Tuesday, December 29, 2015

LSU Tigers: 2015 Texas Bowl Champions



HOUSTON — Cam Cameron strutted along the sideline with play sheet in hand, and D.J. Chark raced 79 yards for a touchdown.

Trey Quinn caught a 46-yard pass, and Tre’Davious White played some safety.

Les Miles followed last month’s job-security drama with some ole Mad Hatter surprises in the Texas Bowl.

The result: LSU 56, Texas Tech 27.

The No. 22 Tigers (9-3) rolled up 638 yards of offense — gaining some in peculiar ways — and LSU’s defense suffocated the pass-heavy Red Raiders (7-6) just enough, finishing a wacky 2015 season by winning a late-night shootout Tuesday.

Running back Leonard Fournette ran for 212 yards and four scores, caught a touchdown pass and broke the LSU single-season record for rushing TDs.

All of that was normal and expected.

What wasn’t?

Chark, a little used sophomore receiver, had a 79-yard scoring run on an end-around on the first play of LSU’s third drive.

Cameron called plays from the sideline for the first time in his three-year tenure as offensive coordinator.

Quinn, another little-used sophomore receiver, more than doubled his receiving yards in the previous 11 games with his 47-yard grab.

And White, the Tigers’ cornerback and projected first- or second-round draft pick, played safety at times.

In front of a sellout crowd of 71,307, Cameron and his offense roared against a defense that was one of the worst in the nation. LSU scored its most points this season and finished with its most yards. Brandon Harris threw for more than 250 yards, and four players had at least 40 receiving yards.

Receiver Malachi Dupre, the one-time five-star recruit, shined with leading receiver Travin Dural out with injury. He caught four passes for 94 yards, making two highlight-reel plays.

Fournette excelled, as many expected against the nation’s second-worst rushing defense. He picked up a fourth 200-yard game this season and a 10th 100-yard outing in 12 games.

His five touchdowns tied the NCAA bowl record for scores from scrimmage, and he broke a half-dozen tackles on the way to a banner day.

The Tigers needed him in this scoring mess. Tech entered with the top passing offense in the nation and the second-best offense overall.

Tech quarterback Patrick Mahomes threw for 370 yards and four touchdowns, and LSU needed a key play in the third quarter to change momentum.

With the Tigers nursing a 28-20 lead, White tipped a pass from Mahomes, and Rickey Jefferson — another surprising star — picked it off at the goal line.

“That was a big turning point,” Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury said.

The Tigers’ hot offense answered. They got a clutch 39-yard reception from Dupre on the next drive, and then Harris hit Quinn for that long pass to set up one of Fournette’s four rushing touchdowns.

The Tigers scored again the next series on Harris’ 26-yard designed keeper, grabbing a 42-20 lead with 9 seconds left in the third quarter to clear out a once-packed NRG Stadium.

Kendell Beckwith had 2.5 sacks, Davon Godchaux had 2 and Deion Jones had one as the Tigers used that old 3-2-6 Mustang defense against spread-crazed Tech.

The swarming defensive front held Tech to 399 yards — nearly 200 under its season average — helping guarantee the Tigers a Top-25 ranking to end the season. LSU will finish in the Top 25 for the ninth time in Miles’ 11 seasons, and the Tigers hit the nine-win mark for the ninth time.

Players and coaches celebrated on a late night in the nation’s fourth-largest city. They swarmed around a makeshift stage at midfield during the trophy presentation.

Seniors Jamie Keehn, Vadal Alexander and Jones — permanent team captains — stood on the stage with Miles and Fournette, the MVP. Thousands of Tigers fans lingered and roared as Miles addressed them and slipped on a Texas Bowl baseball cap.

Fournette visited with family and friends, donning a cowboy hat — all smiles on a surprising night in Houston.

Nevada Wolf Pack: 2015 Arizona Bowl Champions



The Nevada Wolf Pack defeated the Colorado State Rams 28-23 in the inaugural Nova Home Loans Arizona Bowl on Tuesday night. It was a gritty, grinded it out performance by the Wolf Pack as they leaned on an explosive rushing attack and a solid defensive performance to give them their first bowl victory since defeating Boston College in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl back in 2010.

Nevada running back James Butler was named offensive MVP of the Arizona Bowl as he ran for 189 yards and scored two touchdowns while Wolf Pack defensive end Ian Seau was named defensive MVP as he recorded five tackles, three tackles for loss, a sack, a pass break up and forced a fumble tonight in Seau's final game as a member of the Wolf Pack. Seau got the action started in the first quarter of the game when he sacked Rams quarterback Nick Stevens causing him to fumble the ball which was recovered by Wolf Pack defensive end Rykeem Aytes and ten plays later, Nevada capitalized on that turnover when Brett Zuso kicked a 19-yard field to give the Wolf Pack a 3-0 lead.

The Rams took the lead in the second quarter when Stevens scored on a one-yard touchdown run and after the extra point, Colorado State took a 7-6 lead. After the score, the Wolf Pack answered back quickly when James Butler scored on a 77-yard touchdown run to give Nevada a 13-7 lead. After the Rams scored on a Wyatt Brown field goal to make it 13-10 Nevada, the Rams kicked the ball off to the Wolf Pack's Elijah Mitchell and he took it 96 yards for the touchdown to give the Wolf Pack a 19-10 lead after Zuso missed the PAT. The Rams were able to tack on another field goal before the half to cut the Nevada lead to 19-13.

In the second half with Nevada up 22-13, Colorado State went on a 12 play, 75-yard scoring drive that was capped off with a nine-yard touchdown run by Jasen Oden Jr., to cut the Wolf Pack lead to 22-20. In the fourth quarter, the Rams took the lead when Brown connected on a 38-yard field to give Colorado State a 23-22 lead. Nevada got the ball back with 3:40 left in the game and scored on an eight play, 72-yard drive that was capped off by a four-yard touchdown run by James Butler as the Wolf Pack retook the lead 28-23. The Rams had one final chance to retake the lead late in the game and despite having no timeouts, the Rams were able to orchestrated a quick hitting drive that got them in scoring range. But in the final seconds of the game, Stevens connected with Jordon Vaden but Vaden could not get out of bounds as time expired.

With the bowl win, Nevada ends their up and down season on a high note by going 7-6 and gained some much needed momentum headed into the offseason as Brian Polian and his Wolf Pack look to improve on their consistency and hopefully become a factor in the Mountain West in 2016.

Baylor Bears: 2015 Russell Athletic Bowl Champions



Baylor-North Carolina was exactly what anyone who tuned into ESPN at 5:30 ET on Monday night expected to see: Two high-powered offenses racing up and down the field with little resistance and rattling the scoreboard. The Bears and Tar Heels combined for 12 touchdowns, 1,243 yards of total offense and 87 points. In the end, Baylor pulled out a 49-38 win in one of the most entertaining bowls of this postseason.

But if this game lived up to its billing as a high-scoring, defense-optional thrill ride, it also added another data point to Art Briles’ sterling coaching résumé. The Bears repeatedly gashed North Carolina’s defense even though they were missing their leading rusher (Shock Linwood), top two quarterbacks (Seth Russell and Jarret Stidham) and Biletnikoff Award-winning wide receiver (Corey Coleman). Without those dangerous playmakers at his disposal, Briles effectively used the Russell Athletic Bowl as a testing lab. The Tar Heels had no answers for Baylor’s direct snaps. Four Bears completed passes, and five combined for 645 rushing yards—including 333 in the first half, the fourth most by a Football Bowl Subdivision team in 2015, according to ESPN Stats and Information. The total (645) broke the bowl record, previously set by Nebraska (524) in the 1996 Fiesta Bowl.

So dominant was Baylor’s running game that the RAB saw fit to razz the Philadelphia Eagles over social media shortly after the team fired head coach Chip Kelly. Here’s Bears running back Johnny Jefferson dashing up the middle for an 11-yard touchdown in the second quarter. The sophomore finished with 299 yards and three touchdowns on 23 carries (13.0 YPC).

There’s a perception that Baylor’s offense is a plug-and-play system that can rotate players in and out without missing a step. Tuesday’s win will reinforce that perception, but for Briles, this was less a preservation of the status quo with different personnel than a tactical adaptation to accommodate a thinned group of playmakers. Baylor ran the ball 84 times, 31.5 more than its season average (52.50), and threw it 18 times, 12.9 fewer than its season average (30.9). The process changed, but the ultimate result did not: The Bears eclipsed their season scoring average by one point. In essence, Briles orchestrated another pyrotechnics show with a less-than-ideal set of materials. That said, don’t expect to see this gameplan when Baylor is fully healthy next season.

Granted, North Carolina’s defense isn’t great, but under first year coordinator Gene Chizik it improved from 99th in Football Outsiders defensive S&P + last season to 65th this season, and from 119th to 33rd in points allowed per game.

A win in a third-tier bowl game probably isn’t what Baylor had in mind when it opened 2015 ranked fourth in the Associated Press poll and ripped off eight consecutive wins. Had the Bears not lost Russell and Stidham to injury, perhaps they’d be in Miami Gardens playing for the national title instead of Big 12 counterpart Oklahoma. But the Bears’ strong showing against a North Carolina team that would have had a case for a College Football Playoff berth had it knocked off Clemson in the ACC championship game can help allay the disappointment. Baylor outgunned one of the nation’s top squads using reserves in key spots and will enter the off-season on a positive note, with renewed confidence that Briles’ system can succeed without its best players.

California Golden Bears: 2015 Armed Forces Bowl Champions

   

FORT WORTH, Texas - Faced with an opportunity to craft the final chapter in a season filled with positive progress as a program, the Cal football team didn't have to look hard for a game plan when it lined up against Air Force in the Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl.

Instead, a 55-36 victory over the Falcons at Amon G. Carter Stadium followed a familiar script for a Cal program that took serious strides in 2015. Yet another tremendous performance from quarterback Jared Goff paved the way and the Bears followed his lead, rolling to their eighth win of the season for the first time since 2009.

As was often the case for the Bears this year, Goff was the main character in Cal's story of success, completing 25 of 37 passes for 467 yards, six touchdowns and no interceptions to earn game MVP honors. Along the way, he set Pac-12 single season records for passing touchdowns (43) and yards (4,719) while setting a Cal bowl record and tying his career high for touchdowns in a single game. His touchdown total also tied for second-most in Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) bowl history.

Goff's focus wasn't confined to one or two main targets. Kenny Lawler found the end zone three times, hauling in five passes for 75 yards while senior Bryce Treggs made his final collegiate game a memorable one with four catches for 143 yards and a touchdown. Fellow senior Darius Powe caught two touchdown passes and nine different Bears caught a pass and Cal (8-5) racked up 586 yards of total offense while breaking the school record for points in a bowl game of 52 (2003 Insight Bowl vs. Virginia Tech).

"I thought the way we played today was really indicative of the way we practiced leading up to the game," Cal head coach Sonny Dykes said. "I was really pleased with the way we focused. We started practicing the week after the Arizona State game. And it's a long way away when you start thinking about practicing. You have about a month between that game and this game. And we've got to give our guys a lot of credit, because they had the right mentality. They came out and practiced hard every day. They were real focused, and I thought we played that way as a result. So, again, it was nice to see them prepare the way they did."

Air Force (8-6) kept pace with the Bears into the second quarter, trading scores with Cal to keep the score a manageable 14-all with a few minutes gone in the period. But, as the Falcons tried to grind out yards with their triple-option attack, Cal countered with its full arsenal of big play threats.

A 5-yard touchdown pass from Goff to Powe, followed by an over the shoulder dime to Lawler for a 24-yard score put Cal up 28-14. After a long drive by Air Force resulted in a 1-yard touchdown sneak by quarterback Karson Roberts, Goff fired a 55-yard strike to Treggs that set up a 14-yard pitch and catch to Lawler that made it 35-21 Bears at intermission.

Cal's attack kept rolling without much resistance in the third quarter. Goff connected with Powe again for a 12-yard touchdown pass, Matt Anderson added a 29-yard field goal and Lawler snagged a 25-yard pass for his third touchdown of the day to push the score to 52-29. In the process, Lawler also continued to move upward in the Cal career record book, tying for second in career touchdown receptions with 27 as well as single-season touchdown receptions with 13.

"The guys got open and made it a lot easier for me," Goff said. "The O‑line started to protect really well. And I'm just sitting back there, like you said, playing pitch and catch. And, when they're that open, I don't want to say it's easy. But it's not as hard as it would be if you had to fit one in there."

Anderson finished the scoring in the fourth quarter with a 30-yard field goal, capping a 14-play drive that took almost eight minutes off the clock to seal the victory. The bowl win is Cal's first since a 24-17 win over Miami in the 2008 Emerald Bowl and is the Bears' second over Air Force in the Armed Forces Bowl, joining a 42-36 win over the Falcons in 2007. It also gave Cal eight wins in a season for just the 11th time since 1952.

"Credit to these coaches for really just instilling a belief and holding everyone accountable," said safety Stefan McClure. "And it showed with the improvements over the each of the past two seasons. So just a great honor to really be a part of this team and just show how much hard work really pays off. And now we're sitting here with eight wins, and the program is in great hands and looking forward to see what these guys are going to do next year."