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Temple and Wyoming kick off 2011-12 bowl season

The 2011 bowl season kicks off in the Land of Enchantment as the Temple Owls head west to meet the Wyoming Cowboys in the Gildan New Mexico Bowl at UNM Stadium this weekend.

Last year the Owls finished with eight wins, but nothing to show for their efforts as they were skipped over for a bowl bid. That mistake was not made this year, as Temple, under new leadership reached eight victories once again, but this time the team was recognized for its play.

Steve Addazio took over for Al Golden when he took his show to Miami University, and while Golden was a huge reason for the resurgence of this football program, the squad did not miss a beat under Addazio. Temple, which finished 5-3 in Mid-American Conference play, closed out its regular season with three straight victories. Temple's most notable game however, could be its loss to Penn State, as the Owls had the Nittany Lions on the ropes, but were narrowly defeated, 14-10.

This is the fourth bowl appearance for this program and the second in the last three years. Temple played in the inaugural Sugar Bowl back in 1935 against Tulane. The Owls lost that matchup, but defeated California in the 1979 Garden State Bowl. After a 30-year absence from bowl play the Owls took on UCLA in the 2009 EagleBank Bowl, and it was a tough fight, but one the Owls lost 30-21.

This isn't the first postseason rodeo for the Cowboys. In fact, this is the team's 13th bowl appearance and the program's second trip to the New Mexico Bowl in the last three seasons. Overall Wyoming is 6-6 in bowl games, and the team has won its last two bowl matchups. Wyoming defeated Fresno State in the 2009 version of this bowl and also took down UCLA 24-21 in the 2004 Las Vegas Bowl.

Last year the Cowboys only tallied three victories, and that poor showing makes this year's effort even more impressive, because the team went from three wins to eight in one season, finishing behind only TCU and Boise State in the Mountain West Conference. The eight wins are the most for the program since the team claimed eight decisions back in 1998.

Surprisingly, even though these two programs rest on the opposite ends of the United States this will not be the first matchups between the two schools. Temple opened its 1990 campaign in Laramie against Wyoming, but it was an rough showing for the Owls, as they were defeated 38-23.

The Owls come into New Mexico ranked seventh in the nation, as the team is averaging 256.7 yards per matchup.

The reason for the team's success in that area rests heavily on the legs of Bernard Pierce. Pierce, a three-time First Team All-MAC selection rushed for 1,381 yards and a single-season school record 25 touchdowns on the season, and he even missed a game during the year. However, the ground game does not end with Pierce, because the Owls have a dangerous backup in Matt Brown. Brown spelled Pierce throughout the year, and because of that finished with 867 yards and five touchdowns. Adding more fuel to the fire has been the emergence of quarterback Chris Coyer, who in seven games rushed for 491 yards and three scores.

Coach Addazio understands that this ground game is the bread and butter of the offense, and every time the offense is brought up the coach immediately points out of talent running back duo.

"On offense, everyone knows Bernard Pierce," said coach Addazio. "He's a heck of a RB, and he's had a great year. He's an exciting player to watch. Matt Brown is our other RB, equally exciting to watch."

Clearly the Owls do not have a problem with running the football, but there is one glaring issue for this squad. The problem that has limited this offense throughout the season has been the passing attack. Coach Addazio gave the keys to the offense to Mike Gerardi and Chester Stewart, but neither player could manage a game without committing mistakes. Because of that Coyer was given a chance and with him under center the offense has hit a new gear because not only can Coyer run, but he has not tossed an interception on the year and has tossed five touchdowns. If Coyer can continue to manage the game mistake free and let the backs do most of the work then the Owls should continue to prosper offensively.

Even more impressive than the stable of horses in coach Addazio's stable is the defense, which allowed only 13.8 ppg. There are only two teams that did a better job in that area, and both will be battling for the BCS title in early January (Alabama and LSU).

What usually gets lost in translation at Temple is the play of the defense. Pierce and all his touchdowns and record breaking performance take center stage, while the defense quietly dominates the opposition.

There are plenty of players that deserve credit for this unit's success, but coach Addazio has a few that have performed above and beyond, proving not only to be excellent football players, but excellent leaders.

"On defense, Tahir Whitehead, our senior LB, has had a great season," said coach Addazio. "Morkeith Brown, our DE, Adrian Robinson, our other DE, just to name a few, have had a great, great season and are really playing tremendous football right now."

Whitehead claimed 59 tackles this season and led the squad with 12.0 TFLs on his way to making the MAC's All Second Team squad. Robinson finished behind him with 11 TFLs, and also paced the team with six sacks. Robinson, along with Pierce, has been tabbed as a First Team selection in the conference for three straight seasons.

Temple's offense relies heavily on the run, and the defense makes it a point to shut down the opposing rushing attacks. On the year the team did that quite well, limiting opponents to just 122.6 ypg on 3.6 yards per carry. The defense did surrendered close to 200 yards per game via the pass, but the unit made up for it by posting more interceptions (12) than touchdowns allowed through the air (11). Overall the defense only forced 18 turnovers, but the squad did an excellent job getting to the quarterback, as the defense racked up 32 sacks.

Unlike the Owls, who are one-dimensional offensively, the Cowboys ride into this game with a more balanced attack, which will definitely be needed against Temple's tough defense.

Wyoming does not possess a back as gifted as Pierce, but coach Dave Christensen does have a capable runner in Alvester Alexander. Wyoming, which rumbled for 185.1 yards per game on the ground, was paced by Alvester Alexander, who rushed for 678 yards and six touchdown. However, the ground game received a huge boost from freshman quarterback Brett Smith.

Where these two offenses do appear similar is their respective dependence on one player. Temple puts the offensive burden on Pierce, while Wyoming lays that burden of pressure on Smith, and even though he is a freshman coach Christensen has plenty of respect and confidence for his quarterback.

"He's very mature for a young guy," said Christensen. "He did graduate early and spend spring ball with us. Brett is one of the best competitors I've ever coached. He's very driven and has great leadership skills for a freshman. Our guys rally around him; they follow him and he will be a captain for this bowl game. As a true freshman, he's a great competitor who is never satisfied with his performance."

Smith is definitely a competitor because he racked up 645 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground, while throwing for another 2,495 yards and 18 more scores. Usually young signal callers are prone to make mistakes, but Smith limited his bad decisions to only eight interceptions.

There is not one main target for Smith, but there is a gaggle of oppositions at his disposal. Five different players finished with 30 or more catches on the season, and those players hauled in 16 of the team's 19 touchdown passes on the year.

The biggest disadvantage in this matchup could be on defense for Wyoming. The Cowboys have had a glaring issue all year long and that has been the team's inability to stop the run. Opponents have gashed Wyoming for 230.1 yards per game and have found the end zone 26 times via the run. Pierce and Brown are definitely licking their chops, and if Wyoming has not been able to fix this problem all year, it is unlikely the unit will be able to contain the likes of Pierce and Brown.

Coach Christensen believes there are some teams in the Mountain west that use a similar offensive approach, and he hopes Wyoming's experience against those teams will help the squad in New Mexico.

"They run the ball really well. Colorado State and San Diego State had success running the football," said coach Christensen. "Certainly Utah State had success running the football. We've seen some teams lean on the run and they do a tremendous job. They have a huge offensive line that will be a challenge for our guys to make sure we are gap-sound and don't get washed away.'

Even though the Owls don't usually lean on the pass the Cowboys have also struggled in this area, and if Temple finds success early on the ground it could open up the skies for Coyer. Regardless, the Cowboys have had issues defensively, which is why opponents averaged 27.0 ppg.