Roundtable: Any luck for the Cougars in Las Vegas?
The Cougars (9-3) are set to take on the Moutain West Conference Champion San Diego State University Aztecs (10-3) in the Las Vegas Bowl Saturday. The game will be the first under newly-hired head coach Major Applewhite.
In what will be a battle of two teams with high-flying offenses, here is how The Cougar’s sports staff sees the game playing out:
Sports editor Reagan Earnst
For a win, the Cougars must stop the Aztecs’ prolific offense.
The Aztecs dominate the rushing game and rank seventh in the nation with an impressive 273.3 yards per game. Senior running back Donnel Pumphrey finished second among all rushers with 2,018 yards in 2016, just 10 yards behind University of Texas running back D’Onta Foreman.
If the Cougars can limit Pumphrey, the Aztecs will be forced to throw the ball more, an area where they have struggled this season.
SDSU averages just 145.8 passing yards per game, which places them near the bottom of the NCAA ranks. Sophomore quarterback Christian Chapman has thrown touchdowns in all but two games this season, but has managed just 1,866 yards through the air.
The Cougars’ run defense has been effective despite being inconsistent at times. Defensive coordinator Todd Orlando has the third-ranked rushing defense that is allowing just 97.9 yards per game.
Overall, the Cougars have the 43rd-ranked defense, surrendering just 22.6 opponent points per game.
I expect a defensive-minded game from both teams, but the Cougars will pull out a 31-28 win to kick off the Applewhite era.
Senior staff writer J.D. Smith
This matchup has the potential to be one of the closest, and best, games of the entire bowl season.
The Cougars seek to win their third straight bowl game, a feat only done once before in the first three bowls. The senior class, winningest in school history, are the fourth class to compete in a bowl game every season and look to become the first class to win three.
In what could be defensive coordinator Todd Orlando’s final game with the Cougars, the third-ranked run defense faces its toughest competition all season. The Aztecs have a seventh-ranked rushing offense.
All-American freshman tackle Ed Oliver needs to make his presence felt in the middle of the defense, clogging up rushing lanes and causing havoc like he did against Louisville.
Senior Donnel Pumphrey has been a workhorse, totaling 356 touches this season while averaging over 150 yards per game and leading the team with 16 touchdowns.
In his first game as head coach, Major Applewhite faces a 10-3 Aztec team that won the Mountain West Conference and is looking for their second-straight bowl victory over an American Athletic Conference team after beating Cincinnati 42-7 last year.
Senior quarterback Greg Ward Jr. will be busy facing an Aztec defense that ranked 12th in yards allowed and 19th in scoring defense, giving up only 21 points per game. The Tyler native had an impressive final campaign, completing 68 percent of his passes for 3,328 yards and a 22:9 TD-to-interception ratio.
He is also leading the team with 518 rushing yards and nine touchdowns.
Houston 31 – San Diego St. 24
Assistant sports editor Jonathan Valadez
A year removed from playing a formidable opponent in Florida State University, the Cougars find themselves in a lackluster bowl — despite the location — against another Group of Five school.
Although it has been hard for the Cougars this year, they have thrived on the big stage and kick off the bowl season with a chip on their shoulder versus a team that they should easily be able to handle.
The Aztecs enter the game as the Mountain West Conference Champions, but have three losses to not-so-stellar opponents. Two of the Aztecs’ losses were blowouts to the University of South Alabama and Colorado State University.
SDSU’s biggest offensive threat is senior running back Donnel Pumphrey, who has rushed for over 2,000 yards this season. This is impressive until you take into account whom the Aztecs have played this year.
The best rush defense that the Aztecs faced was the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and they are ranked 73rd in the country. Pumphrey gained 141 yards in that game, but it took 31 carries.
Pumphrey and the Aztecs will line up against the nation’s No. 3 rush defense and will be forced to throw the ball against the Cougars, something they’ve had little success doing this year, as they rank 119th in passing offense.
Now that the Cougars have a head coach, there should be no distractions for a team that has faced them all season.
The Cougars should leave Saturday as the kings of Las Vegas after they return to their early season form and defeat the Aztecs 45-24.