Hawaii Bowl 2014: Preview, Predictions for Fresno State vs. Rice

Jeff BellCorrespondent IDecember 7, 2014

Hawaii Bowl 2014: Preview, Predictions for Fresno State vs. Rice

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    Fresno State RB Marteze Waller
    Fresno State RB Marteze WallerOtto Kitsinger/Associated Press

    Getting to spend the holidays in a tropical locale is a present nobody should scoff at, and the two teams that will receive the gift and meet in the 2014 Hawaii Bowl are Fresno State and Rice.

    It's been an up-and-down season for the Bulldogs, who finished 6-7 after losing the Mountain West Championship Game to Boise State on Saturday, 28-14. The year began with three straight losses to Power Five conference teams, each by at least 32 points.

    But Tim Deruyter's club bounced back with three straight wins to even up the record. After a second three-game losing streak, the Bulldogs rounded out the regular season with three more wins. Perhaps the training staff switched sports drinks back and forth throughout the season, but in any case, Fresno State will have to recreate the formula it employed during each win streak.

    As for Rice, the season began in similar fashion with three straight losses. The first two came in embarrassing fashion to Notre Dame and Texas A&M, but the defeat to Old Dominion at home may be the worst of the trio. However, it was also the catalyst that turned around the season, because following the loss, the Owls reeled off six straight wins, all by double digits.

    The year ended with blowout defeats to Marshall and Louisiana Tech with a win over UTEP sandwiched in between. The Owls' first priority heading into several weeks of additional practice will be to shore up the defense, which gave up over 30 points per game and allowed 72 to the Bulldogs in the season finale.

    Here's what you need to know:

    Date: Wednesday, Dec. 24

    Time: 8 p.m. EST

    Place: Aloha Stadium, Honolulu, HI

    TV: ESPN

Tale of the Tape

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    One thing that stands out in the infographic is how efficient Rice has been with its red-zone opportunities. For Fresno State, the key to winning the game may lie with forcing field goals or getting a timely turnover.

    Both programs are fairly balanced on offense, so the defense that can best stop the run will probably make the opposition more prone to mistakes.

Fresno State Keys to Victory

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    Coach Tim Deruyter
    Coach Tim DeruyterGary Kazanjian/Associated Press

    Hold Rice to fewer than 25 points

    With most teams you can typically pinpoint a number that divides the chances of victory from good to, well, not so good. For Fresno State, that number is 25 points. In each of the Bulldogs' six victories, the team held its opponent to fewer than 25 points. Conversely, Tim Deruyter's squad gave up at least 28 points in all seven defeats.

     

    Establish balance on offense

    In 2013, Fresno State was at its best when Derek Carr could fling the rock around the field, hit big chunk plays in the passing game and keep defenses on their heels largely through the air. In other words, with such a potent passing attack, having balance wasn't critical. This season, the difference between wins and losses often came down to some aspect of the offense not doing its share. In arguably the biggest win of the year, a 40-20 romp at Nevada, Fresno State had 238 yards on the ground and 313 through the air.

     

    Use last year's bowl as motivation

    At the conclusion of 2013, Fresno State was paired up with USC in the postseason, and despite an impressive passing attack and motivation for the opportunity to knock off one of the sport's premier programs, the game was over before halftime. The Trojans poured on the points in a 45-20 victory, and though a victory over Rice isn't going to make any national statements, it would kick off the offseason in style and give the program a nice jolt of confidence moving forward.

Rice Keys to Victory

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    Head Coach David Bailiff
    Head Coach David BailiffHANS PENNINK/Associated Press

    Shake off the loss to Louisiana Tech

    Getting over a loss is something all athletes must do at some point or another, but not all defeats are equal. Against Louisiana Tech, Rice gave up 76 points, including 48 in the second half. Losing that badly can have a cumulative effect, but instead of having to sit with it for eight months, the Owls get a chance to leave it sitting in the record books to collect dust and celebrate a win instead. They'll have to regroup, fix what went wrong and then move beyond the horrible defensive performance.

     

    Win the turnover battle

    Winning the turnover battle is on the first page of keys to victory in college football, but after what we saw from quarterback Driphus Jackson in the loss to the Bulldogs, it's clear that Rice won't be able to pull out a win by putting itself in a hole or setting Fresno State up with good field position. Jackson had three interceptions, two more than he had in any other game in 2014, and the result was a defense on its heels and an offense under pressure early on.

     

    Pass to Taylor, pass to Hull, rinse, repeat

    Playing without star wide receiver Jordan Taylor in the first three games had an obvious effect on Rice's offense, but since returning, the senior pass-catcher has put on a show with 49 grabs for 781 yards and six touchdowns. His job is made easier when fellow senior Mario Hull gives the defense another name to worry about. Hull has 539 yards receiving and seven scores of his own, so getting at least a touchdown or two from this duo will be critical.

Fresno State Players to Watch

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    OLB Donavon Lewis
    OLB Donavon LewisGary Kazanjian/Associated Press

    OLB Donavon Lewis

    Being on a defense that gives up over 32 points per game probably wasn't part of the plan for Fresno State linebacker Donavon Lewis, but with the regular season in the rear-view mirror, he gets one more chance to change the narrative.

    A powerfully built player at 6'2", 250 pounds, Lewis has 55 tackles on the season to go along with six sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss. His presence in sealing the edge is not only important for run defense, but it's imperative that he doesn't let Rice quarterback Driphus Jackson gain extra yards with his legs.

    Lewis has an interception as well, so his impact isn't always felt solely in run defense. In the loss to Boise State, Lewis tallied just three tackles, so he'll have figure out a way to contribute more and inspire others as one of the senior leaders on the team

     

    WR Josh Harper

    It was a bittersweet day when wide receiver Davante Adams declared for the 2014 NFL draft after a season in which he caught 131 passes for over 1,700 yards and 24 touchdowns. Yes, you read those numbers right, and while they may never again be surpassed in school history, senior Josh Harper is doing impressive work of his own.

    As the only returning 1,000-yard receiver on a team that had three, Harper was at the beginning, middle and end of opponents' game plans throughout the season. He's responded with 86 catches for 1,072 yards and seven touchdowns, and again, while that might pale in comparison to what Adams accomplished, it's still a heck of a season.

    Ironically, Harper's two best performances came in losses at UNLV and at Boise State, so spreading the wealth will be important. Nonetheless, he's a big-time weapon and the key cog in the Bulldogs offense.

Rice Players to Watch

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    DE Brian Nordstrom
    DE Brian NordstromUSA TODAY Sports

    DE Brian Nordstrom

    The key to stopping even the best offenses is wreaking havoc along the line of scrimmage, causing confusion in the backfield and stopping plays before they really get started. In that regard, defensive end Brian Nordstrom has been on "expert" mode all season long.

    The junior has just 43 tackles, but a whopping 18.5 came behind the line of scrimmage. He also has 7.5 sacks and a forced fumble. In other words, if there's a big play on defense, it's usually the result of something Nordstrom did.

    Fresno State doesn't have the same vaunted passing attack of a year ago, but it still knows how to chuck the ball around a bit. Nordstrom's impact at and behind the line of scrimmage will have a huge impact on the outcome of this game.

     

    RB Darik Dillard

    Jowan Davis might be the featured back in Rice's offense, but it's Darik Dillard who's found the end zone on 10 occasions and leads the team in yards per carry at a shade under five. Davis is obviously going to be an important part of the game plan, but oftentimes it's those secondary players who have to make the most of their touches who end up having the biggest impact, and that will be the case with Dillard.

    In the Owls' final three games, Dillard received only 23 total carries. But he still scored three touchdowns, so getting him the ball and getting him back on track will be important.

    Some guys seem to have a nose for the end zone, though you certainly don't want to shy away from Davis should he be gaining steady yards. But Dillard is the touchdown-maker in the rushing portion of this offense, and you can count on his presence being felt in Honolulu.

What They're Saying

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Fresno State coach Tim Deruyter, on his name being mentioned with the job opening at Oregon State (via Robert Kuwada, Fresno Bee):

    If you're not being talked about for those kind of jobs, then you probably didn't have a very good year. I'm very, very happy here. We have a tremendous administration and it's always flattering to be connected to those things, but all it says is you're doing a good job and it's a tribute to what our guys have done here.

     

    Rice coach David Bailiff, on his team finding out its bowl destination (via Rice Football Twitter):

    They're (players) excited. They were finding out just like we were. My phone just started blowing up. We're thrilled to be going.

     

Prediction

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    WR Josh Harper
    WR Josh HarperUSA TODAY Sports

    On paper, this looks to be a competitive matchup between evenly matched teams. Both teams score around 30 points per game and give up that same number. Both the Owls and Bulldogs have some real playmakers on offense, but consistency has been an issue.

    This is the type of game that will likely be won on a large momentum swing be it from a turnover or long play on offense. And those turnovers are going to be critical, as this probably isn't going to be a contest played in the 40s or 50s as far as the scoreboard is concerned.

    When two teams are similar, you can sometimes look at experience in big games or against quality opponents, but both programs opened up 2014 with a gauntlet of Power Five contests.

    In the end, Fresno State has faced tougher competition week in and week out, and wide receiver Josh Harper should be the best player on the field. With everything else relatively equal, those are the things you look at as far as what will decide the outcome.

     

    Fresno State 31, Rice 28