Two teams good enough to lose their coaches to major-conference programs face off (9 p.m. ET Sunday, ESPN) in the nation's final undercard before Monday night's BCS main event.
5 Players To Watch
Ryan Aplin (QB, Arkansas State, Sr.). Despite steady turnover (Arkansas State is about to be led by its fourth head coach in four seasons next fall), Aplin has made sure that the Red Wolves' offense is deft and efficient no matter who is calling the plays.
There aren't just a ton of big plays to be found here -- leading rusher David Oku averages just 4.6 yards per carry, and leading receivers J.D. McKissic and Josh Jarboe average just 9.9 and 11.6 yards per catch, respectively -- but ASU still averaged 482 yards and 36 points per game in 2012 and still ranked a healthy 28th in Off. F/+. Aplin is the primary reason for that. He completed 68 percent of his passes with 23 touchdowns to just four interceptions; in the last four games of the regular season, those numbers were 76 percent, 11 touchdowns and two picks. Plus, he takes advantage of every turned head on the defensive side of the ball; he averaged 6.4 yards per non-sack carry over about seven carries per game. Aplin is smart and well-rounded, and he makes a perfect hub through this offense runs.
Dri Archer (RB, Kent State, Jr.) and Trayion Durham (RB, Kent State, So.). If you've heard of just one Kent State player, it is probably Archer, a 5'8, 175-pound waterbug who ran circles around most of the MAC in 2012. In the three weeks following Kent State's upset of then-undefeated Rutgers, as the, "Um, Kent State has a chance to make a BCS game," buzz began, Archer exploded for 518 yards on just 39 carries against Akron, Miami (Ohio) and Bowling Green. In the MAC Championship game, Northern Illinois was seemingly using about six different defenders to spy on him, but he still caught five passes for 81 yards, and KSU still almost beat the Huskies.
What makes Archer even more dangerous, however, is the "thunder" to his "lightning." Trayion Durham, a 250-pound sophomore from Cincinnati, finished the regular season with nearly as many rushing yards (1,248) as Archer (1,352). He went over 100 yards in a game six times (Archer did it just five), and while Archer stretches the perimeter of the defense, Durham does a lovely job of softening up the middle. Kent State isn't going to throw the ball unless it has to; it's going to lean on Archer and Durham as much as it possibly can. In 2012, that simple approach took Kent State to within just a couple of plays of the Orange Bowl.
Nathan Herrold (MLB, Arkansas State, Sr.). ASU had its share of issues on pass defense in 2012 -- a paltry 18 sacks, a 65-percent completion rate for opponents, only about four passes defensed per game -- but the run defense was rather sturdy against the run. You can credit Herrold for plenty of the latter while absolving him for most of the former. Herrold led ASU in tackles (78.0) and interceptions (three) and was second in tackles for loss (10.0), passes broken up (five) and forced fumbles (two). The 235-pound senior is a force all over the field, and if ASU's big (for mid-majors) defensive tackles (starters Ronnell Wright and Ryan Carrethers go 6'3, 285 and 6'2, 310, respectively) can occupy the interior of Kent State's offensive line, Herrold and his fellow linebackers could make life difficult for Archer and Durham.
Roosevelt Nix (DT, Kent State, Jr.). Nix is truly one of the country's most unique players. A 5'11, 245-pound tackle (yes, tackle) has confused and terrorized offenses for three years now. He was the MAC's defensive player of the year as a true freshman, logging an incredible 20.0 tackles for loss and 10 sacks. Despite extra attention (and that whole "lack of size" thing), he has continued to make plays at a solid rate in the years since, posting 31.5 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks in 2011-12. Even taking opponent into account, Kent State's defense is a solid, Top 50 unit from top to bottom, making big plays (33 sacks, 23 interceptions, 13 forced fumbles) and preventing you from doing the same. The Golden Flashes will have their hands full with Aplin's precise offense, but ASU will have plenty of unique weapons, like Nix, for which they must account.
4 Reasons To Watch
1. Two games left. This is the final match on the undercard before Monday's main event. Time to celebrate. And cry.
2. Two well-coached mid-majors ... what's wrong with that? This was a sterling year for mid-major college football. Utah State went 11-2 with one of the best defenses in college football (at any level), Boise State lost most of its 2011 two-deep and still went 11-2, Northern Illinois won 12 games in a row and made the Orange Bowl, San Jose State went 11-2 with a legitimately strong offense, Fresno State looked great until the Hawaii Bowl, et cetera. Kent State almost went to Miam in place of NIU, and ASU, with its third coach in as many years, barely missed a step after losing Hugh Freeze to Ole Miss, going 9-3 and finishing on a seven-game winning streak. Of course, the teams' reward for their success is, as it often is for mid-majors, bittersweet: both lost their head coaches. Still, both of these teams are smart and well-coached with entertaining athletes strewn throughout the field. Odds are good that this game will be fun and well-played.
3. Hazell stayed. While now-former ASU head coach Gus Malzahn is off attempting to salvage Auburn's 2013 recruiting class at his new job, Kent State's Darrell Hazell, hired by Purdue in December, decided to stick around with KSU until after this trip to Mobile. The Golden Flashes earned him his promotion to the Big Ten, and he is paying them back by attempting to lead them to a 12th win and a season-ending place in the polls.
4. Bonus football. Bonus football!
3 Key Factors
1. Who shows up? I love Hazell's loyalty to Kent State, and I love that he stuck around for the GoDaddy.com Bowl. But that doesn't necessarily mean good things for the product on the field. Southern Miss' Larry Fedora coached his team in last year's Hawaii Bowl after accepting the North Carolina job, and the Golden Eagles played one of their worst games of the season. (They still won thanks to the fact that Nevada also played poorly.) The emotions will be high one way or another, and it is impossible to gauge how the Golden Flashes might respond to such emotions.
Meanwhile, ASU is battling the Interim Coach Hangover. With Malzahn gone and new head coach Bryan Harsin waiting in the wings, interim head coach (and defensive coordinator) John Thompson will lead the Red Wolves onto the field in Mobile. As we've seen this bowl season, one never, ever knows how a team will respond to an interim. We can preview this game until the cows come home; the game might simply be decided by who shows up, both physically and emotionally, and who doesn't.
2. Who wins the ground battle? One of many football fans' favorite things is the thunder-and-lightning running back combination, and Kent State has one of the best in 175-pound Dri Archer and 250-pound Trayion Durham. It will be strength vs. strength and weakness vs. weakness when Kent State has the ball -- the Golden Flashes can't really pass, and the Red Wolves can't really stop the pass, but both the KSU offense and ASU defense are solid on the ground -- but the aesthetics of this run game will be enjoyable.
3. Leverage, baby. Kent State's biggest strength in 2012 was an underrated one. The Golden Flashes are second in the country in Special Teams F/+, and they spent most of this fall dominating the field position battle because of it. They do just about everything right in this aspect of the game. They flip the field with solid punting, they don't allow returns of any kind, their offense is good enough to get a couple of first downs before punting, and they make enough big plays on defense to give themselves quite a few easy scoring opportunities. They tilt the field in their favor, pound away with the running game, and eventually watch their opponent wilt. They rank sixth in the country in Field Position Advantage; Arkansas State? 106th. ASU's offense appears to have an advantage over Kent State's defense, but if the Red Wolves are facing a field 10-15 yards longer (in terms of average starting field position), that will be difficult to overcome.
F/+ Pick: Kent State by 12.1.
Bill's Pick: ASU by 7. This is Kent State's first bowl in 40 years, and the fact that Hazell is still on the sideline might actually backfire a bit in terms of emotion and level of play. That gives ASU a bit of an edge, if a fragile one.
1 Shutdown Fullback
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