8:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Rice -2.5
Twas the night before Christmas, and out in Hawaii, College Football was played, so we can all be jolly… Alright, we’ll admit that was a shameless butchering of a classic, but tonight out in Honolulu the Hawaii Bowl pits the Fresno State Bulldogs and Rice Owls against each other on Christmas Eve. Indeed, Fresno State (6-7, 5-4 in Mountain West) is no stranger to the island, for tonight’s contest marks the second time in the last three years in which they have participated in the Hawaii Bowl. For Tim DeRuyter and his charges, this is their third consecutive Bowl Game under the third-year skipper, in what many viewed as a down year for the program. Last season, the Bulldogs went 11-2 on their way towards a Mountain West Championship, before getting trounced by USC to the tune of 45-20 in the Las Vegas Bowl. With Derek Carr and DaVante Adams both flourishing in the NFL, the team very nearly missed out on the opportunity to accept a postseason bid altogether. DeRuyter saw his team begin the season on a three-game losing streak, mostly due to the insane strength of their schedule; the young team was pasted by the likes of Nebraska (55-19), Utah (59-27), and those same Trojans (52-13), which could have been enough to shatter the confidence of any team. However, they proved their resilience with a three-game winning streak to climb back to .500, before dropping another three straight to begin the final month of the campaign. One final three-game win streak vaulted them into the realm of Bowl Eligibility, with their last effort falling short in a 28-14 defeat at Boise State in the MWC Championship Game. After getting beat in their previous trip to Boise, Idaho on October 17th (37-27), it was deja vu all over again; the visitors fell behind early, trailing 14-0 after the First Quarter, before falling into an inescapable 28-0 hole midway through the third stanza. For just the second time all season, the Bulldogs were held below 100 yards rushing, but mistakes ultimately did them despite besting the Broncos by 99 yards; without the running game to lean on, Quarterback Brian Burrell was picked off three times on the night, one of which was returned for a touchdown towards the end of the first period.
And that has pretty much been the theme of the year for this team: growing pains. Replacing Carr was not going to be an easy task by any means, and Burrell has experienced his fair share of ups and downs. As many football teams tend to do in this age, they go as far as their Quarterback takes them; I.E. when he struggles, then inevitably so does the team in general. How else can one explain the nature of this team posting a pair of three-game losing streaks and as many three-game winning streaks in one term? The Redshirt Junior completed 58.7% of his passes for 2,576 yards (6.3 yards/attempt), twenty-two touchdowns and sixteen interceptions, and also managed to rush for 328 yards and three more scores on 101 carries. It was a trial by fire early on for Burrell, who in the three losses to start the campaign, completed 51.2% of his attempts for an average of 146.3 yards, with three touchdowns to one interception. He would begin to show improvement though, and it became readily apparent just how integral he was to their success; in the Bulldogs’ six victories, Burrell completed 61.8% of his attempts for 212.3 yards per game, thirteen touchdowns and seven interceptions, but in their seven losses was relegated to just 56.1% passing for 186.0 yards per game, nine touchdowns and nine interceptions. Now, like every Quarterback, he plays better when he has support, which will be the key tonight. Simply put, Fresno State must establish the running game tonight. On the season, DeRuyter’s charges rushed for an average of 183.9 yards per game on 4.6 yards per carry, and in their wins this year churned out 245.7 yards on 5.2 yards per attempt. Junior Tailback Marteze Waller should be featured often and early, provided he is healthy enough after sustaining a shoulder injury in the loss at Boise State. Waller rushed for a team-high 1,292 yards and eleven touchdowns, surpassing the 100-yard threshold in seven of nine games before facing the Broncos. Of course, a healthy Waller will spell the defense, which is definitely in need of a spell; Fresno State has been terrible this season on defense, allowing 30.3 points on 455.5 yards per game, including 248.5 yards versus the pass and another 206.9 yards against the rush. Despite a healthy pass-rush (29.0 sacks), opposing Quarterbacks have had their way against them, completing 60.2% of their passes, while DeRuyter’s kids have only been able to parlay that pressure into twenty turnovers, only nine of which have been interceptions. Four times this season they have relinquished at least three passing scores in a contest, including a ridiculous fourteen in the first three games alone. And it hasn’t been much better against the run, where the Bulldogs have been gashed for a minimum of 200 yards on seven occasions, marred by a whopping 374 yards in a 45-17 defeat at home to Wyoming.
Meanwhile, Rice (7-5, 5-3 in Conference USA) will also be making their third consecutive trip to a Bowl Game, with David Bailiff finally turning this flailing program around. After a surprise 10-3 campaign back in 2008 culminating in a 38-14 victory over Western Michigan in the Texas Bowl, the Owls would go on to struggle towards a 10-26 record from 2009 to 2011. Last season, a 10-4 record en route to a Conference USA Championship earned Bailiff Conference Coach of the Year honors, and this season they followed that up with a second-place finish in the Western Division. Like their opponent tonight, Rice began the term on a three-game losing streak, but was able to rebound rather quickly, putting together a stretch in which they won seven out of eight before getting blasted in a 76-31 (yes, you read that correctly) demolition at eventual West Division Champion Louisiana Tech. Also like Fresno, their early slate was rather daunting; trips to both Notre Dame (48-17) and Texas A&M (38-10) turned out as expected, even though their Home Opening loss to Old Dominion was a bit worrying (45-42). Again in the mold of their counterparts in the Hawaii Bowl, the maturation of young Quarterback served as the theme for this group; Driphus Jackson really came of age as the season progressed in this, his first season as the starter under Center. The Junior only threw sixteen passes as a Sophomore in 2013, but took control the reigns from Taylor McHarque, who graduated in the Spring.
Jackson didn’t look overwhelmed in the early part of the schedule, particularly against the likes of the Irish and Aggies, completing 60.7% of his attempts for 187.5 yards, two touchdowns and an interception, while finding success as a rusher with a total of 145 yards on twenty-four carries. Even in the debacle at Louisiana Tech, he still played relatively well, completing 25-of-40 passes (62.5%) for a career-high 337 yards, four touchdowns yet three interceptions. The turnovers were troublesome, particularly given that the team as a whole had committed just a dozen all year, but it does leave one to wonder where exactly the Owls would have been without him that day. On the year, Jackson connected on a solid 57.3% of his attempts for 2,524 yards (8.2 yards/attempt), twenty-one touchdowns and just eight interceptions, while also picking another 360 yards and a score on 108 carries. Bailiff’s charges aren’t the most effective rushing attack, averaging just 3.8 yards per attempt, but they do remain committed, rushing 44.3 times per game. While Jackson has been a sizable contributor to running game, Tailbacks Jawon Davis and Darik Dillard have served as the featured rushers out of the Backfield. Both ‘Backs are on the compact side, with Davis providing the smash to Dillard’s dash; the former has received the brunt of the carries (232) for a team-best 910 yards (3.9) and six touchdowns, while the latter has been far more explosive with 651 yards (4.9) on a hundred fewer carries and a total of eleven scores. However, these guys will need to be effective against Fresno State’s porous run defense, for if their own defense has to remain on the field for too long, then they could be in for a long night before Christmas. Rice allowed 28.0 points on 396.8 yards per game, including 245.1 yards versus the pass, and another 151.8 yards against the rush. Opponents have netted 4.4 yards per carry against their Defensive Front, and have yielded over 100 rushing yards on nine occasions, including a quartet of 200-yard debacles. And recent events do not have them trending in a positive direction; with the exception of allowing just 53 yards against Texas El-Paso, the Owls have been gashed for 284 and 259 yards at Marshall and Louisiana Tech over the final three weeks of the campaign. Furthermore, they have given up 220.4 rushing yards in their five losses, and 199.1 away from home, where they were just 3-4 this season. If they could find a way to stymie Waller and Co. then the pass-rush could really wreck havoc; Bailiff’s defense has racked up a stellar 37.0 sacks thus far, but has seen that pressure translate into a mere seven interceptions, and eighteen turnovers total. Rushers Brian Nordstrom and Zach Patt have accounted for seventeen sacks themselves, while four other players have logged at least three sacks. Again, they must find a way to keep the Bulldogs in long down and distance, so that they can rush Burrell, who has taken his fair share of punishment.