Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Bowl Appetit

Holiday Bowl
Texas -2.5 Arizona State

The first bowl game of the year to feature two BCS-conference teams may also be one of the best. Arizona State finished as the Pac-10's co-champions in Dennis Erickson's first season. The Sun Devils parlayed 8 home games, an efficient passing offense, some good luck, and a great kicker into a 10-win regular season. The Longhorns finished 9-3, but all three of those losses came in Big 12 play, including two to teams most unbiased football observers and Texas fans would say they shouldn't have lost--Kansas State and Texas A&M. The A&M loss was their second in a row to the Aggies. The Horns also survived some close scrapes with Arkansas State (8 points), Central Florida (3 points), Nebraska (3 points), and Oklahoma State (3 points), so things could have been much worse.

The primary reason for the Sun Devils' success this season was the play of quarterback Rudy Carpenter and the improvement in the pass defense. Carpenter finished the season as the 15th best quarterback in terms of passer efficiency rating. As a team, the Sun Devils averaged 8.2 yards per pass attempt (9th in the nation) and threw only 8 interceptions on the season (15th in the nation). The Sun Devils pass defense finished 15th in the nation in opponent quarterback rating (108.20). Opposing quarterbacks completed only 51.9% of their passes (8th in the nation) and the Sun Devils picked off 17 errant throws (21st in the nation).

While Carpenter did have a fantastic season throwing the football, there was a downside to the Sun Devil passing attack. The Sun Devils allowed 50 sacks on the season (117th in the nation--ahead of only Syracuse and Notre Dame). While the Sun Devils' offensive line should bear the brunt of the responsibility, Carpenter also shares some culpability. Fortunately for the Sun Devils, Texas only finished in the middle of the pack in sacking opposing quarterbacks (60th in the nation at two sacks per game). The Longhorns also finished in the middle of the pack in opposing quarterbacks pass rating (72nd--129.47). The Longhorns main strength on defense was shutting down the run. They allowed just 2.99 yards per rush (11th in the nation) and 99 yards per game (10th in the nation).

The strength of this Texas team rests squarely on the offensive side of the ball. Running back Jamaal Charles gained 1458 yards on the ground while averaging 6.31 yards per rush. After a 5-game midseason lull where he never gained more than 79 yards or carried the ball more than 17 times, Charles broke out in the last 4 games. He gained 736 yards while averaging 8.27 yards per rush and scored 8 of his 16 rushing touchdowns. In particular, two of these performances--his 290 yards against Nebraska and his 180 yards against Oklahoma State--allowed the Horns to pull those games out of the fire. His backfield mate, quarterback Colt McCoy had a solid season, but suffered through a bit of a sophomore slump. After completing 68.2% of his throws with 29 touchdowns and only 7 interceptions as a freshman, McCoy's completion rate dipped slightly to 64.9%, but more importantly so did his touchdowns (21) and his interceptions rose dramatically (18).

Colt McCoy may have a rough go of it against the superb Sun Devil pass defense, but expect Jamaal Charles to pick up the offensive slack. Two keys to the game in the all important special teams category:
1) The Longhorn's punt return coverage. Texas finished 99th in the nation allowing 11.75 yards per return. Remember the Kansas State game? Arizona State was 41st in the nation in punt return average (10.15 yards per return).
2) Freshman kicker Thomas Weber of Arizona State made 22 of his 23 field goal attempts.

Despite that advantage in the special teams department, Arizona State's fantastic season will end on a down note. Their inability to keep Carpenter upright will end up being their downfall in a tight game.

The Pick: Texas will cover the 2.5 point spread.

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