Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Bowl Appetit

Champs Sports Bowl
Boston College -3.5 Michigan State

The Eagles go for their 8th consecutive bowl victory while the Spartans are making only their 4th bowl appearance in the last decade. The Eagles had their sights set on a possible national championship as recently as the first weekend in November and a BCS bowl bid as recently as the first weekend in December. Unfortunately, the Eagles lost 3 of their last 5 games to finish with a still exemplary 10-3 record. Michigan State meanwhile sandwiched a 1-5 midseason lull around a 4-0 start and a 2-0 finish. Both schools are led by a pair of first-year head coaches--Jeff Jagodzinski at BC and Mark Dantonio at Michigan State--who look to cap their inaugural seasons with a bowl win.

As mentioned earlier, Boston College lost 3 of their last 5 after an impressive 8-0 start. The main reason? Turnover margin. In their first 8 games, the Eagles forced 23 turnovers while committing only 12 for a margin of +11. In their last 5 games, the Eagles forced only 5 turnovers while committing 13 for a margin of -8. Ah the fickleness of turnovers. The other aspects of the team, especially the offense, have been remarkable consistent. In their first 8 games, the offense averaged 438 yards per game and 5.6 yards per play. In the last 5 games, the offense has averaged 434 yards per game and 5.7 yards per play. The defense has played a little worse over the last 5 games (355 yards per game and 4.9 yards per play versus 316 yards per game and 4.4 yards per play over the first 8). However, included in those first 8 games, were contests against Notre Dame (119th in yards per game), NC State (97th), Wake Forest (98th), Virginia Tech (99th) and UMASS (non-Division IA). So the defensive stats were probably inflated a bit by the early season competition.

So what can we expect from BC in this game? The Eagles will rush the passer (27th in sacks per game) and protect Matt Ryan (30th in sacks allowed per game). As for Ryan, well he's a tad overrated, finishing only 57th among qualifying quarterbacks in passer rating. One spot above Chase Clement (you don't know he plays for Rice) and one spot below Matthew Stafford (you know he plays for Georgia). The real strength of the BC passing game is that they spread the ball around. 4 players had at least 50 catches (5 had at least 44) and 5 players had at least 500 yards receiving.

And what of the men of Sparta? It appeared not much had changed 10 games into this season. In a season eerily similar to most of John L. Smith's debacles, the Spartans squandered a hot start and stood only 5-5. They rebounded to win their last 2 games (against bowl teams Purdue and Penn State) to finish with 7 wins. All 5 of the Spartans losses were by 7 points or less and they were only 2-5 in one-score games. All the Spartans' losses were to teams that finished bowl-eligible, and with the exception of the loss to Northwestern, all the losses were respectable. The Spartans get things done on the ground. After losing senior quarterback Drew Stanton following the 2006 season, the Spartans decided to pound Javon Ringer early and often in 2007. Ringer responded with 1346 yards while averaging over 6 yards per rush. As a team, the Spartans finished 22nd in the nation in rushing yards per game, averaging 200 per contest. Quarterback Brian Hoyer also played well in hist first season as a starter. Hoyer had fewer touchdowns (28-18) and yards (4258-2594), but he also had fewer interceptions (7-18), a higher completion percentage (61.5%-60.3%), more yards per pass (7.6-7.0) and a higher quarterback rating (138.90-128.52) than the more publicized Ryan. The Spartans did have some trouble protecting the passer, finishing 93rd in the nation in sacks allowed per game. That was the only thing the Spartans did not do well on offense.

Despite allowing all those sacks, the Spartans returned the favor on defense. The Spartans accumulated 3 sacks per game, good for 13th in the nation. They finished 40th in the nation in total defense, allowing 351 yards per game. That is only 20 more yards per game than the Eagles allowed, and the Spartans' schedule was at worst a shade tougher.

One final matchup to watch is the Eagles kickoff coverage against the Spartans kickoff return game. BC allowed only a shade over 17 yards per kickoff return (4th in the nation), while the Spartans averaged over 24 yards per kickoff return (9th in the nation). Interestingly though, the Spartans did not return a kickoff for a touchdown, making them the only team in the top 10 in kickoff returns to not house a kickoff.

Boston College buoyed their early season record and ranking by creating a ton of turnovers and simply not losing while others around them fell. In the last third of the season, those turnovers have dried up and the team has struggled. Michigan State only lost 13 turnovers all season (3rd in the nation), so there is a great chance they will not beat themselves. Look for Michigan State to upset the Eagles and turn their sights toward a bigger bowl game next season.

The Pick: Michigan State will cover the 3.5 point spread.

Texas Bowl
TCU -4 Houston

It's fitting that the eponymous bowl played in Houston, Texas would not only feature two teams from the state of Texas, but also one from the city of Houston. This is one of two bowl games on the NFL Network, so cable subscribers should either visit your friends with satellites, seek refuge at a sports pub, or watch Numb3rs.

TCU began the 2007 with dreams of a Mountain West title, and if things broke right, perhaps a spot in the BCS. The Horned Frogs lost 2 of their first 3 games, and after 10 games stood only 5-5. They did close the season by besting UNLV and San Diego State to finish 7-5 (4-4 in Mountain West play). However, it should be noted that 4 of TCU's 5 losses were by 7 points or fewer (combined 18 points). The lone loss by more than 7 points was at Texas (lost 34-13). Furthermore, 4 of their 5 losses were to bowl teams. Their defeat at Wyoming marked the only time they lost to a team with fewer than 8 regular season wins (5-7 record). On the flip-side of that logic, the Horned Frogs only managed to defeat one team that finished with a winning record. That win was a 37-0 trouncing of New Mexico (finished 8-4 in the regular season). As has long been the case under Gary Patterson, the Frogs won their games with fantastic defense. They finished 13th in the nation with 3 sacks per game, 16th in the nation in yards allowed per game (320 per), and 9th in the nation in opponents' quarterback rating (104.91). They were also very adept at returning punts, ranking 19th in the nation with an average of 12.79 yards per return.

The offense, or lack thereof, was the reason TCU did not live up to preseason expectations. In 2006 senior quarterback Jeff Ballard posted a quarterback rating of 138.11 and helped the Frogs average 408 yards per game (17th in the nation). His replacement(s) sophomore Marcus Jackson and freshman Andy Dalton (who received most of the playing time as the season wore on) only managed a cumulative passer rating of 116.22 and the offense dipped to 388 yards per game (64th in the nation).

The Houston Cougars meanwhile are the mirror image of their Texas brethren. They score points aplenty, but have trouble stopping their opponents. Despite losing quarterback Kevin Kolb to the Philadelphia Eagles, the Cougars kept humming along under Art Briles' offense. Behind the two-headed quarterback monster of Case Keenum and Blake Joseph, they actually averaged a shade over 3 more points per game in 2007 than they did in 2006. Of course, a lot of that is due to senior running back (converted wide receiver) Anthony Alridge. Alridge had only 95 rushes in 2006, but still gained nearly 1000 yards (959) by averaging an unholy 10.09 yards per rush. He was featured more prominently in the offense in 2007, getting 244 rushes. His yards per rush did drop precipitously to a merely outstanding 6.43. Alridge stayed somewhat true to his wide out roots by catching 41 passes for 424 yards and 5 touchdowns. 4 Houston players had at least 40 catches, headlined by senior Donnie Avery who caught 81 passes for 1336 yards and 7 touchdowns.

Defensively, the Cougars finished around the middle of the pack allowing 366 yards per game (49th in the nation). That number belies how poor the Cougars were at stopping the pass. Opposing quarterbacks finished with a cumulative rating of 131.68 (78th in the nation) and averaged 7.5 yards per pass (87th in the nation). The interesting facet about the Cougars pass defense is that they allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete only 50.6% of their passes (4th in the nation), yet they allowed a ton of big plays, permitting 14.76 yards per completion (118th in the nation).

TCU's defense will contain the vaunted Houston attack and their offense will do just enough to pull the game out. Look for the TCU offense to hit some big plays against the Houston secondary.

The Pick: TCU will cover the 4 point spread.

Emerald Bowl
Oregon State -5 Maryland

For some reason this bowl game reminds me of the Chaos Emeralds from the Sega Genesis Sonic games. Hopefully the trophy looks something like the above picture. Both these teams lived charmed lives in 2006. Oregon State went 5-1 in games decided by 7 points or less, including winning their last 3 games by a combined 6 points en route to a 10-4 finish. Maryland meanwhile went 6-1 in games decided by 7 points or less. They had a 5-game winning streak where their total margin of victory was 13 points. Needless to say, both teams looked like they were in for long seasons due to regression and the loss of a pair of senior quarterbacks--Matt Moore for Oregon State and Sam Hollenbach for Maryland. Oregon State began the season 2-3, being outscored by 52 points by D-IA competition in that span. They rallied to win 6 of their last 7, with the lone loss coming at Southern Cal. They held on to the rabbit's foot too, finishing 3-0 in one-score games. On the flip side, Maryland started strong (4-2 with one of the losses to West Virginia), but then lost 4 of 5 to stand at 5-6 heading into the finale at NC State. Their good fortune in close games had eluded them as they were only 2-4 in one-score games. The Terps crushed State on the Pack's homefield winning 37-0 and outgaining the Pack by over 200 yards to finish bowl eligible for the second consecutive season.

The Beavers are led by their defense. Their pass rush is outstanding. They accumulated 41 sacks on the season, finishing 4th in the nation in sacks per game. The majority of those sacks (33 of 41) were by defensive linemen, meaning the Beavers don't have to use fancy blitzes or schemes to get pressure on the quarterback. Led by Victor Butler and Slade Norris (18.5 sacks between them), the front four has become very acquainted with opposing quarterbacks. All that pressure has enabled the secondary to limit opposing quarterbacks to a passer rating of only 115.27 (30th in the nation) and pick off 20 passes (8th in the nation). All those sacks also boost the rush defense ranking, since sacks are counted as lost rushing yards in college. The Beavers allowed an NCAA best 2.13 yards per rush, and were second in the nation in rushing yards allowed per game (75 per). Aiding and abetting the Beaver defense was their kick coverage. They ranked 6th in the nation in opponents' punt return average (4.88 yards per return) and 8th in the nation in opponents' kickoff return average (17.97 yards per return).

As good as their pass defense was, the pass offense was that bad. Neither Sean Canfield nor more recently Lyle Moevao were very efficient. In fact as a team, Oregon State ranks 114th in the nation in quarterback rating (104.03), 107th in yards per pass (5.9 per attempt), 113th in touchdown passes (10), and 111th in interceptions thrown (20). Part of the problem is that fine receiver Sammie Stroughter has not played since the 4th game, but another part is frankly, Canfield and Moevao kinda suck. What little the Beavers do well on offense, is limited to running the football. Yvenson Bernard had a solid, if not outstanding senior season, gaining 1037 yards and averaging 4.38 yards per rush.

Maryland does not do anything particularly well, they rank 88th in total offense (actually worse than Oregon State) and 42nd in total defense, or particularly poorly, except...gulp...give up sacks. Maryland allowed 35 sacks on the year, good (or bad) for 106th in the nation in terms of sacks per game. If your short term memory is fading, getting to the quarterback is Oregon State's biggest strength. Ralph Friedgen has a pretty good track record of coaching in bowl games, winning his last 3 by a combined score of 95-17. The Terps have also shown an ability to beat good teams, knocking off Rutgers in New Jersey, taking care of Boston College at home, and the aforementioned beatdown of NC State. However, they also lost at North Carolina, at Florida State, and at home against Virginia. In a precarious pick give me the Beavers.

The Pick: Oregon State will cover the 5 point spread.

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