There’s no Monday Night Football on Christmas Eve but there is a bowl game stepping in to fill the void. While you’re either preparing for or dreaming of a white Christmas, make sure to check out the Hawaii Bowl for plenty of Aloha spirit and what should be a very entertaining bowl game. June Jones returns to Hawaii for the Hawaii Bowl once again as he leads the SMU Mustangs as they take on the Fresno State Bulldogs.
When to Watch: Monday, December 24, 8:00 PM ET
Where to Watch: Live on ESPN from Aloha Stadium, Honolulu, Hawaii
What to Watch for…
When SMU has the ball: You might remember SMU starting quarterback Garrett Gilbert who played in the 2009 National Championship game after Texas starter Colt McCoy was injured. Gilbert transferred from Texas to SMU and struggled this season completing just 53% of his passes for 2,720 yards and 14 TDs. Gilbert also threw 13 picks but none in his last five games. The strength of his game this year has actually been his running game as he’s scored seven rushing touchdowns and is the second-leading rusher on the team. SMU’s leading rusher with over 1,200 yards is Zach Line who could even or break Eric Dickerson’s school record for career touchdowns in this bowl game. Line has been over 1,000 yards in each of the past three years and the Mustangs will try to utilize him to keep the ball out of the hands of a potent Fresno State offense.
The Fresno State defense has been susceptible to ground attacks this year ranking 75th in the nation in rushing defense. Their overall defense though has been solid ranking 19th in total defense and thriving on the big play with 33 sacks (15th in the nation) and 33 forced turnovers, more than anyone but Kent State and Oregon. As a team they have 20 interceptions led by Senior DB Phillip Thomas who led the nation with eight picks. If Fresno State can get the lead and force the Mustangs to take to the air, things could get lopsided quickly against this Bulldogs defense that feasts on turnovers.
When Fresno State has the ball: The Bulldogs offense ranked in the top 15 in the nation in points scored, total yards, and passing yards behind a great year from second-year starter Derek Carr. Carr may follow his older brother David into the NFL, but has announced he plans to return for his Senior year next season. Whenever he enters the draft, he’ll draw interest after back-to-back 3,500 yard seasons. He threw for an incredibly 36 touchdowns this year while throwing just five interceptions. His main target has been fabulous Freshman Davante Adams who has 13 touchdowns and 1,168 yards receiving on the season.
Before you start thinking that the Bulldogs offense is pass-only though, don’t forget about Robbie Rouse. Rouse is coming off his third 1,000 yard season in a row and was a first-team all-conference selection. He’s been more involved in the passing game as well with 406 more yards on 58 catches. Rouse is just 5-7 but has proven to be as durable as he is dynamic over a stellar career for the Bulldogs.
All this potency on offense is bad news for the Mustangs defense who have allowed 40 points or more four times this season. They do rank in the top 25 in total defense but 57th in scoring defense. The defense came up large in their season finale with a late stop at the one-yard line to deny C-USA champion Tulsa a game-tying touchdown and make SMU bowl eligible.
Who to Watch for (NFL Prospects)
There’s two prospects from Fresno State Phillip Thomas at free safety and Robbie Rouse at running back. Thomas will probably be the highest player in this game drafted and could sneak into the late first-round as one of the better free safeties along with Texas Longhorns Kenny Vaccaro. Eric Reid will lead the position if he comes out early from LSU, but if Thomas grades well and Reid returns to school don’t be surprised if Thomas ends up in the first round. Rouse, on the other hand, will be a nice value pick late in the draaft and could fit in nicely as a third-down back with some change of pace abilities as part of a rotation with a bruiser.
SMU has four players who could potentially go in the later rounds of the draft: Margus Hunt at defensive end, Zach Line as a full back or running back, Darius Johnson at wide receifver, and Ja’Gared Davis at outside linebacker. Hunt is a big lineman who leads the Mustangs with six sacks and broke the NCAA record for most career blocked kicks getting his total to 10 this season. Hunt will probably go in the third or fourth round defending on how he grades at the combine. Line needs to work on pass protection but is a solid, between-the-tackles power back. Davis is a big playmaker who finished with two interceptions, three forced fumbles, and recovered two fumbles. He dominated in the win over Tulsa when he forced and recovered a fumble and had an interception. Johnson could also end up in the NFL as a late-round pick or an UDFA due to his speed from his slot position.
In what should be an entertaining high-scoring game, I don’t think June Jones return to Hawaii will end happily for the former Warriors’ coach. SMU is overmatched by a talented Fresno State offense and the playmakers on the Bulldogs defense will harass Garrett Gilbert into turnovers as they run away with the game.
The spread right now is an amazingly high 12 points which would be tough to give to an SMU team that can score. Fresno is the straight-up pick to be sure, and I’d take them to cover but not with much confidence.