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December 23, 2009
MORE: Bowl schedule/results
HAWAII BOWL: WHO GETS THE EDGE?
Nevada rush offense vs. SMU rush defense: The Wolf Pack set an NCAA record with three 1,000-yard rushers in the same season. At least one Nevada player has rushed for 100 yards in every game. But how much will Vai Taua and Luke Lippincott be missed? Mike Ball likely gets the start at tailback, and he ran for 184 yards against UNLV. SMU LB Chase Kennemer has 126 tackles, but doesn't get enough help. The Mustangs allowed at least 160 rushing yards in seven games and at least 222 in five games.
Nevada pass offense vs. SMU pass defense: QB Colin Kaepernick doesn't throw much, but he can when needed. He passed for 2,849 yards last season and has thrown for 1,875 and 19 touchdowns this season. He hasn't attempted more than 22 passes in any of the past six games. Leading receiver Brandon Wimberly has 46 catches. SMU allows 234.8 passing yards per game. But that's really not too bad in wide-open Conference USA, ranking third in the league. The Mustangs have given up 19 touchdown passes, but also have 16 interceptions. CB Bryan McCann and SS Rock Dennis are the standouts.
SMU rush offense vs. Nevada rush defense: Junior RB Shawnbrey McNeal, a transfer from Miami, has rushed for 1,125 yards and nine touchdowns. But the running game is only a complementary piece to the Mustangs' offense. Nevada ranks among the nation's top 30 in run defense. Five opponents managed fewer than 100 rushing yards against the Wolf Pack. Of course, that may be because opponents opted to throw. We'll give them the benefit of the doubt.
SMU pass offense vs. Nevada pass defense: While at Hawaii, SMU coach June Jones supervised one of the country's most productive passing attacks. He's at it again at SMU. When starting QB Bo Levi Mitchell was lost to injury, backup Kyle Padron stepped in and threw for at least 225 yards in each of his five starts; the Mustangs were 4-1 in those games. Emmanuel Sanders has 91 catches for 1,215 yards and six touchdowns, and he has 278 career receptions. Nevada ranks 119th in pass defense (284.3 ypg). The Wolf Pack have allowed 31 TD passes and have just eight picks. Six opponents threw for at least 300 yards, and six opponents also threw at least three TD passes against Nevada.
Nevada special teams vs. SMU special teams: SMU's Sanders will make opponents hold their breath on punt returns, and McCann is good on kick returns. K Matt Szymanski's accuracy can be shaky, but he has hit from 53 yards. He's a solid punter, too. The Mustangs need to improve their coverage units. Nevada's return teams aren't spectacular, but the Wolf Pack cover kicks well. K Ricky Drake is 5-of-8 on field goals with a long of 40 yards. P Brad Langley averages 40.6 yards.
Nevada coaching staff vs. SMU coaching staff: Jones did an amazing job in building Hawaii into a consistent winner and appears on the way to doing the same thing at SMU. Nevada has been consistently strong under Chris Ault, who already is in the College Football Hall of Fame. Nevada defensive coordinator Nigel Burton accepted the coaching job at FCS member Portland State earlier this month and has left the program. Linebacker coach Ken Wilson will serve as coordinator in the bowl game.
X-factor: SMU may actually have a home-field advantage of sorts. Jones was immensely popular as Hawaii's coach, and the locals may turn out in support of him and his new team. Besides, he has a lot of experience in getting a team to block out all the distractions that come with playing on the islands.
SMU will win if: The Mustangs want to turn the game into a shootout, stay within a touchdown and hope they get the ball last.
Nevada will win if: The running game will be vital. Can the Wolf Pack's rushing attack have the same type of success without Taua and Lippincott? Nevada needs to run effectively to keep the Mustangs' offense off the field.
Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.