Las Vegas Bowl Preview
Houston Cougars vs San Diego State Aztecs
The Las Vegas Bowl doesn’t have its traditional Mountain West vs. Pac-12 matchup, but this year’s game features two of the top Group of 5 teams (Play Now). Houston suffered three losses in league play but defeated Louisville and Oklahoma in non-conference action. With Tom Herman taking the job at Texas, defensive coordinator Todd Orlando was promoted to interim coach for this game. Orlando won’t tweak too much, as the Cougars lean heavily on quarterback Greg Ward (349.6 ypg) and a defense limiting opponents to 22.6 points a game.
San Diego State earned its second consecutive Mountain West title with a 27-24 victory over Wyoming. The Aztecs rank No. 7 in the nation in rushing offense, featuring running back Donnel Pumphrey (2,018 yards). Pumphrey needs just over 100 yards (108) to surpass Ron Dayne for the FBS career mark. Houston leads the American Athletic Conference in rush defense (97.9 ypg), so this will be a tough challenge for Pumphrey and the San Diego State offensive line.
ABOUT SAN DIEGO STATE (10-3, 6-2 Mountain West)
San Diego State senior running back Donnel Pumphrey (6,290 yards) sits 108 yards away from surpassing Wisconsin’s Ron Dayne (6,397) as the all-time leading career rusher in FBS history. Moving past Dayne doesn’t come without controversy for Pumphrey as the NCAA didn’t recognize bowl statistics during Dayne’s career from 1996-99, otherwise Dayne’s yardage total is 7,125. Pumphrey rushed for 2,018 yards in the regular season but figures to be tested by the Cougars, who rank third nationally in rushing defense (97.9 yards per game) and allow just 2.9 yards per carry.
The Aztecs have won 11 games three times in their history. This squad is a run-based team that relies on Pumphrey and junior Rashaad Penny (995 rushing yards, 11 touchdowns). Pumphrey rushed for 16 touchdowns while shattering numerous records held by school legend Marshall Faulk. Penny averaged 7.9 yards per carry running the ball as well as averaging 31.9 yards and scoring two touchdowns on kickoff returns. Sophomore quarterback Christian Chapman (19 touchdowns, six interceptions) isn’t asked to do a lot in passing game. San Diego State rides a sturdy defense led by senior cornerback Damontae Kazee (seven interceptions this season, school-record 17 in his career) and senior outside linebacker Calvin Munson (team-best 108 tackles).
ABOUT HOUSTON (9-3, 5-3 American Athletic Conference)
Houston quarterback Greg Ward Jr. is playing the final game of his spectacular career. He ranks fifth in school history in both passing touchdowns (52) and passing yardage (8,476). Ward accounted for 31 touchdowns (22 passing, nine rushing) this season while throwing for 3,328 yards and rushing for 518. His health is something to watch. Ward has been dealing with shoulder soreness for most of the campaign. Leg soreness could have an effect as well on a player who has 38 career rushing touchdowns.
Ward fuels an attack that averages 38 points per game. Junior receiver Linell Bonner caught 93 passes for 1,076 yards but only found the end zone three times. The Cougars’ best player is freshman defensive tackle Ed Oliver, who posted 19 1/2 tackles for losses (including five sacks). He could be hampered in the Las Vegas bowl game by a balky knee. Sophomore cornerback Howard Wilson intercepted a team-best five passes while senior outside linebacker Steven Taylor had a team-best 72 tackles.