The man who resurrected the University of Hawaii's football program over a decade ago is set to return to the South Pacific, as June Jones brings his SMU Mustangs to Aloha Stadium in Honolulu for the 11th annual Hawaii Bowl versus the Fresno State Bulldogs on Christmas Eve.
Jones, who led Hawaii to a 12-1 mark and an appearance in the Sugar Bowl against Georgia following the 2007 campaign before making the move to the mainland and SMU, is very familiar with his particular venue and this specific bowl game. While at UH, Jones guided the team to four Hawaii Bowls, winning three of them, the most recent coming in 2006.
Upon his arrival in Dallas, the head coach watched the Mustangs limp to a 1-11 finish in 2008, but a year later SMU was again above .500 (8-5) and the team's postseason invitation was met with a 45-10 romp over a high-powered Nevada squad. More recently SMU, which finished 6-6 this season and 5-3 in Conference USA action, took part in the BBVA Compass Bowl last year and emerged with a surprising 28-6 victory over Pittsburgh, which means the program is now 6-7-1 all-time in bowl games dating back to the 1925 Dixie Classic in which the team bowed to West Virginia Wesleyan by a final score of 9-7.
While Jones is in his fifth year with the Mustangs, the Bulldogs have been running under the direction of new head coach Tim DeRuyter, who took over for Pat Hill after FSU turned in a dismal 4-9 mark in 2011. DeRuyter took over a squad that, while filled with talent, wasn't operating at peak performance, and was able to put all the pieces together in order for the Bulldogs to record a 9-3 mark and finish an impressive 7-1 in their new conference, the Mountain West.
Since losing to Boise State on the road in the middle of November, Fresno State managed to put together a five-game win streak in order to make DeRuyter the most successful first-year head coach in program history, and just the second man to lead the team to a bowl game in his first season as well. For his efforts, DeRuyter was named the MWC Coach of the Year.
"The Bulldogs are thrilled to be playing in the 2012 Sheraton Hawaii Bowl versus SMU," DeRuyter said. "Having been to an earlier Hawaii Bowl as an assistant coach, I know the players and coaches are in for a fantastic week. We also know the challenge of playing against a June Jones coached SMU team and look forward to competing on Christmas Eve."
Fresno State, which has a record of 12-12 in the postseason, hasn't been so successful in bowl games over the last few years. In fact, the team has dropped three straight and four of the last five appearances after bowing to Northern Illinois in the 2010 Humanitarian Bowl, 40-17. The program has played a postseason bout in this same stadium back in 1993, losing to Colorado by a score of 41-30 in the Aloha Bowl.
In terms of the all-time series between these two programs, FSU has won five of the previous six matchups when both were members of the Western Athletic Conference between 1999-2004. SMU won the first matchup by a score of 24-14 in Dallas, but after that the Bulldogs ruled with five straight victories by an average of 21.2 ppg.
The last game between the schools took place on Oct. 30, 2004, with Fresno State crushing the Mustangs in a 42-0 final.
With Fresno State seeking its first 10-win season since 2001, much of the credit has to go to DeRuyter for managing a very talented squad. However, it should be noted that the Bulldogs also had the top offensive player in the MWC and the best defender in the league as well in quarterback Derek Carr and safety Phillip Thomas, respectively.
Carr, the younger brother of David Carr who was once a standout with the Bulldogs before heading to the NFL, set a new MWC record with three 400-yard passing games in a single season, while his 36 TD passes are the second-most in league history. Carr completed a sensational 68.1 percent of his pass attempts and was intercepted just five times, finishing first in the league and ninth in the country in passing efficiency (160.64).
Also a top-notch performer in his own right, running back Robbie Rouse galloped for 1,468 yards and 12 TDs as he became the school's all-time leading rusher early on in the campaign. Not only did Rouse find holes in the defensive line to burst through when he took the ball from Carr, the back also placed second on the team with 58 receptions which resulted in another 406 yards and two scores.
Add to the list of standout players for the Bulldogs, wide receiver Davante Adams who set Mountain West freshman records with 89 catches for 1,168 yards, and Fresno State became the first school in MWC history to sweep the league awards for the top performers. Adams was also first on the team with 13 receiving TDs.
Thomas was a beast for the Bulldogs on the defensive side of the ball, leading the nation in interceptions with eight, three of which he returned for touchdowns, while also forcing four fumbles and pacing the team in tackles for loss (12) and total tackles (82) as he became the first player in school history to be a unanimous All-America selection.
"It means a lot. I'm very appreciative of all the accolades and notoriety I'm getting right now," Thomas says. "I just appreciate my teammates because they do it for me as well as I do it for them and they deserve the credit. None of the accolades I got - All-America team or anything - has been me by myself."
While the talent for the Mustangs might not be on the same level as Fresno State this season, the team does have running back Zach Line who was named the Conference USA Offensive Player of the Year by the league's coaches. Line has 1,207 yards rushing and 12 touchdowns on the ground this season and has added 32 catches for an additional 231 yards. He has surpassed the 1,000-yard mark three times and is just the second Mustang and the fourth player in C-USA history to reach that plateau in at least three campaigns.
Quarterback Garrett Gilbert might not be a household name outside of Dallas, but he did throw for 226.7 ypg and a total of 14 TDs in 12 games this season. However, he was also guilty of 13 interceptions. His favorite target, Jeremy Johnson, caught 67 balls for 679 yards and three scores, one behind Darius Johnson and Der'Rikk Thompson, the latter catching just 36 passes while also handling kick returns with a 25.7 yards per attempt.
While Fresno State ranked fifth in the country in turnover margin (plus-1.42 per game), the Mustangs also performed rather well in that area with plus-1.0 per game in order to rank first in the conference and 12th nationally. Of particular note, SMU tied for the national lead with six interceptions returned for touchdowns and added three fumble recoveries for scores as well.
Randall Joyner led the team in total tackles (89), collected three interceptions as well as two forced fumbles and a couple of recoveries. However, stealing the headlines on defense was Margus Hunt as he was named First-Team All-C-USA after he placed first on the team with six sacks and three blocked kicks. Hunt is now the NCAA's all-time leader in blocked field goals with 10, and he is also second in career blocked kicks overall with a staggering 17.
"Having been affiliated with this bowl since its inception, I know that it is one of the best bowl experiences in college football," notes coach Jones. "I'm very excited for our players, staff and fans. This is a special experience."