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 Hawaii Bowl preview, one of five games this week that take us through Christmas Eve.
WHAT: Sheraton Hawaii Bowl
WHEN: Wednesday, December 24, 2014 8:00 p.m. EST (ESPN)
WHERE: Aloha Stadium – Honolulu, HI
Rice and Fresno State square off on Christmas Eve in Hawai’i, but only one team will have a “Mele Kalikimaka.” In 2013 the Owls and Bulldogs were champions of Conference USA and Mountain West, respectively, but each has slipped this season. Rice had a chance to make the CUSA championship game again but got stomped 76-31 by Louisiana Tech in their final regular season contest. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs fell from 11-2 to 6-7, with their only out-of-conference victory over FCS Southern Utah.
The two teams were formerly members of the Western Athletic Conference, overlapping from 1996 through 2004. Rice has never beaten Fresno State in six meetings. This is Rice’s fourth bowl game in head coach David Bailiff’s eight years at the university, including its third in as many seasons. This is also Fresno State’s third consecutive season in a bowl, as they Bulldogs been bowl-eligible in each season with head coach Tim DeRuyter at the helm.
When Rice Has the Football
The Owls like to run, finishing second in CUSA with 44.3 rush attempts per game, mostly divided between sophomore running backs Jowan Davis (910 rushing yards) and Darik Dillard (11 touchdowns). When they do throw, it’s often to senior Jordan Taylor, who ranks fifth in CUSA in receiving yards. Taylor lacks explosive athleticism, but at 6’5”, 210 pounds he has a size advantage over nearly any cornerback. Rice often spreads the field and lines him up in the slot, where he can use his length, instincts, and hands to make spectacular grabs against nickel corners:
Video courtesy of Fox Sports 1.
Taylor (#15) uses a double-move to get open in the corner of the end zone, cutting out and then up. He shows great concentration to hand-fight with the defender, catch the ball over his shoulder, secure it, and keep his feet inbounds.
Fresno State allowed more than 50 points in each of its first three contests, but the Bulldogs have righted the ship, allowing 25.8 points per game since, including holding then-No. 22 Boise State to just 21 offensive points in the conference championship loss. Defensive tackle Tyeler Davison and safety Derron Smith were named first-team All-Mountain-West. Davison weighs in at more than 300 pounds but still led the team in sacks with eight. At 5’11”, 197 pounds, Smith has a classic free safety build, but he’s versatile, spending time at strong safety also. Smith only had one interception this season, but has 15 for his career, including this one against Nevada in 2013:
Video courtesy of ESPN.
Davison (highlighted before the snap) draws a double-team but sheds it as the play develops and gets some pressure in the face of the quarterback. Smith (#13) is playing back in a two-deep shell and cuts in front of the receiver’s post pattern, picking off the pass and nearly returning it for a touchdown.
When Fresno State Has the Football
The Bulldogs had quarterback Derek Carr and wide receiver Davante Adams selected in the second round of the 2014 NFL draft, but they’ve continued to employ a pass-heavy spread attack with Carr’s successor, Brian Burrell, with the junior second in Mountain West in pass attempts with 412. Senior wide receiver Josh Harper is the prime beneficiary of those pass attempts, topping 1,000 receiving yards for the second consecutive campaign. At 6’1”, 185 pounds he is a bit slight for a classic outside receiver, but Fresno State will often align him as the only receiver on one side to get him one-on-one matchups:
Video courtesy of ESPN.
The Bulldogs line up three receivers to the left and only Harper right, which causes the deep middle safety to look at the trips side. Harper burns the cornerback with his speed and route-running on the post, and the safety is in no position to help. It’s an easy toss from Burrell for a 32-yard touchdown.
Rice’s defense is keyed by defensive ends Brian Nordstrom and Zach Patt, who combined for 16 sacks and 28 tackles for loss. Senior cornerback Bryce Callahan made second-team All-Conference-USA and figures to match up with Harper quite a bit.
Fresno State has a number of solid draft prospects. CBS Sports ranks both Smith and Harper among the top 60 draft prospects with Davison just outside the top 100. Cornerback Curtis Riley and right guard Cody Wichmann are possible third-day picks. Rice’s best draft prospect is defensive tackle Christian Covington, but the junior is out for the season after knee surgery. Taylor, Patt, and Callahan are late-round possibilities.
These teams are well-matched; Chase Stuart projects less than a point of difference between the two squads. Fresno State has more NFL-caliber talent, but Rice makes fewer mistakes, averaging just 1.0 turnover per game as opposed to 1.9 for the Bulldogs. Those giveaways will likely make the difference in a close game.
Rice 31, Fresno State 28.
Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkSchofield.