Wednesday, December 26

The Holiday Bowl - Hey, It's pre-January, But It's Something Good!

The Holiday Bowl - aka "The Only Bowl Anyone Cares About Before December 31st Unless Their Team Is Involved" - has been one of the more exciting bowls in recent years. They've done a great job hosting the shunted Big 12 or Pac-10 team du jour, most of whom have been too sad at getting hosed that they don't bother to show up for the game. (I'm lookin' at you, 2004 Cal. BCS this.) From the bowl’s perspective it’s great – 05 Oregon, 04 Cal, 03 Texas, 01 Texas, and 00... Texas were all BCS-quality teams who were left out due to some combination of voter bias, upsets in the conference championship game giving the league’s 4th-best team an automatic berth while the #1 and #2 teams had to hope for one at-large, and secret clauses designed to give a cash-lined path to a January bowl to Notre Dame. This year, Arizona State gets the Pac-10 shaft. It could certainly be argued they had a good chance of a BCS bowl, but thanks to the Rose Bowl having its head too far up its ass (again.... and again. It's like we're not even surprised about this anymore), Illinois went BCS bowling instead of Arizona State. And yes, Cotton-bound Missouri is ranked higher than five BCS teams including both Rose Bowl teams, but we'll crucify that decision some more later. Plenty of time for that.

I mean, you'd think that the #2 Pac-10 team would play, y'know, around the 31st at worst, but apparently Tom Hansen has decided it's more fun to stick them in San Diego and hope it's a Saturday night game for high ratings. Someone should buy that guy a calendar or something.

But as we’ve mentioned, the Holiday Bowl has been a graveyard for whiny teams. Only because Mack Brown was forced at gunpoint to finally start Major Applewhite over Chris Simms in the 2001 Holiday Bowl did any of those five left-out teams even win one Holiday Bowl game. The 2007 Holiday Bowl features a pair of top 25 teams – not a good game to sleep on and wonder what might have been.

Arizona State (by Coach Pendley)

So why the hell is this ASU team deserving of a BCS bid, anyway? They took care of business. Sure, they lost to the two best teams they played (Oregon pre-Dixon ACL tear and USC), but they ...y'know, beat the teams they should've. Tell me which other teams did that this year - besides Hawaii, of course. ASU has two major weaknesses, one schedule-based and the other gameplay-based: they don't have any outstanding wins and they have a tendency to sleep through the first quarter. It's not the best situation and the two items are probably related. Maybe if they show up, they have a win over Oregon and we're not having this discussion this early. But no, they get to travel only a short distance and hope that Texas is having a game hangover.

Rudy Carpenter serves as the team leader, averaging just over 250 yards per game with a 23/8 ratio. He’s been consistent all year. Keegan Herring picked up the slack once Ryan Torain was lost for the season, averaging 82.8 yards per game (including getting completely stuffed by USC). The receiving corps is led by Chris McGaha, who’s pulling down a little over 4 catches a game for a smidge over 60 yards, but has yet to see the end zone. (Michael Jones is the leading TD receiver on the team with 8.)

On defense, the Sun Devils sport a pretty solid D, allowing opposing rushers to 3.47 yards a carry (and just over 100 yards a game) and have an even TD/INT ratio (17 each). Not surprisingly, they have a +7 turnover margin on the year and are the resident ball hogs of the Pac-10, clocking in at nearly 34 minutes a game – 2nd in the nation behind Wisconsin.

Keys to Victory:
1: Exploit the corner matchups. Texas has had issues giving up yardage through the air, and while McGaha and Jones aren’t world-beaters, they’re still good enough to get separation. It may fall to Rudy Burgess to force mismatches as the third receiver in order to really exploit Texas’ vulnerable secondary.

2: Average TOP. It’s so nice when a team already is averaging about 8 minutes more with the ball per game than their opponents; I don’t even need to tell them to do anything they’re not already doing. Just do what you already do better than almost everyone in the country and you’ll be okay.

3: Take advantage of McCoy. While Colt McCoy has done a great job this season given what’s happened to his WR corps, he’s only posted a 21/18 ratio, meaning the Arizona St. secondary should be able to get a couple of picks. Any team with a half-decent defense picked McCoy off at least once this year, and he had a couple of abysmal games against Kansas St. and Oklahoma St.

4: 100 yards on the ground. Texas’ rush D is pretty good, but the best rush defenses have shut down the ASU ground game so far this year (both USC and Oregon State obliterated them). Texas only allows about 100 yards a game, so even getting to their average would be a huge plus.

Texas (by Coach Lawrence)

In each of the last 6 seasons, the Texas Longhorns have finished with double-digit victories, and over that span have posted a 5-1 bowl record. Amazingly, five of those bowl games have been decided by 8 points or less – whether the opponent is a lowly 6-6 Iowa team or a 12-0 “best of all-time” USC team. Considering that the lone “comfortable” game was a 15 point victory over not-yet-good LSU in the 2003 Cotton Bowl, it’s likely that this game will be a close and entertaining contest. A victory would give Texas 10 wins for this season and improve that recent bowl record to 6-1.

Texas started the 2007 season with a series of lackluster victories over Arkansas State, TCU, and UCF. Following an embarrassing loss to Kansas State, Texas lost to Oklahoma despite a pretty admirable performance all-around. At 4-2, the season’s outlook appeared bleak, but the Horns caught fire and rolled to a 9-2 record including huge comebacks against Nebraska by turning a 17-3 3rd-quarter deficit into a 28-17 lead and more impressively a comeback from 35-14 against Oklahoma State by winning the 4th quarter 24-0. After a dominant offensive performance against Texas Tech, a 10-2 finish and remote BCS hopes seemed likely, until the Longhorns suffered a major upset at Texas A&M.

Defensively, Texas failed to improve upon a relatively poor 2006. The rush defense has held its own, yielding essentially 3 ypc and 100 ypg overall. However, the passing defense continues to allow 275 ypg and a QB rating just under 130. The big play continues to be the Horns’ Achilles heel, giving up 23 plays of 25+ yards on the season and allowing preposterous QB efficiency ratings in the 1st and 4th quarters as well as 3rd and medium situations.

Offensively, Texas has been devastated by injuries to the offensive line and wide receivers. Limas Sweed has missed half the season to injury, and Billy Pittman has missed a handful of games and been limited in several that he has played in. Jermichael Finley has stepped up to become one of the conference’s top tight three or four ends – and when your conference includes Missouri, that basically means he’s top 10 nationally as well. However, inconsistent WR rosters plus constant shuffling of the offensive line, along with plain ol bad decision-making have turned this into a huge dropoff year for Colt McCoy, whose QB rating fell from 161.1 to 140.3 and TD:INT fell from 29:7 to 21:18 since last season. On the positive side, the Longhorn ground attack returned to elite status, averaging 199.8 ypg as Jamaal Charles personally averages 121.5.

Keys to Victory:

1. Heavy pressure by the defense. ASU is a ball control team (yes, you read that correctly) who has controlled the clock and avoided the unpredictable shootouts of old by running 43 times per game, despite averaging just 3.37 ypc! Texas needs to push that already average number down closer to the 2.9-3.0 range, forcing ASU into obvious passing situations and forcing Rudy Carpenter to beat them with quick thinking when the ball is clearly in his hands.

2. Dedication to Jamaal Charles. Last season, the Longhorns successfully ran an offense led by a freshman QB without relying too heavily on their star senior and junior runningbacks. This year it’s Jamaal’s offense, and he’s got to get it going to take the pressure off of a struggling Colt McCoy. The spread package can stay, but they need more option runs and delayed handoffs to keep ASU’s pressure from bearing down on McCoy and to keep second and third downs as manageable situations.

3. Play big. Despite all their speed at the WR position, Texas seems more effective the greater a role TE Jermichael Finley (basically requires double-team to cover) and RBs Vontrell McGee and Chris Ogbonnaya play. Finley was huge in the Oklahoma game which, despite a loss, was one of UT’s better performances. Of course Charles and McGee carried for 23 and 24 rushes apiece in the offense’s best outing, against Texas Tech.

4. Play smart. Texas has been killed by giving up big plays on defense and throwing dumb interceptions on offense. Stay at home in the secondary. Don’t force a pass that isn’t there. UT is probably more talented than ASU and definitely has more experience in these kind of big games. Let that win the game for you; don’t give up that advantage by giving ASU easy points and momentum.