Editor’s Note: Matt and Carl collaborate once again for a Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl preview for BYU vs. Tulane. This is part 1. Click here for Carl’s Tulsa preview.
Friday, December 30 at 10:00 am MST on ESPN your Brigham Young University Cougars will take the field for the last time in the 2011 season and face the Golden Hurricane of Tulsa. Both teams are in the top 20 in terms of wins over the past 5 seasons, BYU at 12 and Tulsa at 20, according to Greg Wrubell, and is only one of four match ups this bowl season pitting two teams in that group. The other three are BCS National Championship (LSU/Alabama), Rose Bowl (Oregon/Wisconsin), and the Gator Bowl (OSU/Florida.) Over the past several meetings, these teams have combined for insane numbers, averaging over 900 combined yards of offense and 80 points per contest. Don’t expect a similar production since both teams are averaging far below those numbers.
BYU struggled at the onset of the 2011 season to find an identity. Heaps and Heaps of hype (yes, the pun was intended), a new and exciting offensive coordinator, and the possibility of perhaps the best wide receiver tandem in Cougar history had fans salivating. What happened instead was Jake Heaps struggled, got benched, and ultimately transferred schools and will attend Kansas starting next semester. Brandon Doman found it difficult to manage a game as a play-caller, struggled to find his rhythm as a coordinator, and ultimately benched his star player during a difficult time in which the team couldn’t run the ball after years of incredible success doing so. The tallest (and most-talented) wide receiver set in Cougar history was the lone bright spot of consistency through the whole season.
Defensively, the Cougars were beasts week-in and week-out. Kyle Van Noy made play after play. Jordan Pendleton and Brandon Ogletree dominated at the line of scrimmage and a suspect secondary played better than expected. Except for the Utah game, the defense kept the Cougars in the game each week for the first half of this season.
Then Riley Nelson emerged as a hero at the end of the Utah State game and the rest is history. Doman made his way up to the booth to get a better view of the game. The running game emerged in the unlikely form of Michael Alisa, and the dual-threat option of Riley Nelson kept teams honest and the offense finally showed up and began to match the intensity with which the defense had begun the season.
What should you watch for this week in BYU’s Bowl Game? It isn’t much different than what you’ve come to expect this season.
Nelson will look to pick up where he left his last performance in Hawaii, that is to say, spreading the ball all over the field and staying in the pocket to make plays with his arm. Don’t be fooled; he’ll take off if the lane (or the need) is there. However, with the knowledge that he is the guy this week and next year, he will look to keep himself safe and make plays as a passer, not a runner.
The Running Game
Speaking of running, the running game will need to continue its second-half surge. The running averaged more than 150 yards per game over the last 8 games than over the first 4. Rumor after the second day of on-site practice is that Michael Alisa may sit due to a sprained ankle. If that happens, watch for some more touches by JJ DiLuigi and Bryan Kariya to mix up the outside and inside running aspects of the game.
The defense will continue to dominate and it needs to in order to contain this Tulsa offense. Joe Sampson came in as a nickel back in the defense to replace injured linebacker Jordan Pendleton. The defense has been much tighter in coverage since the switch to the nickel package and BYU will need to continue to be tough again against an offense that averages nearly 250 yards in the air per game. The run defense will get its stops. Ja’Terian Douglas and Trey Watts lead the team in rushing, both with over 800 yards on the ground. Through the air, senior quarterback GJ Kinne is accurate and loves to spread the ball. Sporting a 64% completion percentage and a 147.7 quarterback rating, he’s tossed 25 TDs to 6 different receivers (completions to 14 different receivers) to only 12 INTs.
Keys to Victory
Offense – Tulsa has been very good defensively . . . against the “inferior” opponents, much like BYU. In Tulsa’s four losses this season, they allowed 555 yards per game. BYU will have to open up the playbook and look to move the ball a lot. They will need to hit at least 450 yards of total offense to keep pace with the Tulsa offense. Nelson will need to be crisp in his passes and make the smart choices of when to tuck and run versus just taking a sack or throwing a ball away. There won’t be a lot of room for antics because just as they went well against Hawaii (see Hoffman’s one-handed touchdown grab) they can go just as awry (see three turnovers against TCU.) The offense will need balance and if Alisa does sit this one out, DiLuigi and Kariya will need to step up.
Defense – Stay assignment-sound and don’t get sucked into trickery and deceit. The zone-read option attack will need to be contained. But this is a balanced offense so the passing defense will be just as important. Watch the two-headed beast of Douglas and Watts, but keep in mind that Kinne will also throw the ball all over the field. Forcing turnovers will be the key as the Golden Hurricane have been very good at keeping the turnovers to a minimum in their 8 wins this season.
What to Expect
I fully expect a high-octane, shootout thriller. Both teams will score in the high 20’s to high 30’s. Both teams will amass big time yards, though less than the previous combined average. The key is going to be turnovers. The team that can win the turnover battle will win. But if it’s close, you better hope your Cougars are going to have the last possession. It will be a good one though.