Nevada Wolf Pack (7-5 SU, 5-6-1 ATS) vs. No. 21 Southern Miss Golden Eagles (11-2 SU, 8-5 ATS), Saturday December 24th, 2011. 8:00PM EST. Sheraton Hawaii Bowl, Aloha Stadium Honolulu, Hawaii
By Jay Horne, College Football Handicapper, Predictem.com
Point Spread: Nev +6/USM -6
Over/Under Total: 61
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The no. 21 Southern Miss Golden Eagles shocked the nation with their big upset over no. 6 Houston in the Conference USA Championship Game. Not only did the Golden Eagles shock then nation by winning the game outright, but possibly more surprisingly by the way they dominated the game from start to finish. The win not only earned the Golden Eagles their 5th Conference USA Championship, but it also helped Southern Miss reach the 11 win plateau for the first time in school history. Now the Golden Eagles have a chance to increase that single season school record to 12 wins when they meet the Nevada Wolf Pack in the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl.
The Wolf Pack are a year removed from their most successful season in school history after reaching a 13-1 mark in 2010. This year Nevada had to overcome replacing a lot of personnel from their 2010 and managed respectable 7-5 SU mark on the season. The Wolf Pack also finished 2nd in the WAC with a 5-2 mark in conference play. On Christmas Eve, Nevada will make the trip to Honolulu for the 3rd time in school history to battle the Golden Eagles in the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl. In the prior two trips to the island, Nevada loss their most recent visit 45-10 to SMU in 2009 but also won the Hawaii Bowl back in 2005 in a 49-48 thriller against UCF. If the Wolf Pack can manage to pull out another victory on Christmas Eve, it will mark only Nevada’s 5th postseason win in school history.
One thing that is certain is we should see plenty of point scored in this game. Both offenses rank inside the top 30 teams in the country in terms of scoring and can move the ball very effectively. Still, I would have to give Southern Miss the nod when comparing both offenses. The Golden Eagles are extremely balanced in their offensive attack and can beat defenses in numerous ways. The Southern Miss offense has averaged 207 yards per game on the ground (23rd in NCAA) and 263 yards per game through the air (31st in NCAA).
QB Austin Davis is the clear leader of the offense. Davis will run the ball quite often from behind center and has tallied 332 yards with his legs on the year. In the passing game, Davis has completed 62% passing for 3,331 yards with 28 scores and 11 picks on the season. Coach Larry Fedora, who will be moving on to coach at North Carolina after the Hawaii Bowl, does a great job of using Davis in different scenarios both running and passing to keep defenses guessing. Still, the Golden Eagles offense has more weapons in their arsenal outside of Davis.
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WR Ryan Balentine leads the offense in receiving with 742 yards and 8 scores. Balentine is just one of many receivers that can make big plays for the Southern Miss receiving core. In the big win over Houston, WR Tracy Lampley caught 5 passes for 125 yards to lead the offense. Also, WR Kelvin Bolden has proved to be a big target for the Golden Eagles air assault as well. Collectively, the offense should give the Nevada defense a ton of match-up difficulties. After all, the Wolf Pack has given up over 370 yards per game on the defensive side of the ball and they have really struggled on defense multiple times this season. Therefore if Southern Miss can expose some of those mismatches, then they should be able to come up with some big plays.
For that Nevada defense, they have to keep the ball in front of them and prevent the big plays. The defense must have that bend but don’t break mentality. If they can play well defensively, the heavily rushing offense that Nevada runs could help that defense stay rested if they can indeed move the ball on the ground. So far this season, the Wolf Pack has not had any trouble moving the ball on the ground racking up 251 yards per game.
In actuality, Nevada has moved the ball very well both passing and rushing. Nevada ranks 5th in total offense averaging 522 yards per game. Still, the rushing attack is normally what gives defenses nightmares. Running back Lampford Mark and QB Cody Fajardo have combined for 19 rushing touchdowns this season. Also, both rushers are averaging near 6 yards per carry as well. Both tailbacks will face a difficult challenge moving the ball against a Golden Eagles defense that has been rock solid against the run allowing just 112 yards per game (20th in NCAA).
If that is the case, it will be up to Wolf Pack QB Cody Fajardo to make some plays with his arm rather than his legs. Fajardo has completed 71% passing this season for 1,647 yards with 6 scores and 5 picks. Fajardo does not attempt a lot of balls down field, but does complete some short high percentage throws in attempt to let the Wolf Pack receivers rack up some yards after catch. WR Rishard Matthews is the biggest play threat for the Wolf Pack and he has put together some really big performances this year. Matthews has caught 91 passes for 1,364 receiving yards with 8 scores. Matthews has went over 200 yards receiving on two separate occasions this year along with several other 100 plus yard receiving games. If Nevada has trouble running the football, look for the offense to look to Matthews to pick up the difference.
Jay’s Pick to Cover the Point Spread: I think the Golden Eagles defense is the difference here. Just as you saw against Houston, the Golden Eagles do not give up many big plays and they can come up with turnovers if given the opportunity. I think that defense will stop the Nevada rushing attack and the Wolf Pack will not be able to keep pace. Take Southern Miss -6.
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