In the second of seven matches for the Mid-American Conference this bowl season, the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl will pit the MAC against a Mountain West Conference opponent for the first time this season. The MAC lost its first chance at a bowl victory this season on Saturday, when Ohio fell to Appalachian State in a heartbreaking loss. The MWC didn’t fare much better, as New Mexico lost to Arizona in the Gildan New Mexico Bowl the same day.
The Akron Zips (7-5, 5-3 MAC) managed to string together an impressive conference schedule that was highlighted by keeping the ball away from their opponent for an entire quarter in the last game of the season. They were reliant on a fantastic defense that caused fits for opposing teams, and the wiles of dual-threat quarterback Thomas Woodson to keep their offense churning.
Akron is going bowling for the first time in ten years, and it’s thanks to the rebuilding efforts of head coach Terry Bowden.
In just five short years, Bowden has taken the program from a 1-11 laughing-stock to a team that consistently competes for bowl eligibility. Building the program on hungry transfers, JUCO players, and recruits who are willing to embrace an older style of play, the Zips showed that they had some decent chops throughout the season, even despite a quarterback carousel in their non-conference schedule.
The Utah State Aggies (6-6, 5-3 MWC) went 1-3 in non-conference play, narrowly winning against Southern Utah in Week 1, and getting beaten down by BYU in the final week of the season. However, what really matters is the conference season, and boy, were the Aggies a tough team to play on any given Saturday.
In their first three games of the MWC season, the Aggies scored an average of 47 points per game against MWC powers Colorado State, Fresno State, and Boise State, while giving up only 19.3 points per game. The results were a little more mixed over the rest of the season, but the Aggies have shown a capacity for the big play, and can’t be counted out.
This will be the Aggies’ third appearance in Boise, with Utah State going 1-1 against the MAC in those matchups, losing a nail-biter to Ohio in 2012, and blowing out Toledo in 2013 on the way to a ranking of 16th in the AP Poll. Head coach Matt Wells looks to remain perfect in bowl games, as Utah State has gone 2-0 in bowls under his command.
Here’s some info on the game:
When: December 22nd, at 3:00 p.m.
Where: Albertson’s Stadium (37,000) in Boise, ID
Last year’s matchup: Western Michigan Broncos 24, Air Force Academy Falcons 38.
Conference all-time record for bowl game: MAC (2-2,) MWC (2-0)
Team all-time bowl records: Akron (0-1), Utah State (4-6).
Betting lines: Utah State is favored by 6.5, according to OddsShark.com, with an over/under of 47.
Players to watch:
Jeremy Lane (WR)– It’s not often you can declare the transition from hard-hitting linebacker to outside speed receiver a success, but Lane has not only shown that it can be done, he’s caught a ball and scored a touchdown on you while you were reading this. (Seriously though, play some defense, bud.) With Akron bringing in a bevy of linebackers, Lane converted to wide receiver to serve a need left by the departed Zac D’Orasio, and filled the role nicely by becoming Thomas Woodson’s primary big play target. Over the season, Lane had 35 receptions for 750 yards and eight touchdowns, averaging 21.4 yards per reception. Lane will need to play the game of his career if he hopes to break into Utah State’s 11th-ranked passing defense.
Jatavis Brown (LB/DE)– There’s a reason he wears #1. Brown has been a monster on the defensive side of the ball for the Zips, having been a starter since his freshman year. Despite being undersized (5’11”, 222 lbs.,) Brown is quick to the ball and has great finishing power. Brown, the MAC Defensive Player of the Year, has 108 total tackles, 10.5 sacks, an interception, and three forced fumbles on the season; and looks to torture an Aggies offense that has proven to be extremely inefficient against top running defenses.
Devante Mays (RB)– Mays has been the steady and reliable option on the Utah State offense, with the quarterback rotation remaining unsteady. Mays, who has been “a little banged-up” according to Coach Wells, should see some good action in the game, as he averaged 5.5 yards per rush despite said injuries. Mays has 843 yards on 154 carries for nine touchdowns, helping spearhead a three-headed rushing attack, supplemented by quarterback Kent Myers (348 yards) and running back LaJuan Hunt (331 yards.) Getting Mays going will be key to the success for Utah State if it hopes to break through the third-ranked Zips defense.
Kyler Fackrell (LB)– If you haven’t heard of Kyler Fackrell by now, blame the media’s East Coast bias. Standing at 6’5″ and 255 lbs., Fackrell keeps an imposing figure—with both length and strength—causing match-up nightmares for tackles and guards who have to contain him. The 2015 Phil Steele fourth-team All-American selection has 76 tackles, with 13.5 tackles for loss, four sacks, 12 quarterback hits, five fumble recoveries and two forced fumbles, showing a great instinct against the pass and run. Conor Hundley and Thomas Woodson will have a field day trying to sneak past Fackrell on the ground.
It’s going to be a tough call for this game. Akron hasn’t experienced a lot of success historically, and there will be a lot of pressure on it from the fan base to turn in a good performance on the blue turf. Utah State has been here before, and have enough weapons to make something happen if the need arises. It’s going to be a brutish slugfest in the cold, something both teams are quite used to, but I think that Akron could manage to pull away with a victory here thanks to a defense that can make great teams look bad, and okay teams look ugly.
Akron 17, Utah State, 10.