Thursday December 27, 2012

SAN DIEGO -- Now, this could be a Holiday Bowl.

The Baylor Bears (7-5), whose offense ranks first nationally after piling up an average of 578.8 yards, face the UCLA Bruins (9-4) on Thursday night in the game that calls itself "America’s Most Exciting Bowl Game."

This game should more than ooze offense.

"When people predict a shootout and the head coach is standing up here talking about a shootout, if you’re a defensive guy, you bow up a little bit," UCLA coach Jim Mora said Wednesday. "It’ll be a great night to be at Qualcomm watching football, because you’re going to see some quality football and some exciting football."

Suffice it to say that the defensive coordinators have been busy.

Baylor senior quarterback Nick Florence, who replaced Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III, leads the nation in total offense with 387.7 yards per game. Senior Terrance Williams is first in yards receiving at 147 per game.

The Bruins, who won the Pac-12 South, are hardly slouches.

Senior running back Johnathan Franklin is UCLA’s career leading rusher, with his 1,700 yards this season propelling him to a four-year total of 4,369 yards. He ran for 13 touchdowns and caught two scoring passes.

Redshirt freshman quarterback Brett Hundley is a dual threat, having thrown for 3,411 yards and 26 touchdowns, plus he was the team’s second-leading rusher with 365 yards and nine touchdowns.


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The over-under for combined points is 81 1/2.

Baylor rebounded from a four-game losing streak in the middle of the season to win four of its last five, including its final three games. Among them was a 52-24 upset of then-No. 2 Kansas State, derailing the Wildcats’ hopes for a national championship.

The Bears rank fifth nationally in scoring, averaging 44.1 points per game.

Baylor proved last year that it can be potent in the postseason. It piled up 777 yards in a 67-56 victory against Washington in the Alamo Bowl, which got Huskies defensive coordinator Nick Holt fired two days later.

While Washington did a decent job on Griffin, the Huskies had no answers to stopping a Bears running game that finished with 482 yards rushing -- including three backs topping 100 yards -- and eight touchdowns rushing.

The Bruins are coming off consecutive losses to Stanford, a 35-17 defeat in the regular-season finale, and then a 27-24 defeat in the Pac-12 championship game.

Including victories against Washington State and USC, the Bruins allowed at least 27 points in each of their last four games.

"I don’t think I’m concerned about what happened in the last couple games, but I’m concerned about Baylor, certainly," Mora said. "They put up points at a very fast pace. We’ll have our hands full on defense. Offensively, it will be exciting going up against this team to see if we can stay up with them a little bit."

This will be the first meeting between the teams.

Military Bowl

WASHINGTON -- Maybe they should call it the Transition Bowl.

For the third consecutive year -- which accounts for 60 percent of the lifespan of this particular event -- the Military Bowl had coaching news between the selection date and the game.

Ralph Friedgen was fired by Maryland in 2010, but he was allowed to coach the game and ended his Terrapins career with a big win over East Carolina.

Last year, Tim Beckman left Toledo for Illinois, leaving replacement Matt Campbell to lead a one-point victory over Air Force.

This year, it’s even more complicated.

Having rebuilt San Jose State (10-2), Mike MacIntyre left for Colorado after the Spartans accepted the bid that will have them facing Bowling Green (8-4) on Thursday at RFK Stadium. Defensive coordinator Kent Baer was selected as the interim coach for the game and wanted the job full-time, but he wasn’t even granted an interview.

Instead, San Diego’s Ron Caragher was hired, and Baer is going to follow MacIntyre to Colorado. 

So, talk about awkward: Caragher has already started to set up shop with the Spartans during Baer’s final days at the school. Caragher watched practices back in California last week and traveled with the team to the nation’s capital as an observer.

"In some ways, it can be very confusing," said Baer, who also had an interim bowl gig with Notre Dame in 2004. "Sometimes it’s confusing to me, to be honest with you. But once we get out to practice and we’re handling our business in meetings, it’s this group of coaches and this group of players that’s been here all year. That’s how we’re handling it. It’s going to be his football team after this, but not ‘til."

The shake-up has jarred the players just as they were hoping to put an exclamation point on perhaps the best season in school history. The No. 24 Spartans are playing in a bowl for the first time since 2006, are in the AP rankings for the first time since 1975, and will be trying to win 11 games in a season for the first time since 1940.

That’s quite a feat considering that San Jose State was 1-12 just two years ago during MacIntyre’s first season. Baer has been around longer, having joined the Spartans staff in 2008.

"I’ve been here with a group of young men, a couple of coaches, that have seen some really tough times and seen this thing turn around," Baer said. "Really the goal is -- I don’t know if it’s a parting gift to the university or the kids, or just saying, ‘Look, we’ve been in this together. Let’s finish this together. This is still the 2012 football team. This is the last time we’ll be together.’ We’re very focused on trying to be the best team ever in San Jose State history. I’m not doing it for anybody but this group of men and coaches."

Bowling Green has a different kind of mission in mind. The Falcons also rebuilt their program in a hurry -- rebounding from 2-10 two years ago -- and are one of seven Mid-American Conference teams in the bowls.

Yet the MAC is off to a rough start: 0-2 so far, both blowouts.

Belk Bowl

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Chances are when you think of Duke, you think of men’s basketball.

Senior receiver Conner Vernon sees Thursday night’s Belk Bowl against Cincinnati as a perfect opportunity to help the Blue Devils’ football team emerge from coach Mike Krzyzewski’s shadow.

This is Duke’s first bowl game in 18 seasons, and the Blue Devils will be playing in the only nationally televised bowl of the night.

"Anybody who follows college football will be watching, so this is our chance in the national spotlight to take a big step forward with this program and let people know about us," said Vernon, the Atlantic Coast Conference’s all-time career leader in receptions and yards receiving.

Duke (6-6) hasn’t won a bowl game since 1961.

"Is there a lot of pressure on us? Absolutely," said quarterback Sean Renfree. "But good players like added pressure, and they thrive on it."

Coach David Cutcliffe called this game the next step in trying to build a winning tradition and raise the level of expectations of the players, similar to what his friend Krzyzewski has done on the hardwood.

"This is national exposure for us," Cutcliffe said. "The NFL is not playing. We’re it. We’re the game. So people across the country who maybe heard a little bit about Duke football, if they see us play as well as we can play, I think they will be a little shocked. We have a lot of speed and a lot of skill. So this can have a huge impact for us."

And Cutcliffe said the Blue Devils are on the verge of something special.

"I don’t plan on not making a bowl again -- and that’s the mentality I want every player to have. ... When I talked to coach Krzyzewski, there is no question what the expectations of a Duke basketball player are," Cutcliffe said. "And that’s the opportunity we have -- to create really big expectations."

Duke faces a Cincinnati team in transition after the departure earlier this month of coach Butch Jones and both coordinators.

Jones left to take the job at Tennessee, so defensive line coach Steve Stripling will serve as interim head coach Thursday night. Incoming coach Tommy Tubberville will also be on hand to watch but won’t have any input on game day.

Jones went 23-14 at Cincinnati the last three years.

The Bearcats (9-3) finished tied for the best record in the Big East Conference but are left with only five full-time coaches from Jones’ staff to work the game. They’ll have new coordinators calling the shots on both sides of the ball.

Stripling led Central Michigan to a 44-41 win over Troy in the 2010 GMAC Bowl before joining Jones’ staff. Stripling, who’ll call the plays on defense, said his biggest concern had been keeping his team focused through adversity.

He said the play calls won’t change.

"What we’ve tried to do from the beginning, because this is such a different situation for them, is try to find some normalcy," Stripling said. "You try to keep them in their comfort zone and keep them focused."

Despite the changes, the Bearcats come in as 7-point favorites. That’s largely because they have a high-powered offense that’ll be facing a Blue Devils defense that collapsed down the stretch.

After a rare win over rival North Carolina to go 6-2, the Blue Devils lost their final four games to Florida State, Clemson, Georgia Tech and Miami. During that stretch, Duke’s defense surrendered a whopping 51 points and 294.5 yards rushing per game.

That should play into Cincinnati’s hands.

Led by senior tailback George Winn, the Bearcats enter the game ranked 31st in the country in rushing. After serving as a backup for most of his career at Cincinnati, Winn has emerged as a leader on offense, running for 1,204 yards and 12 touchdowns.

Cutcliffe said Winn reminds him of Cadillac Williams, a guy who can put the team on his back and carry 25 to 30 times per game.

"I’ve had a chance to carry this offense and step up and take on a big role," Winn said. "I think that has meant a lot to this team, and that’s meant a lot to this team which wasn’t given a chance, at least offensively, do anything special this year."

Duke will need its offense to be in high gear.

Renfree completed 66 percent of his passes for 2,760 yards with 18 touchdown passes and eight interceptions. His favorite targets are Vernon and Jamison Crowder, who combined for 145 receptions and 15 touchdowns. Desmond Scott also caught 60 passes.

Cincinnati features a bend-but-don’t-break defense.

"We kept teams off the scoreboard, which is big," Stripling said. "I think that’s going to be the key."

Stripling laughed when asked if he foresees a high-scoring affair.

"Well, I’m a defensive guy, so I don’t think that way," he said. "Ultimately I think this game will be about which defense steps up to the challenge."