The College Bowl Season is upon us, and Pylon University is bringing the breakdowns on offense, defense, and special teams, along with the sport’s traditions and great moments. In this edition, it’s the Poinsettia Bowl preview, one of five games this week that take us through Christmas Eve.
WHAT: San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl
WHEN: Tuesday, December 23 – 9:30 p.m. EST (ESPN)
WHERE: Qualcomm Stadium, San Diego
Expect a crowded house Tuesday night when these two teams clash in San Diego. While the game is in San Diego State’s home stadium, this will not be a true home game for the Aztecs. Mere minutes from the venue sits Naval Base San Diego, home of the Pacific Fleet.
The Aztecs closed out the regular season with wins over Air Force and San Jose State to ensure bowl eligibility. A strong ground game and solid defense have been crucial to their success.
Navy began the season with a tough loss to Ohio State, but any year that includes a victory over Army is a good one for the Midshipmen. With that 17-10 win, Ken Niumatalolo became the winningest coach in the Naval Academy’s storied football history.
When Navy Has the Football
A three-year starter at quarterback, Keenan Reynolds accounted for 39 percent of Navy’s offense this season with 826 yards through the air and 1,182 more on the ground. The junior’s passing stats were down from the previous two campaigns, with only six touchdown strikes against three interceptions but he can deliver a clutch throw when needed, and tossed a game-tying TD pass against Army with seconds left in the first half.
Reynolds is most dangerous as a ball carrier, rushing for 21 TDs this season including this 67-yard score against South Alabama:
This play is a great example of Navy’s flexbone option. The left wingback motions into the backfield pre-snap. Reynolds opens up to his right with the football and runs the fullback dive, choosing to keep the football. The left wingback leads to the left end while Reynolds and the right wingback work speed option to the left side of the field:
A seam opens inside for Reynolds, who exploits the hole and then outraces the defense to the goal-line.
Fullback Noah Copeland is the other key piece of the Midshipmen’s rushing attack. Most of Navy’s plays begin with Reynolds putting the football near Copeland’s belly and deciding whether to complete the handoff. When Copeland takes the ball he makes the most of those chances, averaging 7.6 yards per carry during his senior season and scoring five touchdowns, including a 64-yard scoring run against VMI.
Any defense opposing Navy requires disciplined play from its linebackers to slow the option: San Diego will call on two stellar LBs, Josh Gavert and Calvin Munson, to achieve that goal. In his first year as a starter, Munson tallied 78 tackles including a team-high 51 solo stops. Gavert, a senior, also notched 78 tackles on the year. The Aztec defense allowed only 146 yards per game on the ground this season, but they face a tough test in containing the number two rushing offense in the nation.
When San Diego State Has the Football
Most bowl preview readers have heard of Heisman Trophy finalist Melvin Gordon from Wisconsin, and are perhaps familiar with Indiana’s Tevin Coleman. The player with the third-most rushing yards in college football this season may be more of a stumper. San Diego State’s Donnel Pumphrey gained 1,755 ground yards on 255 carries, good for an average of 6.9 yards per attempt. Generously listed on the Aztecs roster at 5’9” and 170 pounds, the diminutive sophomore running back has incredible footwork and sprinter’s speed. On this 93-yard touchdown run against New Mexico, he displays both:
This is a textbook run from Pumphrey. He bursts through the hole, puts one move on the cornerback, and no one lays a hand on him.
When the Aztecs go to the air, they rely on senior Quinn Kaehler. Reliability has been an issue this season for the quarterback, who has more interceptions (10) than TD passes (9).
The Midshipmen’s front will be tested by Pumphrey throughout Tuesday evening. Linebackers Jordan Drake and Daniel Gonzales led Navy with 96 and 80 tackles respectively. Drake, a senior, started 26 games at outside linebacker before making the move inside for his final season. Gonzales, a sophomore, is a first-year starter but made an immediate impact with Navy’s defense. When San Diego State looks to pass, watch for defensive end Will Anthony. The junior led Navy with 10.5 tackles for a loss, along with a team-high 2.5 sacks.
A number of Aztecs are considered NFL material. Offensive tackle Terry Poole, wide receiver Ezell Ruffin, defensive tackle Sam Meredith, fullback Adam Roberts and center Zach Dilley are players to watch. For Navy, look for Joe Cardona, a long-snapper. This will not be Cardona’s final football game, as he is one of two long snappers invited to the Senior Bowl in January.
If you love run-based offenses, this is a good bowl game to watch. Elapsed time for this contest should be one of the shortest of any this season. Expect both rushing attacks put up numbers Tuesday night, but Reynolds and the flexbone option carry the evening.
Navy 24, San Diego State 17
All video and images courtesy ESPN.
Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkSchofield.