College Bowl Season: The MAC Gets Run Over

The first sequence of the college bowl season is in the books after last night. The first eight bowl games ran from December 21 through December 26, and set the tone for the steady all-day action that’s going to dominate five of the next six days. Let’s take a look back on those first eight games and sort out what we learned. And the first lesson is that the MAC’s problems on the postseason stage aren’t anywhere close to going away.

With the rise of schools like Northern Illinois, the MAC’s prominence has grown in recent seasons and they’re playing more competitive football in key non-conference games during the regular season. It isn’t translating into bowl success though, as MAC schools went 0-4, including defeats by its showcase teams in NIU and league champion Bowling Green. Here’s a look at the wreckage, listed in order of significance, rather than chronologically…

college football bowl historyPoinsettia Bowl: Utah State 21 Northern Illinois 14—Utah State has played excellent defense all season long and that made NIU quarterback Jordan Lynch, a finalist for the Heisman Trophy, endure a miserable night in San Diego. Lynch was held to 39 yards rushing on 18 carries and once you take away his ability to run the ball, it’s much easier to keep the passing game confined to underneath routes.

Northern Illinois wasn’t helped by special teams, including a couple missed field goals, and Utah State controlled the tempo on the ground, with Joey Demartino rushing 23 times for 143 yards. What we’re really left to wonder is just how good the Aggies might have been had quarterback Chuckie Keeton not gotten hurt in early October.

Little Caesars Pizza Bowl: Pitt 30 Bowling Green 27—The MAC champ was actually the favorite over a BCS opponent, albeit one with a 6-6 record. Still, it tells you how far the league has advanced in the eyes of Las Vegas, that Bowling Green was favored over a team that just beat Notre Dame in November and knocked off Duke earlier in the year.

Unfortunately for the MAC, the Falcons tough defense couldn’t stop a Pitt running game that never once conjured up memories of Tony Dorsett and the program’s 1976 national championship run. James Connor ran for 229 yards, and while Bowling Green quarterback Matt Johnson played very well for the second straight time at Ford Field (the previous instance being his five-touchdown effort against NIU in the conference championship game), the running game disparity was too much to overcome and the Panthers kicked a field goal with 1:17 left to win it.

Famous Idaho Potato Bowl: San Diego State 49 Buffalo 24—San Diego State committed thirteen penalties and quarterback Quinn Kaehler only completed 15-of-28 passes. Yet this game was a rout all the way, the lead growing to 42-10 at one point and it’s because Aztec running back Adam Muema went crazy, rushing for 229 yards.

Buffalo had a little more success running the ball than their other conference brethren, with Branden Oliver producing 114 yards, but there was no passing to help, and Kaehler’s 15 completions resulted in 211 yards for San Diego State.

Beef O’Brady Bowl: East Carolina 37 Ohio 20—Ohio actually led this game early in the fourth quarter at 20-17. But what did them in was an inability to stop the run. East Carolina’s Vintavious Cooper rolled up 198 yards. Ohio, having to rely more on throwing the ball, was turnover-prone. The Bobcats’ Tyler Tetttleton tossed three interceptions and was only 21-for-40, and the Pirates took the game over in the final quarter.

I trust that the careful reader has distinguished the obvious pattern that’s emerging here. MAC defenses aren’t stopping the run. The top back on each opposing team went for a minimum of 143 yards. When your opponent can play low-risk football and not give up production in the process, it’s going to be tough to beat anyone.

This isn’t to say all these games have been disasters. The Northern Illinois and Bowling Green games were both good. Ohio was a midlevel team playing the second-best team in Conference USA, so hanging until the fourth quarter is nothing to be ashamed of. The MAC is clearly making strides. Just as clearly, there are a few more strides to make before they’re really on a par with even a league like the Mountain West.

Speaking of the Mountain West, they had three other teams, in addition to San Diego State, in action for the early part of the college bowl season. The league is out to a 2-2 start, with Colorado State also winning, while the high-profile programs in Boise State and league champ Fresno lost decisively. Here’s how those broke down…

New Mexico Bowl: Colorado State 48 Washington State 45—This was the first bowl game of the year and it was a stunner in terms of the comeback. Colorado State trailed 35-13 in the second quarter, 45-30 early in the fourth and even down 45-37 with less than three minutes left, they managed to win in regulation.

The running game was an issue here. Washington State, as is their custom, threw the ball all over the lot. Connor Halliday was 37/58 for 410 yards, with six touchdown passes against one interception. But there was literally no ground support, and when you have to keep throwing with a lead you’re asking for a trouble. And Colorado State running back Kapri Bibbs is a whole lot of trouble. He rushed for 169 yards as the Rams steal a shocking win.

Las Vegas Bowl: USC 45 Fresno State 20—There was talk the Trojans might not play hard, with players presumably being upset about Ed Orgeron not being given the head coaching job after saving the season from the Lane Kiffin-induced catastrophe in September. Turns out that was just so much talk.

USC dominated this game in every way you could want, and the most impressive was the play of the pass defense and collaring prolific Fresno passer Derek Carr. The Mountain West MVP was 29/54 and could only throw for 216 yards. By contrast, USC’s relatively mediocre quarterback Cody Kessler was 22/30 for 345 yards, and the Trojan line play gave them an edge in both running the ball and stopping the run.

Fresno’s defensive woes, what ultimately cost them a BCS bowl bid, even as they won the Mountain West, were again in evidence here.

Hawaii Bowl: Oregon State 38 Boise State 23—Chris Peterson wasn’t on the sidelines, having bolted for the Washington job. I don’t think Boise would have won in any case, but they surely would have been more competitive than this. Oregon State led this game 31-6 at halftime and then scored a touchdown early in the third quarter.

I didn’t see any of this game, as it fell on Christmas Eve as we exchanged gifts, but I have to think the relatively even stats in the box score are deceptive and that Boise made the numbers look respectable with their cosmetic points added at the end.

I think the Mountain West showing in these four games has to be considered modestly disappointing. The record of 2-2 is fine—they got the win they had to have with San Diego State, and stole a win from the Pac-12.

But for their two marquee programs to not simply lose, but be completely blown out by second-tier Pac-12 teams tells you the MWC is a ways away from being able to compete with top conferences. And with next year’s four-team playoff, that perception is going to cost potential undefeated teams coming out of this league.

And we conclude with the Battle of New Orleans…

New Orleans Bowl: UL-Lafayette 24 Tulane 21—This was a wild game, as ULL jumped out to a 21-0 lead, Tulane rallied to tie it, and then the Cajuns won it on a fourth quarter field goal.

As San Francisco 49er legend Joe Montana watched his son Nick split quarterback duties for Tulane, the father had to be reminded of the 1983 NFC Championship Game, when his Niners lost a game in Washington with the exact same ebb and flow, right down to the final score. Although San Fran fans would reasonably complain about some shaky pass interference calls at the end of that one.

Back in the world of 2013, this game was about missed opportunities for Tulane. ULL made a game-time decision to play injured quarterback Terrance Broadway, and while I’m sure it was inspirational, it was not necessarily effective. Tulane committed ten penalties and lost the turnover battle 3-2.

TheSportsNotebook’s coverage of the college bowl schedule has focused on the seven games of Friday and Saturday as our next segment. Those games are previewed here, and we’ll be back Sunday to sort them out.