8:30 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Fresno State -1.5, Over/Under: 49
What better place to play a football game on Christmas Eve than Aloha Stadium in Honolulu, where the vastly improved Fresno State Bulldogs will face the Houston Cougars in the Hawaii Bowl. One of the better stories in College Football this year, Fresno State (9-4, 7-2 in Mountain West Conference) has come an awfully long way from the ruins that were the 2016 campaign, in which they went a miserable 1-11, their worst record in school history. Needless to say, Tim DeRuyter lost his job with four games to go, signaling the end of an era that the Bulldogs would like to forget; after going 11-2 in 2013, the Program struggled mightily to recapture it’s initial magic under DeRuyter, going a very disappointing 10-28 over the following three seasons. Fortunately, they absolutely nailed hiring a new Head Coach, with Jeff Tedford working what many would consider a minor miracle in Northern California. Tedford, who many years ago spent his playing career at the University only to later serve as an assistant with the Bulldogs, made his claim to fame at the University of California, where he cultivated a struggling program into one that could compete year in and year out with their more heralded counterparts in the Pac-12, earning an 82-57 record in eleven years in Berkley, a tenure that featured eight Bowls and a pair of 10-Win Seasons. Since being relieved of his duties following the 2012 term, Tedford has been literally all over the map, spending one season as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Offensive Coordinator, followed by a stint as the British Colombia Lions Head Coach in the Canadian Football League, before returning to the college ranks as an Offensive Assistant at Washington last year. Now, with the opportunity to win a tenth game, the venerable Offensive Mastermind has successfully overseen the greatest improvement in terms of wins in the country this season, with a potential 9-win difference on the line tonight. Winners of four straight outings before falling to Boise State in the Mountain West Conference Title Game (17-14), the MWC West Division Champions will be in search of their first victory in a Bowl since 2007, and their first in the Hawaii Bowl, where they met defeat in both 2014 and 2012. Given Tedford’s considerable credentials on the offensive side of the ball, it’s surprising how good the Bulldogs have been defensively, allowing opponents to score just 17.2 Points (9th Overall) on 319.0 Total Yards, including 202.4 Yards against the Pass, and another 116.6 versus the run, where they’ve been particularly staunch, yielding just 3.5 Yards per Carry. Since giving up forty or more points in back to back losses to Alabama and Washington in the first month of the season, they’ve relinquished less than twenty points in seven out of their final outings. This isn’t a unit that forces a lot of Turnovers (Nineteen) or generates a ton of pressure (Thirty Sacks), but has nonetheless enjoyed success on the strength of their discipline and execution of the gameplan. Offensively, it’s been a different story for the Bulldogs, who despite being able to move the ball, have found the it difficult to get into the End Zone with any regulation. This unit clearly remains a work in progress for Tedford and his Staff, who continue to develop Marcus McMaryion (61.1%, 2,384 YDS, 7.9 Y/A, 14 TD, 4 INT), an Oregon State Transfer who took over as the Starting Quarterback midway through the aforementioned loss to the Huskies. McMaryion hasn’t been flashy, but he’s been extremely efficient, throwing Fourteen Touchdowns in comparison to just Four Interceptions, while also factoring into the Rushing Attack (49 CAR, 250 YDS, 2 TD), which has seen no shortage of contributors in 2017. Three different Tailbacks have received Ninety or more Carries thus far, with Jordan Mims (142 CAR, 604 YDS, 6 TD), Josh Hokit (117 CAR, 519 YDS, 7 TD), and Ronnie Rivers (95 CAR, 473 YDS, 5 TD) coming together to propel a Running Game that has accumulated 157.9 Yards on 4.3 Yards per Carry. With that said, Tedford will no doubt be looking for more production from a Backfield that has slowed down over the final quarter of the campaign, averaging below 4.0 Yards per Carry in four out of their final five contests. Perhaps the break will provide them with fresher legs, for they will need them against a particularly nasty Houston Defensive Front.
Meanwhile, Houston (7-4, 5-3 in American Athletic Conference) too had to go through the process of hiring a new Head Coach, though their situation was comparatively different than that of their opponent tonight, for they had to find a way to replace the brief yet largely successful Tom Herman Era, which produced a 13-1 season earning the program national attention. With Herman off to far greener pastures at the University of Texas, the Program decided to keep things in the family by promoting Herman’s Offensive Coordinator Major Applewhite, who after a bit of a rocky midseason slide has the Cougars poised to win four out of their final five games. It was always going to be difficult following Herman, who led the team to shocking victories over the likes of Oklahoma and Louisville a year ago, but Applewhite, who in enjoying his first-ever gig as a Head Coach certainly appears to be up to the task. Earning a 7-4 record given the circumstances that he and the program have endured in 2017 is rather remarkable, with Hurricane Harvey disrupting their quality of life in Southern Texas, while a 3-headed Quarterback Controversy limited their potential offensively throughout the term. And now, the young skipper must replace his Offensive Coordinator Brian Johnson, who has accepted an equivalent position at the University of Florida, and as a result will be handling the Offensive Playcalling responsibilities for tonight’s Hawaii Bowl. While he’s no stranger to calling plays, which he has done quite well in the past, his job has been much easier now that it seems that he’s finally found the right Quarterback in the form of D’Eriq King (69.8%, 991 YDS, 10.3 Y/A, 6 TD, 1 INT), a True Freshman who has turned things around for the Cougars after making his first start in a 52-27 victory over East Carolina. In all honesty, it wouldn’t have been difficult to outdo either Kyle Allen (76.2%, 751 YDS, 7.2 Y/A, 4 TD, 4 INT) or Kyle Postma (66.5%, 1,125 YDS, 6.7 Y/A, 5 TD, 6 INT), who have largely disappointed when given the opportunity this season, with both Quarterbacks proving to be less-than efficient and even more troubling, turnover-prone. Between the two, Allen and Postma had combined for Ten Interceptions in comparison to just Nine Touchdowns, eventually making way for King, a former Wide Receiver earlier in the season, who in many ways has been the Anti-Kyle, if you will; The youngster has proven to be far more efficient with the football, with Six Touchdowns in comparison to one lone Interception, while enjoying far more success when throwing the ball downfield, averaging a stellar 10.3 Yards per Attempt, with his teammates mustering 6.7 and 7.2 respectively. In the last three games alone, he’s registered Touchdown Passes of Sixty-One, Sixty-Two, and Seventy-Five Yards, with a total of Fifteen Passing Plays of Twenty Yards or more, bringing a vertical threat to an attack that had been missing that aspect for the majority of the season. However, where King really makes an impact has been when he’s escaped the Pocket, where he can utilize his superior athleticism and speed, rushing for 341 Yards and Eight Scores on Sixty-three Carries. Arguably his finest performance was in Houston’s 28-24 upset of then Seventeenth-Ranked South Florida, in which the Frosh Sensation completed 12-of-20 Passes for 137 Yards and a Touchdown, while rushing for Eighty-Three Yards and two more scores in what served as his introduction to the world, relieving an ineffective Postma. With his team trailing 21-14 in the Fourth Quarter, King scored both of his Rushing Touchdowns in the latter stages of the final stanza, with a game-winning 20-Yard Rush sealing the upset victory. The change at Quarterback has also resulted in more consistent play from the Defense, who haven’t had the misfortune of defending a short field so much with the more efficient King guiding their teammates on the opposite side of the ball. Houston has allowed an average of 23.0 Points per Game (41st Overall) despite oftentimes getting gashed for 417.5 Total Yards, including a disappointing 268.1 versus the Pass. However, they’ve managed to stiffen in the Red Zone, particularly of late, where opponents have scored just 21.3 Points against them over the final four outings. Even with Herman gone, there is still plenty of talent to be found on this unit, led by Sophomore Defensive Tackle Ed Oliver (69 TKL, 14.5 TFL, 5.5 SK, 3 PD, 2 FF, 1 FR), who earned AAC Defensive Player of the Year honors while doubling up with the Outland Trophy, which is annually awarded to the nation’s Interior Lineman, be it Offense or Defense.