Miami, FL (SportsNetwork.com) - The BYU Cougars will meet with the American Athletic Conference champion Memphis Tigers in the inaugural Miami Beach Bowl on Monday, Dec. 22, in a showdown at Marlins Park.
BYU, which finished the regular season at 8-4 and on a four-game win streak, will participate in its 10th consecutive postseason bowl game, and owns a 6-3 record in that time frame. BYU took down California, 42-35, in the team's regular-season finale.
Memphis, which won a share of the AAC title this year, also enters the clash on a win streak. The Tigers have won six in a row, including a 41-10 thrashing of UConn in the team's regular-season finale. Memphis will be playing in its seventh bowl game all time, but the first since the 2008 St. Petersburg Bowl.
This contest between the Cougars and the Tigers will mark the first-ever meeting between the programs on the football field.
BYU suffered some crucial mid-season injuries that appeared to set the team back, but the Cougars recovered. Most notably was the injury to quarterback Taysom Hill, who went down in October with a leg injury. Hill had his name mentioned with the Heisman hopefuls at that point, but Christian Stewart came in and did a phenomenal job replacing the talented Hill. Stewart threw for 2,273 yards and 22 touchdowns against only six interceptions in relief of Hill, adding in a 58.7 completion percentage.
Perhaps not quite as notable but still equally as devastating a loss was to Jamaal Williams at running back. He suffered a knee injury early in November that sidelined him for the season. Williams rushed for 518 yards - a team high - but Paul Lasike picked up some of the slack with five rushing scores in 12 games played. BYU averaged 190.5 rushing ypg and 36.2 ppg, but plenty of that production came from Hill and Williams.
Huge 6-foot-6 receiver Mitch Mathews has provided Stewart with a fantastic outlet option in the passing game. The receiver has caught 64 passes for a team-best 840 yards and eight touchdowns this season, averaging 70.0 ypg receiving. Jordan Leslie (five touchdown receptions), Mitch Juergens (three receiving scores) and Lasike out of the backfield have provided Stewart enough of a security blanket to be successful.
While BYU's offense has been strong following some key injures, the team's defense has just been consistent all season long. The Cougars are allowing opponents to score 25.2 ppg and gain just 384.2 offensive ypg this season, with a special focus on stopping the run (117.5 opponent rushing ypg). But a strong scoring prevention defense down the stretch run (35 points allowed to Cal was the most since an Oct. 24 battle with Boise State) helped the Cougars along.
Skye Povey leads the team in tackles, though the defensive leader has registered just 69 stops all season long. Still, he has notched two interceptions with four pass breakups to increase his value. In mid December, the team lost safety Craig Bills for the Miami Beach Bowl due to a neck injury. His prowess in the secondary will be missed by the Cougars, but that doesn't diminish the team's fight for a postseason win.
"Our team is excited to be in the postseason for a 10th straight season and looking forward to the challenge of facing Memphis in the Miami Beach Bowl," BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall said. "Memphis had a great regular season, winning a share of the AAC title. They are well coached with a strong defense and a balanced offense. It should be a great matchup in Miami."
With both teams coming off two very strong win streaks, it should be a great matchup. But for BYU to control a strong Tigers team, the Cougars will need to stop Memphis quarterback Paxton Lynch. Lynch has been a dual-threat machine this season for the 9-3 Tigers, throwing for 2,725 yards and 18 touchdowns while adding 10 rushing scores to his resume. Lynch is the leader of a Memphis offense averaging 34.7 ppg and 422.7 offensive ypg.
His contribution to the running game has helped tremendously following the season-ending injury to Doroland Dorceus in September. Lynch's 10 rushing touchdowns is a team high, but Brandon Hayes and his 900 rushing yards and 81.8 ypg average on the ground are both the highs on the team this season. The Tigers have scored a whopping 28 rushing touchdowns in 12 games in 2014.
When it comes to the receiving game, Lynch likes to spread the ball around. Mose Frazier leads the team with 43 receptions and is tied for the lead with three receiving scores. But the team lead in touchdown receptions is shared with Tevin Jones, Alan Cross and Hayes. Even Keiwone Malone is up there with a team-best 480 receiving yards and two scores.
But no one has to look much further than Memphis' strong scoring defense as a reason for the Tigers' success this season. Memphis brings in a 17.1 ppg mark allowed to opponents into the clash, and allows just 125.2 rushing ypg to opponents. In the team's six-game win streak, only Tulsa and USF managed 20 points; the rest of the challengers in the streak couldn't even surpass 13 points against the Tigers.
Tank Jakes has been a beast this season for Memphis, not only leading the team in total tackles (83), but also in tackles for loss (15.5), sacks (six), and forced fumbles (four). In the secondary, Bakari Hollier will be useful against BYU's Stewart, having broken up 10 passes this season. Bobby McCain has intercepted four passes as well, so the two players will try to shut down a potent BYU offensive aerial attack.
"We have a special group of kids who have worked extremely hard for what they have accomplished this year," said Memphis coach Justin Fuente. "They have adhered to the values of selflessness, teamwork and playing together. This bowl invitation is a reward for the season they have had."