Nevada (7-5) vs. Southern Miss (11-2)
Saturday, December 24th, 8:00 p.m. (et)
From The Sports Network
By Gregg Xenakes, Associate College Football Editor
GAME NOTES: As a result of their win over Houston in the Conference USA title game earlier this month, the Southern Miss Golden Eagles are celebrating with a trip to the 10th annual Hawaii Bowl at Aloha Stadium in Honolulu this weekend where they will tangle with the Nevada Wolf Pack.
Not only did Southern Miss bury a heavily-favored Houston squad by a score of 49-28 in the conference title game, it finished an impressive 11-2 overall with those two defeats coming against Marshall and UAB in C-USA action by a total of just nine points. The Golden Eagles have now put together their 18th consecutive winning season, which is the fourth-longest streak among Football Bowl Subdivision programs, trailing only Florida, Florida State and Virginia Tech.
"I am extremely excited for this football team and coaching staff to have the opportunity to make our first trip to the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl," notes Southern Miss head coach Larry Fedora. "This is a tremendous trip for this Conference USA championship team that reached new heights this season and we are thrilled about the opportunity to face a very talented Nevada squad."
All of the recent success for USM has brought the program plenty of attention, so much so that coach Fedora was targeted by North Carolina to become its next head coach, a job that he accepted earlier this month. Fedora is sticking around for the bowl game, but after that the job belongs to Ellis Johnson who was named as the program's 19th head coach on Tuesday. Johnson, the defensive coordinator and assistant head coach under Steve Spurrier at South Carolina, was previously the top man at both The Citadel and Gardner-Webb.
While the coaching position at USM is in a transitional phase, Nevada's Chris Ault continues to be the steady, guiding force behind the Wolf Pack on the sidelines. In his eighth season of his third go-around with Nevada, Ault brought his squad back from a disappointing 1-3 mark to begin 2011, the unit then reeling off five straight wins and closing out the regular season with a vicious 56-3 win over Idaho to finish 7-5 overall and 5-2 in Western Athletic Conference play.
Nevada has played in this bowl twice already, losing to SMU in the most recent outing in 2009 by a score of 45-10. Back in 2005, the Pack was pushed beyond regulation and needed overtime to register a 49-48 victory over UCF. Following that win over the Knights, Nevada had dropped four consecutive bowl decisions before posting a 20-13 triumph versus Boston College in last year's Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, which leaves the Pack with a record of 4-7 in the postseason dating back to 1948.
As for the Golden Eagles, they've been a fixture in the postseason over the last decade but are still trying to reach .500 in bowl games, currently sporting a 9-12 mark dating back to the 1953 Sun Bowl. Last year, the squad clashed with Louisville in the Beef 'O' Brady Bowl and absorbed a 31-28 setback.
In terms of a series record between these two programs, Southern Miss won both previous matchups, including a 55-28 thrashing in Reno back in 1998.
One of the more explosive offenses in the nation this season, the Golden Eagles ranked 13th in total yardage (471.0 ypg) and 14th in scoring (37.9 ppg). Senior quarterback Austin Davis, the 2011 Burlsworth Trophy winner as the nation's top former walk-on, threw for a school-record 3,331 yards as he completed 61.8 percent of his attempts, en route to 28 aerial TDs as he broke many of the passing records still held by Brett Favre.
Kelvin Bolden caught a team-best 55 passes, but it was Ryan Balentine who did more with his 49 catches as he turned them into 742 yards and eight touchdowns, both of which paced Southern Miss. Perhaps most impressive about the passing attack for the Golden Eagles is that 11 different receivers ended up in the end zone, and that's the kind of diversity that made the team so tough to slow down in many games this season.
On the defensive side of the ball, USM ranked second in the conference and 20th nationally with just 112.6 rushing ypg allowed, but some of that has to do with the fact that opponents often found themselves facing major deficits on the scoreboard and couldn't afford to eat up time on the clock with small plays on the ground. But still, the pass efficiency defense had a rating of 110.3 which was good enough for ninth in the nation, most of that due to the group posting a total of 18 interceptions, seven of which were supplied by Deron Wilson (four) and Marquese Weaton (three). Weaton seemed to be all over the field during one stretch for the Golden Eagles as he recorded touchdowns in three straight games courtesy of a 75-yard fumble return, a blocked field goal and an interception.
Jamie Collins and Cordarro Law made it their business to clog up the action in the backfield for USM as they registered 19.5 and 17.5 tackles for loss, respectively, combining for 14 of the team's 24 sacks as well.
This weekend Collins and Law will be on the lookout for Nevada quarterback Cody Fajardo, who made a big enough splash in his first year to be named the WAC Freshman of the Year. Cut from the same sort of cloth that made former Nevada signal-caller Colin Kaepernick so dominant, Fajardo placed third on the team in rushing with 680 yards and a scored a team-best 11 TDs on the ground even though he didn't take over the starting job until almost halfway through the campaign. Fajardo didn't deliver many touchdowns as a passer (six), but he did keep defenses on their toes by completing 71.4 percent of his attempts.
Putting together one of the strongest receiving seasons in Nevada history, Rishard Matthews twice had games with more than 200 yards and finished with 1,364 yards which was the sixth-highest total in program history and for that he was named First-Team All-WAC and an Honorable Mention All-American.
Averaging 5.6 yards per carry, Lampford Mark headed the rushing attack for the Pack with his 104.0 ypg and made it into the end zone eight times for a program that ranked eighth in the nation with 251.8 ypg rushing. However, the dismissal of Mike Ball (704 yards, three touchdowns) will require others to step up and fill the void coming out of the backfield for the second-most successful rushing attack in the WAC.
Brett Roy has been the enforcer at the line of scrimmage on defense for Nevada, ranking eighth in the nation in sacks with 10.0 and ninth in TFL with 18.5, earning himself All-WAC First-Team status as he harassed opposing offenses every time he took the field. While Roy was doing the dirty work in the trenches for the Pack, guys like Isaiah Frey were handling the second half of the field with his five interceptions and 14 pass breakups. Not to be ignored, Khalid Wooten accounted for four picks and a couple of forced fumbles while also leading the team in unassisted tackles with 57.
At one point during the season the Wolf Pack had the inside track on the WAC title, but losing a couple of crucial games down the stretch put them behind Louisiana Tech and they were never able to recover. Nevertheless, gaining access to the postseason after what has to be considered a bit of a rebuilding project on offense is still a positive outcome.
"The Sheraton Hawaii Bowl is a class bowl and playing a nationally-ranked Southern Miss team presents us with a great opportunity," notes coach Ault.
Even though Fajardo has strong potential and has shown flashes of greatness during the regular season, being in the spotlight all alone on Christmas Eve might be a bit too much for him and his squad right now. Add to that the fact that USM would like to send Fedora off on a positive note and this game has all the makings of a Golden Eagles win.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Southern Miss 35, Nevada 24
12/22 10:17:34 ET