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Just one bowl game remains before Christmas Day. Some music to set the mood:
The Hawaii Bowl began in 2002, two years after the Aloha and Oahu Bowls each closed their doors. The day on which millions unironically celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ and crass commercialism simultaneously used to be uncontested television real estate for Hawaiian bowls. Now, one’s options are the NBA or a fifth viewing of A Christmas Story.
Not to sound ungrateful — the Hawaii Bowl is the perfect lead-in to the holiday, and suitable family dinnertime viewing; at least, in seasons when the game is competitive. Since UCF and Nevada played an instant classic, 49-48 overtime contest in 2005, there has been just one Hawaii Bowl decided by single digits. Boise State made a furious comeback in the ’07 version to fall short 41-38 vs. East Carolina. Otherwise? Hawaii 41 – Arizona State 24; Notre Dame 49 – Hawaii 21; SMU 45 – Nevada 10; Tulsa 62 – Hawaii. How is one supposed to avoid awkward conversation when the ongoing bowl game is a rout? Santa Football, if you’re out there please bring a close, competitive Southern Miss – Nevada game.
Southern Miss could be a Sugar Bowl team. The Golden Eagles finished the regular season 10-2, then went all Grinch by dominating sole non-AQ unbeaten Houston in the Conference-USA Championship. That punched their ticket to Honolulu and sent UH to play Penn State in the TicketCity Bowl. But had USM not lost two baffling league contests to Marshall and UAB by a combined nine points, its players would be trading flower leis for beads in the French Quarter.
Nevertheless, Larry Fedora earned a new head coaching position at North Carolina for guiding USM to a program record 11 wins. Fedora will coach the Golden Eagles one final time on Christmas Eve before setting up shop in Chapel Hill. And who wouldn’t want a final run with this group? USM is a talented, exciting football team that can score points in bunches. Its 38.9 points per game ranked it No. 14 nationally. Quarterback Austin Davis is an unheralded star, whose dual capabilities give Fedora’s spread offensive set an added explosive element.
Davis rushed for 332 yards to supplement his 3331 yards passing. He threw for 28 touchdowns, as many as Nick Foles, Landry Jones, and Ryan Tannehill. He was adept at spreading the wealth, connecting with four different receivers for at least 386 yards, and found seven of his targets for multiple touchdowns. The depth of USM’s receiving corps is a key to the Golden Eagles’ offensive prowess. Take the C-USA Championship, when Tracy Lampley tore apart Houston’s secondary. Lampley finished 2011 the team’s No. 3 overall receiver, but on Dec. 3 certainly played like a No. 1.
The receivers are a microcosm of the offense as a whole: balanced and fast. Running gives defense just as many variations in looks as the passing game — perhaps more. Six Golden Eagles carried the ball for anywhere from 291 to 683 yards. Despite lacking that clear star rusher, USM ranked No. 23 in running yards with 2701. Nevada defensive coordinator Andy Buh’s side was decent against the rush, but at nearly 150 yards surrendered per game, certainly not great. Fedora’s spread could cause the Wolf Pack problems.
The best bet for Nevada is forcing Davis to force passes. The USM quarterback did give up 11 interceptions, and UNR’s secondary features three of the most greedy coverage men in the Bowl Subdivision. Isaiah Frey, Khaled Wooten and Jeremiah Green combined for 12 of the Pack’s 15 total interceptions.
UNR uses a traditional 4-3, the legacy of former defensive coordinator and current Portland State head coach Nigel Burton. Burton turned PSU into a mini-Nevada two seasons ago, but the principles of Burton’s scheme remain in Reno. The Pack has given up an unimpressive 25.2 points per game, but tightened up in the season’s final month. Over the final three games, UNR held its foes to a combined 44 points. That’s the bright side of the final stretch. The down side is that one of those games was a loss to the Pack’s one common opponent with USM, Western Athletic Conference champion Louisiana Tech, and 21 of those points were surrendered in a decisive fourth quarter rally.
Tech played USM in the season opener, and had the Golden Eagles on the ropes until the final minutes. The UNR-La. Tech game was similarly competitive, but with the Bulldogs coming out on top. Transitive properties don’t exist in football — were that the case, Texas Tech would be playing in the Fiesta Bowl based on its defeat of Oklahoma — but the two Hawaii Bowl squads did fare similarly in that each held the Bulldogs below 70 yards rushing.
For USM, the 58 yards yielded in the season opener set a tone for the campaign. The Golden Eagles were among the best defenses against the rush, but needs to be at its best against an offense among the best carrying the ball. UNR head coach Chris Ault innovated the Pistol formation, which is becoming increasingly popular. The Pack isn’t quite as explosive with it this year as last when Colin Kaepernick was at the trigger, but UNR still ranked No. 8 in all college football with 252 yards per game.
Cody Fajardo, Lampford Mark and Mike Ball were all right around 700 yards on the season. Together, they form a formidable three-headed beast for USM to contend with. Stefphon Jefferson adds a fourth dynamic. The Pistol is conducive to ball control, which is Nevada’s key to slowing USM. The Golden Eagles can and will score, but the Pack can dictate tempo and put up some points itself.
That each offense has such explosive capabilities bodes well for a game akin to 2005. Of course, the possibility of a 2010 repeat is equally distinct. Should it go the latter, USM is likely to be the one handing the Christmas Eve beatdown. But after four straight years of misfires from the conference, UNR does have the players and schemes necessary to end the WAC’s affiliation with the bowl game on a high note.