Thus far, college football’s 2017-18 bowl season has gone out of its way to remind us that college football is intended to be played over the weekend. Of the nine bowls kicking off on Saturdays and Sundays, seven have been decided by 10 or fewer points; this past Saturday, we saw classics in USF’s win over Texas Tech and Army’s win over San Diego State.
The first eight weekday games, however, haven’t been quite as good. Average score: Winner 39, Loser 10. The closest game was Tuesday’s Heart of Dallas Bowl dud between Utah and a depleted West Virginia.
Tuesday’s trio of duds ended up more about the winning head coaches than the games themselves.
Cactus Bowl: Kansas State 35, UCLA 17
If this was Bill Snyder’s last game as a head coach — the 78-year old legend will reportedly decide on his 2018 return soon — it was one hell of a Snyderian way to go out. The Wildcats scored the final 28 points of the Cactus Bowl to give him his 210th career win, but the second half was all of his second go-round wrapped into 30 minutes of action.
From 1989-2005, he engineered maybe the greatest program-building job of all time. Kansas State had been moribund for most of its existence and fell on its hardest ever times in the years before his arrival.
After a 1-10 debut, he had the Wildcats in a bowl by year five, in the top 10 by year seven, and on the cusp of a national title by year 10. KSU combined a big-play option offense with a defense capable of taking your head off on every play.
Since he returned in 2009, he has won in a different way. Playing Kansas State in recent years has been more like water torture. But the wins have continued all the same. KSU went 21-5 in 2011-12 and, thanks to Tuesday night's victory, has won at least eight games in four of the last five seasons. The explosiveness has diminished, and the defense is far more of a bend-don’t-break unit. But even if you win, you aren’t going to have a lick of fun playing against Kansas State.
Thanks to a pair of big plays, UCLA bolted to a 17-7 lead despite playing without fired head coach Jim Mora or injured quarterback Josh Rosen.
The lead remained 10 at halftime, but then KSU went full KSU. The Wildcats scored on a 74-yard, five-minute drive to cut the lead to three, then Denzel Goolsby forced and recovered a fumble. Four plays later, it was 21-17 KSU.
With UCLA in "we have an interim coach, so screw it" mode (the Bruins went for it on fourth down five times, faked a punt, and attempted a screen to an offensive lineman in the first half), KSU forced a turnover on downs and scored again.
Then came the masterpiece. UCLA went three-and-out and pinned KSU at its 2 with 12:40 remaining. Fifteen plays, 98 yards, and 8:06 later, it was 35-17. Barnes and quarterback Alex Delton alternated five-yard runs all the way down the field.
Snyder’s 2017 team had more rushing explosiveness than most recent iterations, and thanks to a pair of long touchdown runs, Delton and Barnes combined to average 8.6 yards per carry (32 for 275) against a miserable UCLA run defense. Delton and starting QB Skylar Thompson combined for only 79 passing yards (73 if you subtract sack yardage), and KSU scored on all four of its second-half possessions anyway.
I’m done predicting when Snyder will retire. The last couple of years have felt like a rolling prediction — OK, now he’s done. Now. Aaaaaaand NOW. For all we know, Bill Snyder will coach until he’s 100. (He’ll go 8-5 then, too.)
But if, by chance, this was his final game, it was fitting.
Heart of Dallas Bowl: Utah 30, WVU 14
Utah always shows up in the postseason — the Utes are now 11-1 in bowls under Kyle Whittingham — and WVU was playing without injured starting quarterback Will Grier and running back Justin Crawford, among others.
Our worst fears were realized pretty quickly. WVU went three-and-out to open the game, and on Utah’s fourth snap, Zack Moss ran 58 yards for a touchdown. The Mountaineers punted on six of their seven first-half possessions and muffed a punt for good measure. They had to feel lucky to be down only 17-3 at halftime.
In the third quarter came a chance for a spark. WVU’s Dante Bonamico and a host of Mountaineers basically sacked Mitch Wishnowsky on a rugby punt attempt and recovered the ensuing fumble at the Utah 9. Given a chance to cut the lead to one possession, however, WVU went three-and-out and kicked a field goal.
The WVU offense was eight steps beyond hopeless. McKoy gained just 31 yards in 14 carries, and Chugunov completed only nine of 28 passes with two picks and a garbage-time touchdown.
It was a miserable end to what had once been a promising season. Grier will return in 2018, as will star receivers Gary Jennings (probably) and David Sills (definitely) and nine of the top 13 tacklers on defense. Perhaps a taste of bitterness will serve the Mountaineers well.
Utah doesn't know what that end-of-year bitterness tastes like. Since Whittingham took over in 2005, 10 of 13 Ute seasons have ended in bowl victories. They lost the Maaco Bowl to Boise State in 2010 and went 5-7 in 2012 and 2013 during their Pac-12 transition, but that's it.
Huntley and Moss are sophomores, five of the top six receivers are scheduled to return, and only three of Utah's top 13 tacklers (linebackers Kavika Luafatasaga and Sunia Tauteoli and cornerback Hobbs) are seniors.
This horrific bowl could be a springboard for both programs.
Quick Lane Bowl: Duke 36, NIU 14
Really, though, 2017 is about 2018. The ACC is getting tougher, and it will require more upside to keep up, but Duke might be capable of doing that down the line if a few high-upside youngsters begin to turn potential into production this fall.
Duke played 2017 with a sophomore quarterback, a freshman and sophomore comprising two-thirds of a three-headed running back situation, three juniors and a sophomore atop the receiving corps, and a defense led almost entirely by sophomores and juniors. With minimal senior leadership, coming off their first no-bowl season since 2011, the entire goal of 2017 was to eke out six wins and build for 2018.
Mission accomplished. Eventually. David Cutcliffe’s Blue Devils began 4-0 with wins over Northwestern, Baylor, and North Carolina, then lost six straight games, alternating between tight losses (to Virginia, Florida State, Pitt, and Army) and disheartening blowouts (to Miami and Virginia Tech). But they surged to a 43-20 win over Georgia Tech, then came back to beat Wake Forest in Winston-Salem and reach six wins after all.
First, kudos to NIU for playing a bowl like it should be played: without a care in the world. The Huskies attempted one of the dumbest fake punts you’ll ever see and quickly fell behind by two touchdowns, but they charged back to tie the game early in the second quarter. They ran out of fight pretty quickly, though.
NIU just couldn't get the ball away from Duke. The Blue Devils were 10 for 19 on third downs, and the Huskies were 1 for 12. Jones completed 27 passes for 252 yards, the three-headed RB (senior Shaun Wilson, sophomore Daniel Jones, freshman Brittain Brown) carried 45 times for 202 yards, and Duke snapped 92 times to NIU's 57.
What a career coda for Cutcliffe. The Alabama grad and career Tennessee assistant was dumped by Ole Miss after seven seasons and 44 wins, but over the last 10 years he's built Duke to the point where you expect at least minor bowl games. The Blue Devils have figured out ways to get more aggressive defensively and maintain their efficiency-first offensive ways despite losing assistants and dealing with an ongoing talent deficit in the improving ACC. Cutcliffe crossed 100 Duke wins earlier this year and should cross 110 next year.