As the final days of the year wind down, ranked teams begin making their way out of practice and back into the limelight in the pre-New Year's Bowl rush. Despite these bowls happening mid-week, there are a lot of compelling storylines and cross-conference rivalries that will begin being settled on the field for 2008-09. Today's preview looks at three great western bowl games, each with a fine matchup in the 2008 editions.
It would be hard to imagine a much more balanced matchup if you handpicked any team from the Pac-10 and any opponent from the Big XII. Both of these teams finished 9-3, both boast great running backs, and both can fire up the scoreboard lights. This is poised to be a classic high-scoring affair.
While each team looks up to a big dog such as USC, Oklahoma, and Texas, both of these teams have created solid niches for themselves atop everybody else in their respective conferences. A lot of people will take the Big XII team in a mirror match like this because the Big XII was clearly stronger this season. Until the teams take the field and settle it, nobody really knows.
When Oklahoma State has the ball...
The Cowboys have an incredibly balanced offense, striking for 240 yards per game passing and 256 rushing. RB Kendall Hunter led the pass-happy Big XII conference with over 1500 rushing yards this season, but Oregon cannot ignore basher RB Keith Totson. Like all other good Big XII teams, the Cowboys also feature a dynamic passing duo, QB Zac Robinson and WR Dez Bryant.
So the Ducks are tasked with stopping the irresistable force. Oregon was statistically terrible agains the pass, which may open up a national spotlight opportunity for Dez Bryant. Still, the Ducks were better against Oregon State and over the latter half of their schedule. DB Nick Reed is a punisher on the defensive side any may be assigned to shut down the running game, but that will be a tall task.
When Oregon has the ball...
Whereas OSU will bring the option to open up the passing game, Oregon spreads the field and runs with power out of that spread. However, look for Oregon to break out a bunch of power formations against OSU, who played against a lot of spread this season. The strongest features of Oregon's offense are the two running backs, each nearly 1000 yard rushers in 2008: Jeremiah Johnson and LaGerrette Blount.
As bad as the Ducks were against the pass this season, Oregon State was worse. Again, the numbers are likely skewed by playing in the best offensive division in college football, but there's no excuse for how poor these numbers are. Sophomore QB Jeremiah Masoli only started the last month of the season but showed his poise under fire, leading Oregon to a season-ending three game win streak. The Cowboys will be in trouble defensively here.
So many to choose from, but WR Dez Bryant still stands out on the Oklahoma State side. Bryant very well may be a "Devin Hester" type player at the pro level, but Oklahoma State will enjoy and exploit his talents while they remain in Orange and Black. He will almost certainly find the endzone, and should be watche don every single play for the breakout.
Oregon coach Mike Belotti has been in a lot of battles and knows how this one will be decided: by the defenses. Expect a high-scoring affair, but the Oklahoma State defense has something to prove now that they are out of the Big XII. The Cowboys defense makes the difference in this one.
Anybody have that sense that there are too many bowls? While I love the bowl season being stacked with matchups good and bad, others say this game is a perfect example of why there should be fewer bowls because this is a rematch from September. However, Houston was mired in a 1-3 start and Air Force started strong.
The first game had Air Force race out to a four touchdown lead and almost blow it all in the fourth quarter. Air Force gained all of their 380 yards on the ground, a remarkable feat. But that game is in the past, and should have no bearing on the December battle.
When Houston has the ball...
The Cougars have the number one offense in the country, led by an amazing passing game. QB Case Keenum has 43 touchdowns this season and will break 5000 yards in this game for the season. The most surprising thing with his statistics is that his favorite target is a tight end Mark Hafner. Look for RB Tyron Carrier to balance the offensive attack.
Air Force had a fairly strong defense this season, which can be hard to do in the wide-open MWC. The Falcons are respectable against the pass, but they will be tested by the Houston offense who knows quite a bit more about the Falcon defense this time around. The defensive line must get pressure on Keenum to slow the Cougars.
When Air Force has the ball...
The clash of styles will be Houston's prolific passing against the Falcon rushing game, ranked 5th nationally. Air Force brings a corps of runners at you, with seven quality running backs splitting time. The top receiver only has 11 receptions, so there's no doubt where Air Force wants to bring the attack.
The good news for the Falcons is that the Cougar run defense is horrid. Houston has learned to outscore opponents this year, but Air Force will again try to grind the life out of the Cougars with ball control. The split will not be 380 rushing 0 passing this time around, but it will not be far off.
Houston sophomore QB Case Keenum is the man to keep an eye on in this battle. He will be limited in time of possession by the Air Force rushing attack, but he proved in September he can rally four or five quick scores on the Falcon defense if necessary. As Keenum goes, the Cougars will go.
In games with clash of styles on offense, there's something to be said for experience. The Air Force players are not new to their offense like Houston is this season, plus Air Force can hold onto the ball with a controlling rushing offense. If Air Force keeps Houston off the field like the first meeting, they will hold on to a lead again.
Oregon State had a real chance at the Rose Bowl, with one game against Oregon making the difference and sending them here. They are rewarded with a matchup with a team facing a similar situation, as Pittsburgh could be in the Orange Bowl had they beaten Cincinnati.
The headliners in this game are young rushers, as these team feature the 2007 and 2008 freshman rushing leaders. Unlike the Beavers, Pittsburgh comes in on a slight roll.
When Oregon State has the ball...
Freshman RB Jacquizz Rodgers really defined the OSU season, as his slow start in the first two games and the injury holding him out against Oregon led to 3 of the Beavers' 4 losses. Without Rodgers, the Beavers have gone one-dimensional. Their QB Lyle Moevao cannot carry this offense by himself, although he does have a talented target in WR Sammie Stroughter.
The Panthers have a new attitude under Dave Wannstedt, and the results are finally showing on the field. Taking out a painful and embarrassing opener loss to Bowling Green, Pittsburgh is well on the way to capitalizing on the momentum of the huge WVU upset in 2007. A key to this reversion to glory has been a strong and opportunistic defense. If Rodgers does not play, Pittsburgh will likely eat the Beaver offense alive.
When Pittsburgh has the ball...
RB LeSean McCoy held the freshman rushing title last season, and he improved this year to help lead his team to doubling their win total from 2007. Pittsburgh's quarterback Bill Stull has done about as well as Moevao from OSU. Pitt can still be inconsistent on offense, but they are a much more cohesive unit than last year.
Oregon State does not boast a great defense, and they were rolled over for 400 yards rushing by the Oregon Ducks in the finale. With McCoy on a real roll entering this game, the Panther offense will try to continue this trend. Watch for the Beaver defense to make a clutch turnover or two though.
In this game, we'll go with both young running backs, Jacquizz Rodgers and LeSean McCoy. Rodgers would be the pick, but he may be ineffective coming off his injury, in which case McCoy is the star. McCoy will be a pro star someday, so watch his downhill rushing, very similar to a Beanie Wells type back for those who watch national Heisman candidates.
There's no question about it, the deciding factor is whether Rodgers plays and whether he plays well. If he is ineffective, the Pittsburgh defense will be very well prepared to stop the hampered Beaver offense. If Rodgers is present, watch for a fast and close game.