Two island bowl games to watch? It must be Christmas Eve!
It’s 2012 again. WKU and CMU again face each other in a bowl, and Fresno State makes another trip to the islands after a dreadful Christmas Eve loss two years ago. What changes? And will we be entertained?
All we want for Christmas Eve are points. Can Wednesday’s non-mainland bowl games provide them? Here are a couple of keys for Wednesday’s action.
What can CMU do that others couldn’t?
In 2012, I called Central Michigan one of the worst bowl teams ever (final F/+ ranking: 95th), only to watch the 6-6 Chippewas take down Western Kentucky in the Little Caesars Bowl. Two years later, CMU again faces WKU; this time, the Chippewas might be underrated.
CMU is 77th in the F/+ rankings, the school’s best since finishing 38th in 2009. The Chippewas are only 7-5 but boast a 17-point win over NIU and a 21-point win over Purdue. Both the offense and defense are top-70 caliber, and in terms of pure yardage, CMU allows 331 per game, 16th in the country.
Defensive ends Blake Serpa (a junior) and Joe Ostman (sophomore) have combined for 21.5 tackles for loss (seven sacks), and sophomore safety Tony Annese is a ball-hawk, intercepting three passes and breaking up 10 more to go with his three TFLs. Fifth-year defensive coordinator Joe Tumpkin has what is easily his best defense yet in Mount Pleasant.
Of course, almost no defense looks good against Western Kentucky. Quarterback Brandon Doughty and company make sure of that. Just ask 13-1 Marshall, which allowed 67 points and 8.6 yards per play to the Hilltoppers on November 28. Ask Old Dominion (66 points, 8.5 per play), UAB (39, 7.7), UTSA (45, 7.4), Middle Tennessee (47, 7.0), or CMU’s MAC mate Bowling Green (59, 7.4). Only Illinois and Louisiana Tech held WKU under 6.3 yards per play, and Tech did it with a level of attacking defense — 10 tackles for loss (three sacks, four hurries), 12 passes defensed — that might be beyond CMU’s capability.
So if CMU can’t stop WKU, can the Chippewas at least keep up on the scoreboard? Certainly. The Hilltoppers rank 102nd in Def. F/+ and allowed at least 6.1 yards per play in each of their first eight games. There seemed to be some improvement late — WKU allowed an average of 19.3 points per game and 5.0 yards per play against UTEP, Army, and UTSA — before the epic 67-66 shootout against Marshall. We’ll see if that was evidence of a positive trend or simply the opportunity to take advantage of offenses worse than CMU’s.
Any game with WKU has shootout potential. We’ll see if the CMU defense can prevent that … or if the CMU offense can ensure it. This is bowl season; I’ll be rooting for the latter.
Can Fresno State make amends?
The only bowl I was more wrong about in 2012 than WKU-CMU was Fresno State’s. In that year’s Hawaii Bowl, the Bulldogs took on an SMU team that seemed completely overmatched and proceeded to get smoked, 43-10. Two years later on the islands, the shoe is on the other foot. Fresno is in no way overmatched by Rice, but the Bulldogs are an underdog looking to creep back up to .500.
The Hawaii Bowl built a reputation for shootouts. Between 2003 and 2010, 13 of 16 participants scored at least 35 points, but in the last three years, only two of six have reached that level. The shootout potential in this one isn’t high, if only because Fresno State’s offense isn’t very good. A year after losing most of their passing attack, the Bulldogs have averaged greater than 5.6 yards per play just three times, none since October 10. They did manage 40 points in an up-tempo win over Nevada on November 22, but they tend to need help from opposing defenses when it comes to racking up the yards.
Of course, Rice is more than happy to oblige. The Owls have allowed greater than 38 points and 7.0 yards per play five times this year. They also allowed 23 or fewer points and 5.0 or fewer yards per play seven times. Either everything works for Rice’s defense, or nothing works.
Rice isn’t averse to tempo if the opportunity presents itself. The Owls had 84 snaps against UTSA, 88 against Old Dominion, and 91 against Texas A&M. So if Fresno State does move the ball, Rice could go into “Let’s do this” mode and tell quarterback Driphus Jackson to unleash hell.
Despite their run-friendly reputation, Rice has been quite a bit better at throwing than running in 2014. Jackson has thrown for 2,524 yards with 21 scores to eight picks, and the receiver duo of seniors Jordan Taylor and Mario Hull (combined: 1,320 yards, 10.8 per target, 13 touchdowns) gives him a couple of serious big-play threats. Tim DeRuyter’s Fresno defense still wants to attack and create havoc, but the Bulldogs aren’t quite as good at it this year. Big plays could be available to Jackson and company.