This Christmas Eve, The NFL will not play a Sunday Night Football game, leaving the national stage open Fresno State and Houston to showcase their talents.
Houston arrived on the island this week as a 2.5 point favorite, having won three of its last four games. With a ten win season in the balance, Fresno State looks to end the year with some positive momentum after coming up short in the Mountain West Conference Championship game weeks ago. Here’s what to watch for in the matchup between the Bulldogs and the Cougars.
1. X’s and O’s
Fresno State’s Defensive Coordinator, Orlando Steinauer, was handpicked out of the Canadian Football League last offseason by Coach Jeff Tedford. Steinhauer’s defense finished the season ranked first in the Mountain West Conference in scoring, limiting opponents to 17.2 points per game. Pretty impressive number considering that average includes surrendering 41 and 48 points to Alabama and Washington respectively. With three weeks to prepare and implement a defensive game plan, can Steinauer systematically stifle an explosive Houston offense? Houston’s offensive coordinator Brian Johnson departed earlier this month for a coaching position with the University of Florida, putting play calling responsibilities on Head Coach Major Applewhite. This chess match could be a pivotal factor in the game’s outcome.
2. Trench Warfare
Center Aaron Mitchell and the Fresno State offensive line will have their hands full trying to control the line of scrimmage against the nation’s 2017 Outland Trophy winner and consensus All-American, nose tackle Ed Oliver. The 6’3″ 290 pound sophomore has 37.5 tackles for a loss, five forced fumbles, 10.5 sacks and 135 overall tackles in the last two seasons. If Mitchell and company can’t keep Oliver out of the backfield, it could be a long day for the Bulldogs. Keep Oliver in check, and the ‘Dogs could bring a bowl trophy back to the Valley for the first time in a decade.
3. Show Time
Big time players, make big time plays, in big time games. In a contest that is slated to be a low scoring affair, who will be the playmaker to carry their team to victory? Look for wide receiver KeeSean Johnson to answer the call. The ‘Dogs will be targeting Johnson early and often in this game and need him in the mix to be successful. The junior has caught a pass in 35 consecutive games, he leads the team in receiving touchdowns this year(eight), and has scored the longest touchdown of the season(81 thrilling yards in the first bout versus Boise State). Johnson also leads the team with ten explosive plays of 20 yards or more.
You’ve heard this before, but if the Bulldogs can take care of the football on offense and force turnovers on defense, they stand a good chance of winning the game. Fresno has won the turnover battle seven times in 2017, going 6-1 in those games.
2017 Hawai’i Bowl
Fresno State (9-4) vs Houston (7-4)
Kickoff: Sunday (12/24) 5:30 p.m. PT
Radio: 940 ESPN Radio