Teams: Toledo (9-3, 6-2 Mid-American Conference) vs. Utah State (10-2, 6-0 Western Athletic Conference)
Time: Saturday, Dec. 15, 4:30 ET
Las Vegas Line: Utah State -10; Over/Under 58 points
A grand total of three points decided three of the last six Famous Idaho Potato (formerly Humanitarian) Bowls: Miami over Nevada 21-20 in 2006; Idaho over Bowling Green 43-42 in 2009; and Ohio over Utah state 24-23 last season. You have to like the precedent for jump-starting this bowl season on an exciting note. Like former Idaho coach told viewers at halftime of the ’09 edition, give the Potato Bowl a watch; you’ll love it.
For the fourth straight season, Boise plays host to MACtion vs. WACtion. Utah State returns after coming up on the short end of one of those one-point outcomes. Tyler Tettleton gutted the Aggies last year on a game-winning touchdown with 13 seconds remaining, extending Utah State’s single digit misery — five of the Aggies’ losses in 2011 were by less than 10 points.
That trend continued this season, with USU losing to both Wisconsin and in-state rival BYU by a field goal. One possession in each contest goes differently, and perhaps Utah State is preparing for the Orange Bowl. That nagging feeling aside, the Aggies also finally came out on the right end of such close calls, holding off rallies against Utah and Louisiana Tech.
Toledo is no stranger to narrowly decided games, either. Single digits decided eight of the Rockets’ 12 outcomes this season, including each of UT’s three losses — all of which came by a touchdown-and-extra point. Two of those losses came late in the season to MAC opponents Ball State and Northern Illinois. A win over Akron in the season finale snapped the losing skid, though with defeats in two of its final three, UT is headed to Boise on a much different trajectory than Utah State.
The Aggies are riding a six-game win streak since dropping its contest at BYU on Oct. 5. Included in this stretch are wins over San Jose state and Louisiana Tech, WAC rivals with a combined record of 19-5. The Aggies held both prolific offenses below their season averages; against Louisiana Tech, USU had a half of the most impressive defensive football played anywhere this season when it held the Bulldogs to three points.
At 15.4 points per game yielded, Utah State ranked among the nation’s elite defenses. Only Notre Dame, Alabama, Florida, Florida State, BYU, Rutgers and Boise State were stingier. Such stinginess would seem the logic counter to a potent MAC offense. And while not as explosive as in 2011, when UT was the eighth most prolific scoring team in the nation, the Rockets still put up nearly 33 points a game.
Toledo personified MACtion a season ago when it scored in the 60s twice. This season under first-year head coach Matt Campbell though, the Rockets have pulled back on the fuel and improved defensively. UT allowed 27.3 points per game, the No. 59 ranked average in the FBS, though the Rockets faced four of the nation’s top 47 scoring offenses (Arizona, Ball State, Cincinnati, Northern Illinois) and held all four below their averages.
Utah State’s backfield of quarterback Chuckie Keeton and running back Kerwynn Williams fuel the Aggies’ 34.4 point per game offense. The duo provides a one-two punch both in the rushing and passing game: Williams rushed for 1277 yards on 200 carries, good for an average of 6.4 per carry, which matches the output of such backs as Ka’Deem Carey, Johnathan Franklin and Kenjon Barner.
Keeton is a capable rusher in his own right, accruing nearly 500 yards on the ground to supplement his 3144 yards passing. Keeton’s top target in the pass game is Williams, who is one of four Aggies with five touchdown receptions
Toledo linebacker Dan Molls is key to containing Utah State’s two-pronged rushing attack. Molls leads the nation with 166 tackles. USU’s offense isn’t built on home run plays, rather relying on a more methodical moving of the ball downfield.
On the opposite side of the ball is another of the most prolific running backs from the non-automatic qualifier conferences in Toledo’s David Fluellen. He ranked in the top 10 for rushing yards averaged per game at 132.7. Fluellen also scored 13 touchdowns.
The Aggie linebacker corps is central to this team’s defensive success. Jake Doughty is the leading tackler, and critical to the rush containment efforts of Fluellen. Limiting Fluellen puts the onus on Rocket quarterback Terrance Owens, a capable passer who emerged as the No. 1 option after former head coach Tim Beckman ran a two-quarterback system. Zach Vigil and Bojay Filimoeatu will provide blitzing pressure on Owens.
USU cornerback Will Davis has five interceptions, including the first of Louisiana Tech quarterback Colby Cameron this season. Davis could be matched up with talented Rocket wide receiver Bernard Reedy. Owens has targeted for 82 receptions; the next most utilized Toledo receiver has 54 catches. With pressure coming from the Aggie linebackers, Davis should see opportunities for turnovers in the secondary.