Monday, December 31

The Sun Bowl: Oh, What Might Have Been...

For some reason, I always think the Sun Bowl is less exciting than what it actually is. On the surface, it doesn’t look that fun: pick a slightly disappointing team from the Pac-10 and the Big East, stick ‘em in Arizona, and see what happens. It doesn’t sound like a recipe for success. And yet, it is – as long as you hate defense. It’s seen some wild games, including last year’s 39-38 Oregon State win. Matter of fact, since 1999 only 2 games have had a margin of victory greater than a TD, and the lowest number of points scored in that timeframe was 20.

Of course, this year doesn’t look like it’ll be as much fun … right? After all, it involves an Oregon team that lost its first two starting QBs and went into an offensive shelll down the stretch – they rebounded a bit against Oregon State, but the damage was already done. On the other hand, South Florida has yet to show an actual passing game in its entire history. However, both teams rank among the top 10 in the nation in tackles for loss, meaning we should see a lot of blown-up plays and defensive momentum. If you’re into that sort of thing, this game should be a blast for you – but you may want to look elsewhere if you want offensive showdowns and lots of firepower. This game may disappoint you.

South Florida (by Coach Lawrence)

In just their sixth season of division I-A football, the South Florida Bulls sent notice that they would be back with a mission in 2007, winning their 2006 season finale on the road over then-top 5 West Virginia and dominating the Bowl en route to a 9-4 finish. The 2007 season looked to be an historic one for the school – a two easy victories sandwiching a road upset over Auburn made the Bulls 3-0 going into their showdown with WVU. A pick-six by defensive leader Ben Moffit and a 55 yard TD bomb to freshman addition (and eventual leading receiver) Carlton Mitchell gave the Bulls a quick 14-0 lead, and the rest of the game was merely denying the Mountaineers a comeback bid with their ferocious defense. Two weeks later, the Bulls annihilated UCF and Kevin Smith for a 6-0 start and the nation’s #2 ranking.

Whether the gas ran out or they didn’t know how to deal with success, the Bulls were upset in consecutive road games against Rutgers and Connecticut before the season hit a low point, a home loss to Cincinnati. But the Bulls turned it around to finish the season with three straight conference wins in which they scored an impressive 48 ppg. None of those three teams will be bowling this winter, but hey whatever.

Defense is where it starts for the Bulls, so let’s lookee there. USF has a very active front seven, with senior LB Ben Moffit leading the team emotionally and in solo tackles while finishing second in total tackles (94) and tackles for loss (12). Linebacker Tyrone McKenzie leads the team in tackles, but it’s sophomore lineman George Selvie whose 31.5 tackles for loss are the consistent drive-killers. The defensive backfield may be the strength of the all-around impressive unit, intercepting 23 passes while allowing just 17 TDs and a QB rating just over 102. Trae Williams leads the team with six interceptions and has returned three of those for touchdowns.

Offensively, this is Matt Groethe’s team. While most would categorize him as a dual threat QB, he is in fact a triple threat – throwing, running, and turning the ball over (the threat to his own team). On the one side, he is the team’s leading rusher at just under 70 ypg to compliment 206 ypg passing. On the other, his TD:INT ratio is a mere 13:12, and in that three game losing streak he threw for two scores and seven picks. But if we throw out those three losses as a temporary rut, we see that for the rest of the season he has a healthy 139.7 QB rating and 62.3% completion percentage. So much of how this team does comes down to how this kid plays. Freshman back Mike Ford chips in 58 ypg rushing and four receivers average between 30 and 45 ypg receiving.

Keys to Victory:
1) Matt Groethe must play well. Every passing statistics – TD:INT, QB rating, completion percentage, etc – is like night and day in victory versus defeat. It’s not enough for Groethe merely to not kill his own team; he must provide the bulk of their offense with his arm and his legs. It’s a fine line between playing smart and playing too conservative, and every game the offense asks him to find the right balance. Do it one more time.

2) Force turnovers. In nine wins, USF has forced an outstanding 35 turnovers. That’s four per game; no wonder they’ve won those! Since losing Dennis Dixon, Oregon has averaged 3 turnovers per game, mostly interceptions. One of the NCAA’s elite secondaries will have excellent opportunities to confuse a pair of unseasoned QBs into a few easy TOs. I would say 2 is the magic number here – two or more INTs, and USF is in a good position to win.

3) The focus of the entire front seven must be to stop J-Stew. At least two linebackers, if not all three, should be dedicated to clogging the running lanes while the d-line needs to be filling their gaps more than pressuring the QB. Again, year-long stats are out the window with the Ducks. Against Oregon State (when they lose but scored 31), Stewart had 162 yards rushing on 39 carries. In offensively pedestrian losses to Arizona and UCLA, Stewart totaled 164 yards on 41 carries… and subtracting the three drives Dixon played against UA, that’s only 106 yards on 34 carries. Three games is a small sample to judge from, but it’s reasonable to say that without Dixon in the lineup, UO becomes a team who will lean heavily on their star RB.

Oregon (by Coach Pendley)

What could’ve been had Dennis Dixon stayed healthy. An incredibly promising 8-1 start had really only one warning sign: Dixon was playing hurt. It wasn’t anything terrible, but he was definitely banged up. Most of Oregon’s major hurdles had been cleared, including a victory over Pac-10 title contender USC and a game against Cal decided by – literally – the bounce of a football. Of course, they had already completely destroyed Michigan in their house before conference play even began and ran up 339 yards against eventual 8-game winner Houston. All Oregon had to do was beat Arizona and UCLA – two middling Pac-10 teams – in order to be set up with a final deciding game against Oregon State to make it to the title game.

But …yeah, that Arizona game didn’t exactly go as planned; Dixon tore his ACL and Arizona rode that – along with an excellent first-half D – to a large enough margin to hold off UO, as Brady Leaf couldn’t lead the team back for the win. And then Leaf went down, causing the offense to completely crater against UCLA, no mean feat considering that even Notre Dame was able to ring up points against their D. Closing out the season was a close loss to rival Oregon State, and an 8-1 dream season turned into …well, a Sun Bowl berth.

Once Dixon went down, the team’s success was largely predicated on its defense. They were one of the best teams in the country at both getting to the QB with 35.5 sacks on the season (although I don’t know how they ended up with only half a sack; did an O-lineman fall on him or something?) and at tackles for loss with 112 – over 9 a game. Oregon also has a +5 turnover margin on the season – although it should be noted that margin was at +9 before Dixon went down. Still, the Oregon State game had a couple of good signs to it; Oregon only turned the ball over once compared to 4 times each during the Arizona and UCLA games.

So what can the Ducks do on offense now? Well, they can set up an automatic handoff machine to go to Jonathan Stewart, who’s run for nearly 1,500 yards on the season on just over 21 carries a game. WR Jaison Williams is the team’s leading receiver with 804 yards receiving and 7 TDs. That’s about it, as both QBs who will take snaps in this game are a little ….um, unseasoned.

Keys to Victory:
1: Protect the QB. Whether it’s Justin Roper or Cody Kempf – let’s hope for Oregon’s sake it’s the former – under center, it’ll be critical to Oregon’s success to keep him upright. That’s definitely easier said than done, as South Florida has 29 sacks on the season. Roper should be able to make plays, provided he can stay upright and …

2: Keep USF’s defense from setting up shop in your backfield. That begins with consistently stopping wrecking-crew DL George Selvie, who has 31.5 TFL on the year, and extends to at least LB Ben Moffitt (12 TFL), DL Aaron Harris (9 TFL), and LB Tyrone McKenzie (7 TFL). Winning the game means stopping at least three of those guys, preferably including Selvie in that group. As an extension of this, Stewart will need to be able to make adjustments when needed to avoid big play losses.

3: Set up shop in USF’s backfield. QB Matt Grothe is a legitimate two-way threat, but he’s still a slightly better runner than he is a passer at this point. Mike Ford isn’t great, but South Florida also lets a lot of plays into the backfield (6.75 per game). If USF starts to fear running the ball early then the DBs will be free to cover and make plays.

4: Win the red zone battle. Both USF and Oregon are excellent at avoiding TDs when their opponent gets into the red zone (both at under 50% for the year), but while Oregon has been getting into the end zone 63% of the time, USF is only at 59%. It’s not a huge difference, but one TD traded for a FG could make all the difference.