The best and (often) worst of the Boca Raton and Poinsettia bowls
Always be closing (drives). Northern Illinois and San Diego State could not, and because of it, Marshall and Navy took home Tuesday night bowl wins in Boca Raton and San Diego.
Let’s look at the key numbers from Tuesday’s bowl action.
Marshall beat Northern Illinois, 52-23, in the inaugural Boca Raton Bowl. The Herd were up by double digits for 40 of the last 42 minutes. After some back-and-forth scoring early on, they were in complete control.
The total yardage does not belie a 29-point win. Marshall outgained NIU, 505-425, and ended up with only three more first downs, 28-25.
The difference came in the details. After NIU scored on a Juwan Brescacin catch midway through the first, Marshall’s Deandre Reaves returned the ensuing kickoff 93 yards for a touchdown. That not only gave Marshall seven points; it also spooked NIU into pooch-kicking. After NIU’s next kickoff, Marshall started at its 35. After the next one, Marshall started at the NIU 48. The next one: Marshall’s 32. Et cetera. Including an onside kick attempt, NIU kickoffs averaged a net of only nine yards. The result was a drastic field position advantage for the Herd.
And then there was the fact that only one team finished drives in the end zone. Marshall generated seven scoring opportunities (first downs inside the opponent’s 40) to NIU’s six. Close game, right? Nope! Marshall scored touchdowns on six of those seven trips; NIU scored two touchdowns and settled for four field goal attempts, making three.
Down 17-7 in the second quarter, they kicked on fourth-and-goal from about the 1. Fortune favors the bold, especially in bowl games. (NIU also kicked a 31-yard field goal while down 45-20 in the fourth quarter, but I can forgive that one because it came on fourth-and-goal from the 14. Conversion odds aren’t great on that one.)
Marshall averaged 6.4 points per scoring opportunity to NIU’s 3.8 and, as a result, won going away.
Not every bowl game can be … shall we say … aesthetically pleasing. Navy’s 17-16 win over San Diego State in the Poinsettia Bowl was not. The game featured seven turnovers, a combined 41 percent completion rate, and a combined 4.8 yards per play, and Navy won because SDSU missed a 34-yard field goal with 20 seconds left. Wins are wins, but some are more fun than others.
It took a lot for Navy to win this game. The Midshipmen fumbled four times and lost all four, and on a per-play basis, they were outgained, 5.4-4.2. Including sacks, Keenan Reynolds‘ nine pass attempts generated a net of 11 yards. Plus, the Middies were constantly in a field position hole (average starting field position: SDSU 42, Navy 30). SDSU finished 10 of its 12 possessions in Navy territory.
So how did Navy do it? For starters, SDSU pulled an NIU. The Aztecs created seven scoring opportunities, scored just one touchdown, settled for four field goals (making three), threw an interception, and turned the ball over on downs. (They turned the ball over two other times as well.) Points per opportunity: 2.3. Meanwhile, Navy generated three opportunities but went TD-TD-FG.
This was a game Navy probably loses more often than not. But in an 8-5 season that featured some frustrating losses, the Midshipmen aren’t in the mood to apologize too much. Keenan Reynolds scored two more rushing touchdowns and heads into his senior season already holding the record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback, and after stumbling to 5-7 in 2011, Ken Niumatalolo’s Midshipmen have ripped off three more bowl seasons in a row and two straight bowl wins. There’s a lot to feel good about in Annapolis, ugly wins or no ugly wins.
Meanwhile, we’re reaching an interesting point in Rocky Long’s SDSU tenure. Long took over for Brady Hoke in 2011, and the Aztecs have now been bowling for five years. They had been to only four bowls ever before 2010. But the returns have begun to diminish, from nine wins in 2012, to eight in 2013, to seven in 2014. Raising expectations, then failing to meet them, is how you find yourself in Glen Mason Territory. But we’ll tackle that in the 2015 SDSU preview this spring.
Marshall quarterback Rakeem Cato completed 25 of 37 passes for 281 yards and three scores in Boca Raton; not including sacks, he also rushed eight times for 39 yards and two touchdowns. Cato’s 53rd and final game in the kelly green and white was as efficient as most of the others.
Cato’s career ends with some pretty ridiculous numbers: 14,918 total yards of offense (14,079 passing, 839 rushing), 131 touchdown passes, 15 touchdown runs. That’s how you carve out a good portion of your school’s record book. At 6’1, 176 pounds, Cato will probably find it difficult to find traction in the pros, but his diverse skill set and incredibly accuracy were assets for head coach Doc Holliday and offensive coordinator Bill Legg, who crafted a quick-passing attack around him.
Of Cato’s 25 completions on Tuesday, 18 went to one guy: Tommy Shuler. A fellow senior, Shuler caught 18 of 21 passes for 185 yards, including a 42-yarder. There might have been a purpose to that. His 16th catch of the night was the 321st of his career, making him the all-time leading receiver in Conference USA history.