The opening weekend of collegiate bowl action begins with four match-ups, including two brand new games in the Eagle Bank and St. Petersburg Bowls. The first Saturday of games features an interesting mix of teams, with many familiar faces in the post-season scene and a couple of teams that are thrilled to be back after extended absences in Colorado State and Arizona. Especially for both Colorado State and Arizona, these trips are the perfect end to their season as both programs gear up for vast improvement in the future and enjoy the extra practice time heading into the 2009 campaign. The remaining teams are recent participants in the post-season, some entering their game from disappointing seasons in Wake Forest, Fresno State, and South Florida, and the others who are looking to build on their appearance in Navy, Memphis, and Brigham Young. Time for an in-depth look at the first four bowl games to kick off the 34 game post-season schedule.
Eagle Bank | New Mexico | St. Petersburg | Las Vegas
EAGLE BANK BOWL - Wake Forest vs Navy
The first game of the bowl season features a rematch of a contest played on September 27th, a game that was won by Navy by a 24-17 score. In that match-up, Navy forced six Wake Forest turnovers, including four interceptions to help the Midshipmen record the upset of the nationally ranked Deacons. Overall, in this series, Wake Forest holds a 6-3 advantage, with the teams splitting the last two meetings, including a 44-24 Deacon triumph last season. The Eagle Bank Bowl is Navy’s sixth consecutive bowl bid while for Wake Forest this will be their third consecutive trip to the post-season, the first time in school history that Wake has gone to a bowl game for three straight seasons.
Wake Forest enters this game at 7-5 overall and 4-4 in the ACC, good for a third place finish in the ACC Atlantic Division. Wake ended their season on a high note with a 23-10 win over Vanderbilt, ending a two game losing streak while ensuring a third straight winning season. Meanwhile, Navy recorded an 8-4 mark on the season and ended their season on a roll by recording two consecutive shutout victories over Northern Illinois and Army. For Navy, the season was another successful one as the Middies increased their winning streak over Army and Air Force to thirteen games and claimed their sixth consecutive commander-in-chief trophy.
When Wake Forest has the ball...
Wake has struggled on offense this season as the Deacons rank 103rd in the nation in total offense, only generating 300 yards per game. The leader of the Wake offense is quarterback Riley Skinner, who must have a huge game for the Deacons to avoid a second consecutive loss to the Midshipmen. Skinner has not had a great season, throwing for only twelve touchdowns, and after a strong start, he only found the end zone five times in the final seven games.
When the Deacons run the ball, expect to see Brandon Pendergrass and Josh Adams receive an equal number of carries as the two have done all season long. The running back duo have combined for an 83 yard per game average and they will now be challenged by the Midshipmen’s 31st ranked rush defense, which gives up only 126 yards per game. In these teams first match-up Navy held Wake to 43 yards rushing, forcing Wake to go to the air where critical mistakes cost the Deacons the ball game.
When Navy has the ball...
The story never seems to change when it comes to the Navy offense, as the Middies will run, run, and run some more. Navy ranks first in the nation in rushing offense, generating 298 yards per game on the ground. The leader of the Navy ground game is Shun White, who rumbled for 1,021 yards on the season, and a tremendous 8.7-yard per carry average. Right behind White and the second option in Navy’s 1-2 punch is Eric Kettani, who almost reached the 1,000 yard plateau, ending the season with 932 yards.
Navy will live and die with the run as the Midshipmen made only 86 pass attempts for the entire season. The Wake defense is tough against the run, giving up only 116 yards per game, but in the first meeting, Navy reeled off 292 yards on the ground in a dominant display. Wake must have a big effort out of their Butkus Award winning linebacker Aaron Curry to slow down the potent Navy ground game, a task that few teams have managed to do this entire season.
For Navy, their stars are the running back combination of Shun White and Eric Kettani, who together are the first combination in school history to each have 2,000 career yards rushing in the same backfield. White also ranks second in the nation in yards per carry and is capable of busting a long run every time that he handles the football. For Wake, the stars are on defense highlighted by linebacker Aaron Curry and cornerback Alphonso Smith. Curry led the Deacons with 101 tackles and he will play a key role in trying to contain the option attack of the Naval Academy.
The Navy defense has played great at the end of the season and if the Middies can continue the same level of play, the struggling Wake offense will have trouble moving the ball. As mentioned previously, Navy forced six turnovers in the first contest and the game was still tightly contested and came down to the wire. Wake must reduce their mistakes and rely on the throwing arm of Skinner and his top target in receiver DJ Boldin if the Deacons hope to reverse the outcome of the first meeting.
NEW MEXICO BOWL - Colorado State vs Fresno State
Colorado State heads to New Mexico off a 6-6 campaign and a 4-4 mark in the Mountain West, including two wins back-to-back to end the season to earn bowl eligibility. The Rams make their return to the post-season for the first time since 2005, a season that concluded with a 51-30 loss to Navy in the Poinsettia Bowl. A win in this game will give the Rams their first winning season since 2003, and would cap off a great start for first-year head coach Steve Fairchild.
After a strong start, Fresno faded during the season finally ending their season with a 61-10 loss to Boise State, a defeat that resulted in a 7-5 overall record. Fresno will be looking for a second consecutive bowl win after a 40-28 triumph over Georgia Tech in the 2007 Humanitarian Bowl. Overall, in this series, Colorado State leads 6-5, with the Rams earning the last win, a 35-23 win in 2006 at Fresno.
When Colorado State has the ball...
On offense the Rams are led by their quarterback Billy Farris, who directs a passing offense that generates 248 yards per game in the air. Keep an eye on receivers Rashaun Greer, who leads the team with 62 receptions for 1,045 yards and Dion Morton who reeled in passes for 830 yards setting up a nice 1-2 combination for Farris. Fresno State has struggled in putting pressure on the quarterback so expect Farris to have a good amount of time to survey the field and find his receivers.
When the Rams do go to the ground game, Gartrell Johnson will receive the majority of the carries after a strong season. Johnson eclipsed the 1,000-yard plateau, rushing for 1,191 yards and ten touchdowns, while averaging 99 yards per game. Fresno State has major trouble in defending the run, so Johnson should find real estate and allow the Rams to establish a balanced offensive attack in this game.
When Fresno State has the ball...
The Bulldogs feature a balanced offensive game plan, led by running back Lonyae Miller and quarterback Tom Brandstater. In addition, worthy of keeping an eye on is running back Anthony Harding, who combined with Miller average 122 yards per game on the ground. Brandstater did not have his best season under center, as his interception total more than doubled this season to 11, mistakes that were especially painful in Bulldog losses to Hawaii and Nevada.
On defense for Colorado State, the Rams have struggled all season in slowing the oppositions ground game. CSU gives up 185 yards per game on the ground which ranks 99th in the nation, so expect to see plenty of Miller and Harding out of the Fresno backfield. The Bulldogs would like nothing more than to smash straight ahead with their ground game and to have Brandstater manage a short and controlled passing game.
For Colorado State their best player on offense is running back Gartrell Johnson, and fans should expect to hear his name called a great deal in this game as the Rams attack a struggling Fresno rush defense. When Fresno goes to the air, keep an eye on tight end Bear Pascoe, who ranks second on the team with 37 receptions, but missed time during the season due to injury. Pascoe has 10 career touchdowns and is the schools all-time scorer from the tight end position.
Fresno State has struggled on defense this season, a surprise after what looked to be a stout unit entering the season. Colorado State features nice balance on offense and if the Rams are able to establish Johnson on the ground early, Farris should have a big game in the passing game. Fresno ranks 109th in the nation in turnover margin, mainly due to the defense being unable to force the opposition into critical mistakes, as the Bulldogs secured only twelve takeaways on the season. The Bulldogs must reverse the turnover trend if they have hopes of returning home as New Mexico Bowl champions.
ST. PETERSBURG BOWL - Memphis vs South Florida
South Florida heads to St. Petersburg off a 7-5 regular season, which included a 2-5 record within the Big East Conference as the Bulls fell to sixth place. The inaugural St. Petersburg bowl is the fourth consecutive post-season appearance for the USF program and the Bulls will look for a much better result to end their season after a disappointing 56-21 loss to Oregon in the Sun Bowl ended their 2007 campaign.
Memphis returns to the post-season for a second consecutive year and the Tigers will also be looking for a much improved result after they ended last season with a 44-27 loss to Florida Atlantic in the New Orleans Bowl. The Tigers needed a win over Tulane in the finale to earn their sixth win and become bowl eligible with a 6-6 overall mark and a second place finish in the Conference USA East division. In this series, these teams have split four games between 2001 and 2004, with the last game being a Memphis win, a 31-15 triumph by the Tigers on the road at USF.
When Memphis has the ball...
The Tigers like to keep the ball on the ground behind their star running back Curtis Steele. Curtis finished the season with 1,175 yards on the ground as he paved the way for a Memphis rushing attack that churned out 206 yards per game. Steele was able to run behind one of the strongest offensive lines in Conference USA, led by tackle Brandon Pearce. South Florida counters the Tiger offensive line and running game with the nation’s ninth rated rush defense, highlighted by a punishing and quick defensive line.
When the Tigers decide to go to the air quarterback Arkelon Hall leads the way after throwing for eleven touchdowns in nine games. Hall will be looking for his top target in wide receiver Chris Singleton, who led the team with 50 receptions and five touchdowns. When Hall drops back to pass, he will need to keep an eye out for the Bulls star defensive end George Selvie, who is capable of spending a great deal of his time wreaking havoc in the Tiger backfield.
When South Florida has the ball...
The Bull offense revolves around their quarterback Matt Grothe, who ranks 25th in the nation in total offense at 265 yards per game. Grothe has struggled with interceptions, tossing 14 on the season versus only 15 touchdowns as he single handedly leads the USF offense. Matt’s top target is receiver Jessie Hester, who reeled in 53 catches on the season, but only found the end zone on three occasions.
USF has been unable to establish a running game to assist Grothe in opening up the passing game. Grothe leads the team in rushing yards with 508 yards on the season, but the USF coaches would like nothing more than to see running back Mike Ford take the lead in the ground game to reduce the punishment on Grothe. Memphis is vulnerable against the run, so expect to see both Grothe and Ford receive plenty of work in rushing the ball.
The key player to focus on for the Tigers is Memphis running back Curtis Steele, who should receive plenty of carries as the focal point of the Tiger offense in this game. South Florida quarterback Matt Grothe must have a great game for the USF offense to reach its potential as he goes so go the Bulls. On the defensive side of the football for the Bulls, keep an eye on defensive lineman George Selvie, who when at his best can be an absolute terror for the Memphis offensive line to handle.
For the Tigers to keep pace with USF, Memphis must force Grothe into mistakes, an area where Matt has struggled all season. If Grothe can limit the turnovers, USF has the potential to control this game from the outset with their superior athletic ability. Memphis must try to control the tempo with their ground game and keep the time of possession in their favor if they have hopes of securing the upset.
LAS VEGAS BOWL - BYU vs Arizona
BYU continued its high level of play as the Cougars enter their bowl game off a third consecutive 10-2 regular season. BYU now heads to Las Vegas for a fourth consecutive appearance to meet their fourth different opponent from the Pac-10 conference. The Cougars are looking for a third straight win in the post-season after previous triumphs over Oregon and UCLA, and a win over Arizona would give BYU their longest bowl winning streak in program history.
Arizona completed their regular season at 7-5 overall and 5-4 in the Pac-10, good enough for a fifth place finish in the league. The seven wins earned the Wildcats a return to the post-season for the first time since the 1998 Holiday Bowl, a 23-20 win over Nebraska. These two programs have met 21 times in their history with Arizona owning a slim 11-9-1 advantage, but BYU earned a 20-7 win in the schools last meeting to open the 2007 season.
When BYU has the ball...
The Cougars story on offense remains the same as BYU continues to rely on the aerial game to lead the offensive attack. Under the direction of quarterback Max Hall, BYU ranks seventh in the nation in passing yardage per game, generating 309 yards per contest. Hall himself ranks ninth in the nation in total yardage and has a great set of receivers to work with, led by first team Mountain West performers in receiver Austin Collie and tight end Dennis Pitta.
When BYU does run the ball, they have a talented runner to hand the ball to in Harvey Unga, a second team Mountain West performer. Unga rushed for over 1,000 yards and scored ten touchdowns, and he is more than capable of keeping the Arizona honest and not overplaying the pass. The strength of the Arizona defense is their defensive backfield so they should be able to slow down the BYU passing game. That being said, the Wildcats have struggled against power backs this season, so expect to see plenty of Unga and his 240 pound frame.
When Arizona has the ball...
The leader of the Arizona offense is their quarterback Willie Tuitama, who had a strong season throwing 21 touchdown passes versus only eight interceptions. Assisting Tuitama in having a strong season are two star receivers in Michael Thomas and tight end Rob Gronkowski, who have combined for 113 receptions and 14 touchdowns. BYU is susceptible through the air so expect to see both Thomas and Gronkowski receive plenty of attention in the passing game.
Providing balance to the Wildcat offense is running back Nicolas Grigsby, who ran for 1,066 yards and twelve touchdowns on the season. Assisting Grigsby in the running game is freshman Keola Antolin, who emerged this season as a strong second option in the Wildcat backfield. Expect to see Arizona running a balanced offensive game plan to attack a Cougar defense that struggled over the final six games of the season, giving up 32 or more points in four of those games.
The Cougars feature numerous stars on the offensive side of the ball, led by their quarterback Max Hall and his two top targets in Austin Collie and Dennis Pitta. These three will challenge the Arizona defense all night long in the wide-open BYU offensive game plan. The story is similar for the Wildcats as they feature a top-notch receiver in Michael Thomas and stellar tight end in Rob Gronkowski. The stars in this bowl game are centered on the offensive side of the football, making for an exciting night of action.
With the BYU defense struggling down the stretch, expect Arizona to be able to move the ball, especially with their passing game. The good news for BYU is that the Cougars have the weapons to keep pace with the Arizona offense and to outscore the Wildcats if this game turns into a shoot-out. A huge factor in this game will be motivation, this being BYU’s fourth straight trip to the same bowl while Arizona ended a ten year post-season drought and the Wildcats are fired up about a return to the bowl scene.