Hawai’i Bowl

    Hawaii Bowl Fresno State (6-7) vs. Rice (7-5) Dec. 24, 8:00, ESPN Here’s The Deal: Beginning the year 0-3 couldn’t keep Fresno State and Rice out of the

    December 18, 2014

    Hawaii Bowl

    Fresno State (6-7) vs. Rice (7-5) Dec. 24, 8:00, ESPN
    Here’s The Deal: Beginning the year 0-3 couldn’t keep Fresno State and Rice out of the postseason, testament to their perseverance and the Costco-sized bowl system.

    The Bulldogs and the Owls, one-time WAC rivals, renew acquaintances in Honolulu, a Christmas Eve miracle of sorts considering how both got out of the gate. Rice was a little slow to build off last season’s Conference USA championship at the start of 2014. Early losses at Notre Dame and Texas A&M made perfect sense, but falling at home to Old Dominion was a disturbing head-scratcher. But the Owls rebounded to reel off six straight wins to achieve bowl-eligibility, and just in the nick of time, too. They’ll be limping into the Hawaii Bowl with two lopsided losses in the last three games, including a 76-31 beatdown at the hands of Louisiana Tech.

    Fresno State, too, has struggled to defend its conference crown, the Mountain West, taking a predicted plunge following the graduation of QB Derek Carr. The Bulldogs did pick up a consolation prize along the way, winning a watered-down West Division, but a second of two losses to Boise State ended any hopes of stockpiling more hardware. For head coach Tim DeRuyter and his players, this will be a surprisingly meaningful game. Not only does Fresno State want to avoid a losing season, but it also has a ton to prove after getting slammed by at least 25 points in each of the last two bowl games with USC and SMU.

    Why Fresno State Might Win: The Bulldogs have better athletes on both sides of the ball. On offense, Fresno State will have the two best skill players in Aloha Stadium, RB Marteze Waller and WR Josh Harper, who’ve each gone over 1,000 yards at their respective positions. Both players will finish their seasons on a positive note, since Rice has so many defensive issues. Harper, in particular, can’t wait to exploit an Owl secondary that’s given up 27 touchdown passes and picked off only seven.

    – Yeah, the Bulldogs have had issues on defense, but the pieces are in place for a one-game turnaround. NG Tyeler Davison and FS Derron Smith are All-Mountain West First Team picks and future pros. And linebackers Donavon Lewis, Kyrie Wilson, Ejiro Ederaine and Karl Mickelsen play with the range to string out the Owl running backs. Fresno State is capable of getting after the pocket, particularly against a suspect Rice O-line.

    – Fresno State QB Brian Burrell has been a turnover dispenser in his debut as the heir to Carr. But he’ll have fewer worries or obstacles to success in the final game of his junior. Rice, in some ways, is an ideal opponent for the developing hurler, because its defense isn’t opportunistic. The Owls have created just 18 turnovers, including seven picks. And when the Bulldogs are protecting the ball, they show hints of the team that won 11 games in 2013.

    Why Rice Might Win: Owl head coach David Bailiff is determined to run the ball with talented sophomores Jowan Davis and Darik Dillard. It remains questionable if Fresno State can put up an adequate fight. The Bulldogs have had problems all year stopping good running teams, giving up 207 yards a game. And when Rice controls the line of scrimmage, it can be a difficult team to beat.

    – Rice has the more complete quarterback in this matchup to go along with its two-headed backfield. Dual-threat Driphus Jackson has played well in his first season as the starter, accounting for 22 touchdowns and almost 3,000 yards. He’s dangerous outside the pocket, and he has a proven big target in Jordan Taylor. Fresno State has been awful against the pass this fall, ranking 123rd nationally in yards per attempt allowed.

    – It’s not all Burrell’s fault. Fresno State has been a swinging gate up front, allowing 36 sacks. The Owls are capable of pouncing on the opportunity with defensive ends Brian Nordstrom and Zach Patt, who’ve collaborated on 28 stops behind the line and 16 sacks. Nordstrom, in particular, can take a game over with his motor and his appetite for the backfield.

    What’s Going To Happen: DeRuyter cannot afford to drop a third straight bowl game. And his kids have been preparing accordingly in practice.

    Fresno State is an average squad. But Rice is a little south of average, with a 45-point loss still looming in the rear view mirror. The Bulldogs boast the better individual talent, and Waller, Harper, Davison and Smith will help spearhead the .500 finish that the entire program is seeking. DeRuyter won’t ask too much of Burrell, leaning instead on Waller to put a dent in a soft and beatable Rice defense.

    Prediction: Fresno State 34 … Rice 30

    Line: Rice -1 o/u: 59


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