The Hawai'i Bowl features two teams looking to end their 2014 campaigns on a high note after disappointing finishes to the regular season.
Fittingly enough, Fresno State earned bowl eligibility with a victory over Hawaii, but the Bulldogs went on to lose their regular-season finale 28-14 to Boise State. Rice had a tough start to the season, dropping its first three games, but the Owls rebounded nicely, winning seven more games before ending the season with a devastating 76-31 loss to Louisiana Tech.
These teams are very evenly matched heading into the Hawai'i Bowl, as Fresno State averages 28.1 points for and 32.6 points against per game, while Rice averages 28.7 points for and 30.3 points against per contest. So, which team has the upper hand in this postseason showdown? Let's break it down.
Both Rice and Fresno State will need to get their top playmakers involved early and often in an effort to gain the upper hand in this contest. It just so happens that the biggest offensive threat for both of these teams happens to be a wide receiver.
Senior Josh Harper has been fantastic for the Bulldogs this season, racking up 86 receptions for 1,072 yards and seven touchdowns. He's coming off a stellar showing against Boise State in which he reeled in 10 catches for 131 yards, averaging 13.1 yards per reception. Expect quarterback Brian Burrell to look Harper's way often against a Rice defense that ranks 89th in the nation against the pass.
Senior Jordan Taylor has been Rice's go-to guy on the offensive side of the ball this year. He missed the team's first three games and recorded just one reception in its fourth contest, but he's been on fire since. Over the Owls' final eight contests this season, he accumulated 48 receptions for 780 yards and six touchdowns with a long of 88 yards.
Like Harper, Taylor is coming off a huge performance, hauling in 10 passes for 136 yards and a touchdown against Louisiana Tech. Fresno State hasn't been overly stout against the pass this season, ranking 93rd in the nation and allowing 29 touchdowns through the air, so we should see quarterback Driphus Jackson find his favorite target on a regular basis.
The receiver who has the biggest impact on the game will likely reside on the winning team.
There's one big reason for both of these teams' losses to end the regular season—they both committed an excessive amount of turnovers. In Rice's loss to Louisiana Tech, the Owls turned the ball over four times, which included three Jackson interceptions. In Fresno State's loss to Boise State, the Bulldogs racked up three giveaways—all Burrell interceptions.
Both of these quarterbacks must find a way to protect the football and keep from throwing ill-advised passes in the Hawai'i Bowl. This has been an unfortunate trend for both signal-callers this season, and keeping that trend alive could prove to be the undoing for one of these squads.
Jackson may have thrown for 337 yards and four touchdowns against Louisiana Tech, but his three interceptions are a cause for concern. He's only thrown a total of eight picks this year, but five of those have come within the team's last four games. Louisiana Tech does rank first in the nation in takeaways, giving Jackson a bit of leeway here, but if his confidence was shaken, he could continue to struggle.
Burrell has thrown at least one interception in all but one game this season. He's thrown five over his last two contests, including three in the season finale against Boise State. The Broncos have been a ball-hawking team this year, ranking ninth in the nation in takeaways, but ending the season with a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 2-to-5 isn't comforting.
Neither of these teams have been takeaway artists this season, as Fresno State has accumulated 20 takeaways and Rice has 18, but one small mistake by one of these signal-callers could have dire consequences.
When: Wednesday, December 24
Where: Aloha Stadium in Honolulu, Hawaii
Time: 8 p.m. ET
Live Stream: WatchESPN
Betting Info (via Odds Shark):
- Over/Under: 59.5
- Spread: Rice -2.5
Team Injury Reports
|Fresno State Injury Report|
|12/20/14||DE||Maurice Poyadue||Suspension||expected to miss Wednesday vs. Rice|
|12/20/14||LB||Michael Lazarus||Suspension||expected to miss Wednesday vs. Rice|
|12/20/14||WR||Myles Carr||Suspension||expected to miss Wednesday vs. Rice|
|12/20/14||LB||Xavier Ulutu||Suspension||expected to miss Wednesday vs. Rice|
|10/16/14||DL||Tyler Puccio||Knee||out for season|
|09/17/14||RB||Malique Micenheimer||Shoulder||out for season|
|09/14/14||RB||Dontel James||Leg||out indefinitely|
|08/21/14||RB||Kurt Scoby||Concussion||out indefinitely|
|Rice Injury Report|
|12/07/14||WR||Derek Brown||Undisclosed||out indefinitely|
|11/15/14||DT||Christian Covington||Knee||out for season|
|10/24/14||WR||Zach Wright||Leg||out indefinitely|
|10/21/14||TE||Connor Cella||Ankle||out for season|
|09/26/14||DT||Cody Henessee||Shoulder||out indefinitely|
|08/28/14||DL||Stuart Mouchantaf||Knee||out for season|
Injury reports via DonBest.
The 2014 Hawai'i Bowl just may come down to which offense can maintain a higher level of efficiency. Neither defense has exactly been stout this year, so there will be plenty of yards and points up for grabs. The team that comes away with fewer unforced errors and sustains methodical drives will emerge victorious.
Judging by the consistency of both squads throughout the regular season, Rice gets the upper hand here. Fresno State is tied for 100th in the nation in giveaways, accumulating 25 turnovers this season with 19 of those being interceptions. The Owls have been extremely efficient in this department, tied for fifth in the nation with just 12 turnovers on the year.
Both of these teams match up very well across the board on both sides of the ball, but mistakes often lead to losses in high-stakes games, and that's why Rice will come away with the win.
Prediction: Rice 38, Fresno State 31
All team rankings and statistics courtesy of NCAA.com and current as of December 22.