Honolulu, HI (SportsNetwork.com) - The Fresno State Bulldogs find themselves in familiar surroundings on Christmas Eve, as they take on the Rice Owls in the 13th annual Hawaii Bowl at Aloha Stadium.
The Bulldogs, who compete against the University of Hawaii in this same facility during Mountain West Conference play, are no strangers to the lay of the land in Honolulu, but this time around they'll be focusing their attention on a non-conference foe in the Owls. Unlike last season when Fresno State was a threat to disturb the delicate balance of the BCS by running the table, this time around the Bulldogs were built on small streaks that both helped and hindered their prospects of making it to the postseason.
The Bulldogs registered a series of four three-game win streaks and skids over the course of the regular season. Luckily, the team played just well enough to win the tiebreaker in the West Division of the MWC to claim the regular-season title over San Diego State and take part in the conference title game against Boise State. However, the squad came up short against the nationally-ranked Broncos, 28-14, but because they were already bowl eligible prior to the defeat they were still invited to Hawaii.
"We are thrilled to be playing in the Hawaii Bowl against Rice," Fresno State head coach Tim DeRuyter notes. "Having been to the Hawaii Bowl just two years ago, our staff and players know that we are in for a fantastic week.
"I am extremely proud of this year's team, who battled and persevered all season long. We now look forward to competing against a highly respected Rice Owls team and look to send this special senior class out the right way with a victory."
The Bulldogs, who have a record of 12-14 in bowl games, lost that most recent appearance in the Hawaii Bowl to SMU and former Hawaii head coach June Jones, by a score of 43-10. Last season, the team was crushed by USC in the Las Vegas Bowl as well, 45-20.
As for the Owls, they are appearing in a bowl game for the third straight year, the first time that's happened in school history. Like the Bulldogs, Rice got off to a shaky start to the regular season, but rebounded to register a six-game win streak between the end of September and the start of November. However, the final game of the regular season for a team that finished 7-5 overall, saw the Owls being blown away by Louisiana Tech, 76-31.
Nevertheless, head coach David Bailiff has gotten beyond that excruciating defeat and is looking forward to being in Hawaii.
"This is a great day for Rice Football and one that is a great reward for all the hard work that our players and staff have put into this program," Bailiff noted when the Owls accepted their invitation. "I know they are very proud to be the first team to earn a third straight bowl berth and they have the longest active bowl streak in Conference USA, but they are not going to be satisfied with a bid."
The Owls took part in the Liberty Bowl last season where they bowed to Mississippi State, 44-7, snapping what had been a two-game, bowl win streak that now has the program sitting at 6-5 in the postseason.
In terms of the all-time series between these programs, this is the seventh meeting and all six previous encounters were won by the Bulldogs. The most recent battle between the former Western Athletic Conference foes took place in 2004 when Fresno State thoroughly beat down Rice, 52-21.
Both of these programs began the season 0-3 making them just the 20th and 21st programs since 1980 to drop three in a row to begin the season and still be heading to a bowl game.
Obviously, with their inconsistent play this season, the Bulldogs have some kinks to work out before they hit the field in Hawaii, although the offense is slightly better off than the defense currently. Quarterback Brian Burrell had an up-and-down campaign as he completed 58.7 percent of his passes for 198.2 ypg and a total of 22 touchdowns, but at the same time he tossed 16 interceptions which killed promising drives time and time again.
By far his favorite target was all-conference wideout Josh Harper who caught a staggering 86 passes, 55 more than his closest teammate, leading to 1,072 yards and seven touchdowns. Greg Watson made the most of his 31 catches in 12 games by reaching the end zone five times, the same going for Chad Olson who recorded four TDs on a mere 12 grabs.
Coming out of the backfield, Marteze Waller gave Burrell another option as the running back carried the ball 210 times for 1,292 yards and 11 TDs, while Josh Quezada supplied support with 473 yards and five scores as well.
Defensively, the Bulldogs were in complete disarray early on, surrendering no less than 52 points to the first three opponents on the schedule. It's been difficult to recover from those awful efforts from a statistical standpoint, which is why Fresno State ranks 108th in the country with 455.5 ypg allowed and 102nd in run defense (206.9 ypg). Kyrie Wilson had a decent season as he led the program with 88 tackles, logged six stops for loss, intercepted a pair of passes and forced two fumbles, but still it was a rough campaign for the unit.
Rice, which lost to Notre Dame, Texas A&M and Old Dominion coming out of the gate this season, is led on offense by quarterback Driphus Jackson who needs just 116 more yards to reach 3,000 yards of total offense and become just the third player in program history to produce such a number in a single season. Jackson completed 57.3 percent of his attempts for 210.3 ypg and 21 TDs, against eight INTs. He was also third on the squad in rushing with 360 yards, trailing only Jowan Davis (910 yards, six TDs) and Darik Dillard (651 yards, 10 TDs).
Despite missing three games, wide receiver Jordan Taylor was still head-and- shoulders above the rest of the receiving corps as he caught 49 passes for 781 yards and six touchdowns, although Mario Hull, with his 29 grabs for 539 yards, had one more score to his credit.
Over on the other side of the ball, the biggest stumbling block for the Owls was their pass defense as it ranked 105th in the nation with an efficiency rating of just 141.26. The biggest issue for the group was that it registered a mere seven interceptions, with Ryan Pollard the only player with multiple picks (two). However, at the very least the team has a beast attacking the line of scrimmage in Brian Nordstrom who registered 18.5 of his 43 stops behind the line of scrimmage and was second on the unit with 7.5 sacks. Zach Patt, who set a school record with five sacks and added three forced fumbles in the meeting with FIU, led the program with 8.5 sacks overall.