Friday, December 22, 2006

Bowl Preview: Pizza, New Mexico, and Armed Forces

Record: 2-0 Bowl: East Carolina versus South Florida

The South Florida Golden Bulls are making their second straight bowl appearance and second in the program’s history. The Bulls are led by their fabulous freshman quarterback Matt Grothe. He is a very accomplished passer for a freshman, completing nearly 64% of his passes while averaging over 8 yards per pass. His touchdown to interception ratio is fairly mediocre (14 touchdowns and 14 interceptions), but Grothe has accounted for 9 scores and over 600 yards in the ground, making him a duel threat. He is actually the Bulls leading rusher to boot. The South Florida running game is not terribly strong, relying on a committee approach consisting primarily of Benjamin Williams and Ricky Ponton who have combined for over 600 yards and a per carry average of just over 3.8.

South Florida’s primary strength is their fast, athletic defense. They held opponents to 3.4 yards per rush, including an impressive finale where they held the vaunted West Virginia attack to just 132 yards and under 3.6 yards per carry. That represented the lowest yardage output and per carry average for West Virginia all season. They also perform very well against the pass limiting opponents to only 10 touchdown throws on the year while grabbing 15 interceptions.

Offensively and defensively South Florida is a formidable squad, but in the third area of football, they are lacking. Their place kicking duo of Delbert Alvarado and Mike Benzer has combined to make just 6 of 14 field goals on the season. Benzer is 2 for 6 and has not played since the 7th game against North Carolina. Alvarado is not much better, but he has hit half his kicks (4 for 8). South Florida is also poor covering punts. They allow 13.9 yards per return (114th in the nation) and have given up two returns for scores. The one thing the Bulls are proficient at on special teams is returning punts themselves. They average 12.9 yards per return (19th in the nation).

East Carolina is making their first bowl appearance since 2001. In just his second season, head coach Skip Holtz has proven he has a little bit of his pops ability to turn around downtrodden programs (the Pirates were 1-11 in 2003). The Pirates don’t do any one thing particularly well, and they are not particularly poor in any area either (except one—more on that later). On offense they average 3.5 yards per rush and have thrown one more touchdown pass (12) than interceptions (11). On defense, they give up 4 yards per carry and have picked off 16 passes and allowed 16 touchdowns through the air.

Can East Carolina take advantage of South Florida’s one glaring weakness—punt return defense? East Carolina is 70th in the country in punt return average (7.9 per return), and have not brought one back for a score. Conversely, the one area where East Carolina is weak (as opposed to average) is punt return defense. They are only slightly better than South Florida (103rd nationally), giving up 11.8 yards per return.

Prediction: East Carolina’s punt return game is nothing special so they should not be able to take advantage of the one weakness South Florida has. South Florida is statistically better in every other area than East Carolina, and obtained this better ranking while playing in a stronger league. South Florida wins rather handily.

New Mexico Bowl: New Mexico versus San Jose State

New Mexico playing in the New Mexico Bowl? Wonders never cease. Unfortunately for Wyoming (a team that finished ahead of New Mexico in the Mountain West and beat them head to head), there is no Wyoming Bowl, so the pokes are home for the holidays.

Los Lobos do not run the ball particularly well (averaging only 3.3 yards per rush), but they do throw La Bamba. The Lobos average 13.48 yards per completion (15th in the nation) and their quarterbacks have completed only 52% of their passes (signs of an offense that throws the ball down the field). The Lobos offense has been led by two men—senior quarterback Chris Nelson and freshman Donovan Porterie. Nelson has played the most (and most recent). He has completed exactly half his passes while throwing 11 touchdowns and 6 interceptions. Porterie is a little more accurate (55% completion percentage) and has thrown 6 touchdowns versus 2 interceptions. Porterie is the likely starter despite missing the last two games with an ankle injury, but who plays the most will likely depend on how well the Lobos offense plays in the first few drives.

Defensively, the Lobos have held their own against the run allowing only 3.5 yards per rush. Stooping the pass has been another story. Opponents have feasted on the Lobos pass defense, completing 60% of their passes while throwing 25 touchdowns and just 14 interceptions. On special teams, the Lobos have a superb kicking game with Kenny Bryd having converted 18 of his 22 attempts on the year. However, like the two teams in the bowl, the Lobos do not cover punts well. They are 106th in the nation giving up nearly 12 yards per return.

The Spartans of San Jose State are making their first bowl appearance since 1990. If not for the plethora of candidates (Jim Grobe, Greg Schiano, and Todd Graham), Dick Tomey would have made a fine choice for coach of the year. In only his second season, the Spartans have won twice as many games as they lost and have more wins over Division IA teams than they have has in the previous three seasons combined. The Spartans win games with their offense and special teams. Their running game averages 4.8 yards per rush and is led by junior Yonus Davis and his nearly 1000 yards. Davis averaged a robust 6.35 yards per carry. The Spartan passing game is also in good hands. Junior Adam Tafralis completes nearly 66% of his passes and has more than doubled up his interceptions (7) with 18 touchdown passes.

Remember New Mexico’s poor punt coverage rating? Well, the Spartans are pretty solid in the return game. They are 36th nationally in punt return average (10.81) and have taken one back to the house on the season. Defensively, San Jose State is solid (opponents averaged 4.1 yards per rush while throwing 17 touchdown passes and 16 interceptions), but hardly spectacular. Besides the punt return matchup, another area to watch is the San Jose State pass rush. The Spartans are 96th n the nation with 17 sacks on the year while New Mexico’s offensive line has been a sieve, giving up 42 sacks (113th in the country).

Prediction: This is pretty much a de facto home game for the Lobos. However, they were only 3-4 in home games in the regular season (including a loss to IAA Portland State). San Jose State was 2-3 on the road, but their losses came to bowl teams Nevada and Hawaii and a BCS school (Washington). New Mexico may be able to curtail the Spartan running game, but Tafralis will dissect their pass defense and the Lobos will still be in search of their first bowl win since 1961.

Armed Forces Bowl: Tulsa versus Utah

Tulsa is certainly happy to be here (especially after consecutive one-win seasons in 2001 and 2002). However, for team than many slated to be Conference USA champs, this season has to be a little disappointing. For starters, the Golden Hurricane were dominated in their one marquee non-conference game, losing by 25 at BYU. Then they had a three-game conference losing streak near the end of the season where they were crushed by Houston on the road, nipped by Rice at home in OT, and fell at Southern Methodist. The Golden Hurricane have three pretty good wins (Navy, Southern Miss, and East Carolina), but after a nine-win season and with a schedule devoid of BCS schools much more was expected.

Tulsa has a very prolific offense. The running game is led by Courtney Tennial. He rushed for nearly 800 yards and averaged 4.8 yards per rush. The quarterback, Paul Smith, was very efficient. He completed nearly 66% of his throws and averaged nearly 8 yards per pass. He ‘only’ threw 15 touchdowns against 8 interceptions, but he also ran for 6 scores and nearly 300 yards. Defensively, Tulsa was good enough. They stop the run better than the pass, but are outstanding in neither area. They allowed 4.2 yards per rush, but were only able to pick off 7 passes while allowing opponents to throw 13 touchdown passes.

Tulsa covers kickoffs very well. Opponents only averaged 15.88 yards per return (5th in the nation). They also make kicks. Jarod Tracy was 11 for 12 on field goal attempts.

Utah is another team that has to be somewhat disappointed in how their season went. Favored to win the Mountain West after destroying Georgia Tech in the Emerald Bowl and with their two toughest conference games at home (BYU and TCU) as well as a home date with Boise State, Utah finished with just 7 wins again. The Utes did beat TCU, but made up for it by losing to Wyoming and New Mexico. They also suffered a heartbreaking loss to rival BYU and were trounced by Boise State.

The Utes offense is pretty good in its own right. They are led by their passing game and more specifically by quarterback Brett Ratliff. The senior is not as accurate as some other quarterbacks (57% completion percentage), but he makes few mistakes (8 interceptions) and has thrown 22 touchdown passes. He’s rather en fuego as well, throwing 12 touchdowns and just 1 pick in his last five games.

The Utes defense is quite good at shutting down the run, allowing just a shade over 3 yards per rush. Against the pass, they are not quite as good, but they have picked off 16 passes while allowing opponents to throw 19 touchdown passes. While Tulsa will likely win the field position battle in the kickoff game, the Utes will surely come out on top in the punting game. Utah is first in the nation in punt coverage allowing only 2.11 yards per return.

Prediction: This should be an entertaining and close game (we need one after the first two bowl games). Utah will make up for their substandard regular season by stopping the Tulsa running game and putting points on the board with their passing attack.

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