Utah State vs. Toledo, 2012 Potato Bowl preview: 2 fun offenses, 1 fantastic defense

Russ Isabella-US PRESSWIRE

Utah State might have the best mid-major defense in the country this year. Can Toledo unleash the powers of MACtion, or will the Aggies bearhug their way to an 11th win? Below: predictions, players to watch, reasons to watch and key factors.

5 Players To Watch

Will Davis (CB, Utah State, Sr.). The Def. F/+ Top 10 features most of the teams you would expect: Michigan State, Florida, Alabama, Notre Dame, Stanford, South Carolina, and LSU are the top seven teams, and defensive mainstay TCU is No. 9. Wisconsin was a bit of a defensive revelation at No. 8 this season … and No. 10 is Gary Andersen's Utah State defense. No. 10! This is a fantastic unit, and while it will get tested by Toledo's offense, players like Will Davis are good enough to pass this test. Davis came out of nowhere in his senior season to become the anchor of what might be the best mid-major pass defense; he picked off five passes and, incredibly, broke up another 16. He also made 4.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage and hurried quarterbacks three times on blitzes. His battle with Toledo receiver Bernard Reedy will be the most exciting in this game.

David Fluellen (RB, Toledo, Jr.). Toledo doesn't have as many weapons as it did in 2011, but Fluellen has certainly held up his end of the bargain. He has rushed for 1,460 yards and 13 touchdowns (despite missing the regular season finale with a high ankle sprain and barely playing against Coastal Carolina), he is eighth in the country in rushing yards per game, and he is Toledo's No. 3 receiver with 32 catches for 246 yards. High ankle sprains can linger, but Fluellen has evidently looked fine this week in practice. That's a good thing, because Toledo will need all the help it can get.

Bernard Reedy (WR, Toledo, Jr.). Quarterback Terrance Owens also missed the season finale with ankle issues, and it is unclear whether he or perfectly capable senior Austin Dantin will get the start. (Dantin has started plenty of games in his Toledo career.) Whoever is behind center, however, will be looking to Reedy as frequently as possible. The small (5'9, 171 pounds) shifty junior (1,051 yards, 8.6 per target, 67 percent catch rate) is one of only two Rockets receivers targeted more than 44 times this season -- he and big-play threat Alonzo Russell (918 yards, 10.0 per target, 58 percent catch rate) account for 55 percent of Toledo's targets in 2012, an extremely high two-man total -- and again, his battle with Davis alone should make this game worth watching.

Zach Vigil (ILB, Utah State, So.). The front seven of Utah State's 3-4 defense is extremely balanced and disciplined. The linemen capably occupy blockers for an exciting linebacking corps led by Vigil (62.5 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks) and senior outside 'backer Bojay Filimoeatu (40.0 tackles, 8.0 tackles for loss, 4.0 sacks). Vigil is the closest thing this unit has to a standout play-maker, but that's more of an endorsement of the Utah State defense. There is depth and quality across the board here. Honestly, with the state of the program he inherited following the 2008 season (USU won nine games in four years under Brent Guy and finished with just two winning seasons since 1981), you'd have thought it would take Gary Andersen quite a bit longer to build this type of defense. He really has done a tremendous job in Logan.

Kerwynn Williams (RB, Utah State, Sr.). It is rare to find a player who leads his team in both rushing and receiving, but Williams has done just that in 2012. He averages an explosive 6.4 yards per carry over 17 carries per game, but he also edged out senior receiver Matt Austin (652 yards, 8.5 per target, 55 percent catch rate) by catching 43 passes for 663 yards on just 55 targets. Utah State does a nice job of setting up mobile sophomore quarterback Chuckie Keeton to succeed, passing frequently on early downs and getting him outside of the pocket in a run-or-pass mode as often as possible on passing downs. This works, in part, because he has a spectacular check-down option in Williams, who has caught 18 of 23 passes on passing downs for 212 yards. It will be interesting to see how Toledo plans to slow Williams down. Middle linebacker Dan Molls (126.0 tackles, 6.0 tackles for loss, three interceptions) is fantastic in space, but is he fantastic enough to follow Williams around all game?

4 Reasons To Watch

1. MACtion. Toledo took a step backwards in 2012 following the departure of both head coach Tim Beckman and quite a few interesting pieces in the depth chart. But the Rockets still won nine games, they still beat Cincinnati (and almost beat Arizona), and they are still 49th in the F/+ rankings. They finish drives and, more importantly, show MACtion-level aggressiveness at times. With Utah State involved, this could turn into a grind-it-out affair, but Toledo takes enough chances on defense and still has enough skill position weapons to potentially turn this into a shootout. You'll want to watch just in case.

2. Utah State is legitimately strong. Let's face it, with the current state of the WAC it isn't hard to figure out how to piece together a pretty unimpressive 10-2 campaign. Just beat the new and dead-weight teams (UTSA, Texas State, Idaho, New Mexico State), lose to the good ones (Louisiana Tech, San Jose State) and creep through a cakey non-conference slate. USU did not do that. The Aggies are 10-2 with road wins over both Tech (in overtime) and SJSU (by 22 points), and only five points separated them from an undefeated record. They missed a late field goal in a two-point loss to Wisconsin, and they lost by three at BYU.

3. Morrillitis. You have to love it when they stay, right? Just like successful Utah State basketball coach Stu Morrill, Gary Andersen decided that life in Logan is pretty awesome and ignored the advances of some major conference teams with job openings (California and Colorado, to name two). He has spent most of the last two decades coaching in Utah -- he was head coach at Park City high school and Southern Utah and defensive coordinator at Utah -- and with a contract extension and better salary allotment for assistants, he is going to stay at USU a while longer. That is exciting, especially considering what he has managed to build in a small amount of time.

4. Bonus football.

3 Key Factors

1. Can Toledo pass? It is an odd question to ask given their reputation, but the Rockets are, on paper, at a statistical disadvantage in this one. Toledo ranks 73rd in Passing S&P+, while Utah State's defense ranks a healthy fifth in the same category. They blitz from all angles, and they have a stout secondary to back them up. Toledo has Reedy and Russell, but is that enough?

2. Williams vs. Molls. Utah State gets the ball to Kerwynn Williams in space more than 20 times per game. Toledo, meanwhile, has a sideline-to-sideline missile in Dan Molls. I talked up the Davis vs. Reedy battle above, but this might be the main event.

3. Flipping the field. Both of these offenses have their moments, but the Aggies and Rockets won a combined 19 games, in part, because of their ability to tilt the playing field to their advantage. Toledo ranks 27th in Field Position Advantage, and Utah State ranks 32nd; keep track of starting field position. If one is deriving an early advantage in this category, it could hint at the final result.

2 Predictions

F/+ Pick: Utah State by 12.2.
Bill's Pick: Utah State by 10. I don't see the Aggies pulling away, but they are too good.

1 Shutdown Fullback

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