-by Braden Gall (follow at @BradenGall)
TCU (10-2) vs. Louisiana Tech (8-4)
Date: Dec. 21 at 8 p.m. ET
Location: Qualcomm Stadium, San Diego, Calif.
TCU and Louisiana Tech will meet for the first time in history when they lock horns in the seventh annual Poinsettia Bowl. This will be the third Poinsettia Bowl appearance for the Horned Frogs, while Louisiana Tech is making its first trip to Qualcomm Stadium. The Mountain West has won five of the six match-ups in San Diego, including the last five —two by TCU (2006, 2008). The Horned Frogs have won five of their last six bowl games, including the 21-19 Rose Bowl Championship last season. This is only Louisiana Tech’s third bowl appearance since 1990 and the school’s sixth overall postseason trip. The Bulldogs are 2-2-1 all-time and won their last postseason appearance over Northern Illinois in the 2008 Independence Bowl.
Both TCU and Louisiana Tech enter the postseason as two of the hottest teams in the nation. Both bring a seven-game winning streak and a conference championship to America’s Finest City. And there should be plenty of fireworks as both teams averaged more than 30 points per game on offense in 2011.
WHEN TCU HAS THE BALL:
Sophomore quarterback Casey Pachall had some huge shoes to fill as the school’s greatest signal caller Andy Dalton departed Ft. Worth for the Cincinnati Bengals last spring. However, the offense barely skipped a beat as Pachall led the nation’s No. 9-rated scoring attack (41.7 ppg). And he saved his best game for the conference-deciding trip to Boise State. The super soph posted a career high 473 yards and five touchdowns in the 36-35 “Mountain West Championship Game.” He finished his first full season as the starter with a tidy 24:6 touchdown-to-interception ratio and ranked No. 7 nationally in passer efficiency (161.87).
Much of the credit for TCU’s offensive success this fall, however, also needs to go to the incredibly deep collection of skill players. The powerful Horned Frogs’ rushing attack featured a trio of 600 yards rushers: Waymon James, Matthew Tucker and Ed Wesley. Each scored at least five times and each carried the ball between 104 and 116 times. Package the talented triple-headed ground game with the emergence of sophomore wideout Josh Boyce and Louisiana Tech will have to slow one of the most balanced offensive attacks in the nation (210.2 yards rushing per game, 233.8 yards passing per game). Boyce is 68 yards shy of becoming the program’s second 1,000-yard receiver.
While the muscle of Gary Patterson’s running game will find a formidable opponent in the shape of the WAC’s top rushing defense, Pachall and the passing game should find it easier to move the ball through the air. Expect Boyce to reach his 1,000-yard plateau as Louisiana Tech has struggled against the pass this season, sporting the 96th-ranked pass defense (252.7 ypg). However, Pachall will need to be extra careful with the ball as the Bulldogs led the WAC and finished third nationally with 20 interceptions — including 11 picks in its last five games.
WHEN LOUISIANA TECH HAS THE BALL:
Through 10 games, Tech tailback Lennon Creer had rushed for 805 yards and nine touchdowns before sustaining an ankle injury in the 27-7 win over Ole Miss. If he is not at 100%, expect a heavy dose of Hunter Lee — who rushed for 26 times for 148 yards and three scores against lowly New Mexico State to cap his freshman season.
With some uncertainty in the backfield, Sonny Dykes has to be pleased with the play of quarterback Colby Cameron. Midway through the season, Dykes benched starter Nick Isham for Cameron and the junior responded with 280.6 yards passing per game, 11 touchdowns and only two interceptions in just five starts (all wins).
The reigning Rose Bowl MVP Tank Carder will be charged with stopping the Dykes offensive attack. While this is not a vintage Patterson defense, Carder and company will still pose a major threat to the Bulldogs. Baylor (aka Robert Griffin III), Boise State (aka Kellen Moore), SMU and BYU are the only teams that managed to score more than 20 points against TCU this season. Cameron will have to overcome what appears to be a sizeable talent differential.
TCU should be able to tip the field with a major advantage on the kickoffs while Louisiana Tech should be able to return the favor in the punting game. The Frogs lead the nation in kickoff returns (28.7 yards per) while Tech ranks 48th. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs are eighth in the nation in net punting (40.2 yards per punt) while TCU struggled mightily with the 107th-rated punting game.
While Dykes and the Bulldogs have a chance at their first nine-win season since 1997, the talent differential might be too much to overcome. The Frogs are balanced, talented and favored by 13 points for a reason. Tech is the third-largest underdog of the 35 bowl match-ups.
TCU 34, Louisiana Tech 20