defense could get some help from the offense, especially if it can get up by two scores and force the Owls to throw.
WHEN WYOMING HAS THE BALL:
The Cowboys are averaging 27 points a game, but that will be put to the test against a solid Temple defense. The Owls rank third nationally in scoring defense (13.8 ppg) and 15th nationally in yards allowed per game (315.5). Only two opponents (Ohio and Toledo) have managed to score more than 21 points against the Owls this year.
Freshman quarterback Brett Smith is the focal point of the Wyoming offense. He has thrown for 2,495 yards and 18 touchdowns, while adding 645 yards and 10 scores on the ground. Smith has been careful with the football, throwing only eight interceptions this season.
While Smith has been a major contributor on the ground, he’s not the team’s only option. Alvester Alexander leads Wyoming with 678 yards, while Brandon Miller and Kody Sutton combined for 446.
The Cowboys have a solid group of receivers, but No. 1 target Chris McNeill is out for the remainder of the season with an arm injury. With McNeill sidelined, Smith will rely more on Mazi Ogbonna, Dominic Rufran, Josh Doctson and Robert Herron even more and each has at least 32 receptions this season.
Some of the credit for Wyoming’s success on offense goes to the offensive line. Led by senior left tackle Clayton Kirven, the front five has allowed only 11 sacks this year. This group will be tested by an active Temple defensive line, which is registering 2.7 sacks a game. Ends Adrian Robinson and Morkeith Brown earned All-MAC honors this season.
Considering the Temple defense has been a strength all year, this won't be an easy matchup for Wyoming. The Owls will focus on stopping Smith – especially on the ground – and getting pressure on him when he throws. Also, Temple’s offense and ball-control attack will help keep the ball away from the Cowboys.
A slight edge goes to the Owls in this department.
Temple punter Brandon McManus earned second-team All-MAC honors after averaging 45.9 yards per punt this season. McManus placed 15 punts inside of the 20. He also connected on 13 of 19 field goal attempts.
Junior running back Matt Brown is a dangerous option on special teams for Temple, averaging 26.7 yards per kick return and 10.1 on punt returns.
Wyoming punter Austin McCoy had a solid regular season, averaging 40.3 yards per punt on 72 attempts. Kicker Daniel Sullivan nailed 7 of 10 attempts, but only one from beyond 40 yards.
The Cowboys will likely use freshman Blair Burns on punt returns, while Dominic Rufran will lead the way on kickoffs.
Three of the five previous matchups of the New Mexico Bowl were decided by eight points or less. And another close one can be expected this season.
These two teams had one common opponent: Bowling Green. Temple lost to the Falcons 13-10, while Wyoming won 28-27.
There’s really no secret to how this game will be decided. If the Cowboys find a way to stuff the Owls’ rushing attack, they will win the game. If Wyoming’s rush defense struggles, expect Temple to come away with the victory.
Temple 27, Wyoming 24