South Florida-Western Kentucky should be an early bowl treat

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Two weeks from today, a game that should be among the best bowls of the season will take place. It’s one to mark down on your office calendar to throw on WatchESPN, or if you’re lucky enough to get the week off, make a point to have on TV.

Western Kentucky and South Florida kick off in the W̶i̶l̶l̶i̶e̶ ̶T̶a̶g̶g̶a̶r̶t̶  Miami Beach Bowl at 2:30 p.m. ET on Monday, Dec. 21. This is a plea to anyone who likes fun football to find a way to watch this game.

Western Kentucky beat Southern Mississippi in the Conference USA Championship Game last weekend, capping off an 11-2 regular season in which Jeff Brohm’s Hilltoppers averaged 44.2 points per game (4th among FBS teams). Senior quarterback Brandon Doughty completed 71.8 percent of his passes (1st among FBS QBs) for 4,594 yards (2nd) and 45 touchdowns (1st). Junior running back Anthony Wales averaged 6.99 yards per carry (6th among FBS players with 100+ carries) in this pass-happy offense, which consistently fed junior receiver Taywan Taylor, who racked up 79 receptions (21st), 1,363 yards (4th) and 17 touchdowns (2nd).

And this isn’t necessarily a team that only looks good thanks to a weak C-USA schedule — SB Nation’s Bill Connelly’s S&P+ numbers rate WKU as the 11th-best team in FBS. The Hilltoppers’ offense ranks 1st in efficiency, seventh in finishing drives and 11th in explosiveness. This is a top-five passing offense and a top-30 rushing offense, one which scored fewer than 35 points only twice this year (against Vanderbilt and LSU).

On the other sideline is a South Florida team coached by Taggart — who quickly built a solid foundation at WKU from 2010-2012 — who steered his team to a massive turnaround this fall. The Bulls lost three games in a row in the first quarter of the season, and while the opponents were Florida State, Maryland and Memphis, becoming bowl-eligible looked like a difficult task.

After that losing streak, though, the Bulls ripped off wins in seven of their final eight games, with the only loss in there to a very good Navy team. A 44-23 win over Temple nearly upended Matt Rhule’s bid for an conference title game appearance, and a 65-27 stomping of Cincinnati asserted South Florida as one of the better teams in the AAC.

South Florida is very much geared toward running the ball with sophomore running back Marlon Mack (193 carries, 1,273 yards, eight TDs) and quarterback Quinton Flowers (157 carries, 969 yards, 10 TDs). But Flowers has a penchant for throwing for big plays, too, throwing a dozen passes for 40 or more yards with 21 touchdowns against eight interceptions.

Both WKU and USF have decent-to-mediocre defenses — WKU’s ranks 53rd in S&P+, while USF’s is 39th — that may not provide a whole lot of resistance against the powerful offenses in this game. It’ll be played at Marlins Park during the afternoon on a Monday — insert your baseball joke here, mine is that the poor Marlins, with Giancarlo Stanton only playing half a season, hit the second-fewest home runs in the majors this summer — but from afar looks like one of the most entertaining games of bowl season.

 

Notre Dame will be without second-leading receiver for Citrus Bowl

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When Notre Dame’s offense takes the field this postseason, its receiving corps will be down an important contributor.

Brian Kelly confirmed Saturday afternoon that Chase Claypool will not play in the New Year’s Day Citrus Bowl matchup with LSU because of an injury to his right shoulder.  The wide receiver suffered the injury during practice this past Tuesday.

Next Tuesday, Claypool will undergo surgery to repair the damage.

A true sophomore, Claypool is currently second on the Fighting Irish in receptions (29) and receiving yards (402).  He also has a pair of touchdown catches.

Equanimeous Brown leads the team in both catches with 31 and yards with 468.

Troy makes Big Easy work of North Texas in New Orleans Bowl

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Troy jumped out to a big lead early, watched it dwindle to two points by halftime, then jumped out to another large lead to begin the second half and held onto it this time, exploding for a 50-30 win over North Texas in the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl.

After watching a potential 29-7 lead in the second quarter turn into a 22-20 lead with North Texas getting the ball to open the second half, Troy intercepted North Texas quarterback Mason Fine at the Mean Green 27, which Troy quarterback Brandon Silvers capitalized on by hitting Damion Willis for a 24-yard fade and then scored one play later on a 1-yard keeper, giving Troy a 29-20 lead at the 13:33 mark of the third quarter.

The Trojans forced a three-and-out on UNT’s next drive, then moved 92 yards in just five plays, scoring on a 59-yard strike from Silvers to Tevaris McCormick. North Texas attempted to climb back in the game with a 13-play march, but Fine was sacked on a 3rd-and-3 play from the Troy 6-yard line and Mean Green head coach Seth Littrell elected for a 24-yard Trevor Moore field goal rather than a do-or-die fourth-down conversion, pulling the score to 36-23 at the 4:26 mark of the third quarter.

North Texas forced a three-and-out and accepted the ball at its own 33 with a chance to climb back in the game, but Tyler Murray effectively ended it by sacking Fine and forcing his third turnover inside UNT territory. The Trojans hopped on the ball at the Mean Green 13 and, after a penalty, scored on a 20-yard strike from Silvers (24-of-31 for 306 yards) to John Johnson, putting the game out of reach at 43-23 with 2:02 left in the third quarter.

The dagger came when North Texas coughed up its fourth minus-territory turnover of the game, a Michael Lawrence fumble at the UNT 47, and Silvers hit Willis for his fourth passing touchdown of the game and fifth total score, a 10-yard strike with 4:07 left in the game.

Fine completed the scoring with a 17-yard cosmetic touchdown pass to Turner Smiley with 28 seconds left. The Conference USA Offensive Player of the Year, Fine completed 30-of-54 passes for 303 yards with three touchdowns while getting sacked six times and turning the ball over four times. Playing without leading rusher Jeffrey Wilson, North Texas mustered only 50 yards on running plays. Overall, Troy won the turnover battle 5-2 and out-gained the Mean Green 437-295.

The win allows Troy to conclude its best season since joining the Sun Belt in 2004. The Trojans claimed their first SBC crown since 2009, won their fourth bowl game ever and registered their first 11-win season since doing so as an FCS member in 1999. North Texas (9-5) dropped to 1-4 in its five New Orleans Bowl appearances, slunk to 2-7 all-time in bowl games, missed a shot at its first 10-win season since 1947 and fell to 2-9 all-time against Troy.

Troy accepted the ball to open the game and promptly rolled 80 yards in nine plays, capped by a 1-yard Josh Anderson scoring run. The Trojans immediately pushed the lead to two scores when North Texas quarterback Fine was sacked and fumbled at his own 14, setting up Anderson’s second touchdown run of the first half of the first quarter. Silvers hit Johnson for a 2-point conversion to stake the Trojans to a 15-0 lead at the 9:21 mark of the opening frame.

The Mean Green went three-and-out on their next possession but, facing the prospect of getting buried for the game in just the first quarter, the North Texas defense rose up when Joshua Wheeler sacked Silvers on third down at the Troy 39. The UNT offense awoke with an 11-play, 75-yard drive culminating in a 12-yard pass from Fine to Rico Bussey, Jr.

Anderson immediately responded with a 55-yard run on the final play of the first quarter, and Silvers completed the drive four plays later with a 7-yard strike to Willis at the 14:24 mark of the second quarter. North Texas attempted to return service with another touchdown, but Fine under-threw a wide open Bussey on 3rd-and-2 from the Troy 31 and his fourth down pass to Michael Lawrence was dropped.

Troy threatened to push its lead to three touchdowns on its next drive, moving to the North Texas 22, when disaster struck — a snap went over Silvers’s head and was scooped up by the Mean Green’s Colton McDonald, who returned the loose pigskin 56 yards for a touchdown. Fine’s 2-point conversion rush failed, but North Texas was still within 22-13 with 5:49 left in the first half.

North Texas had a golden opportunity to pull within one score of the Trojans when Kishawn McClain intercepted Silvers at the UNT 46 on Troy’s first play of the ensuing possession, but the Mean Green were forced to punt after just one first down.

But North Texas forced its third straight stop, this drive ended by another Wheeler sack, and Fine capitalized with a 13-yard touchdown pass to Lawrence with 49 seconds left before the break to pull the Mean Green within two.

Ex-Minnesota QB Demry Croft appears headed to FCS school

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A little less than three weeks after leaving Minnesota, Demry Croft appears to have found a new college football home.

In a tweet posted to his personal Twitter account Saturday afternoon, Croft seemed to indicate that he has decided to transfer to Tennessee State to continue his playing career.  As TSU plays at the FCS level, Croft will be eligible to play immediately in 2018.

Including next season, he has two years of eligibility remaining.

This season, Croft, who started the last six games of 2017,  completed 42 percent of his 122 passes for 674 yards, four touchdowns and seven interceptions. His 87.6 pass efficiency rating is not amongst the top 126 quarterbacks in the country.  Perhaps the most noteworthy moment of his Gophers career was posting a negative quarterback rating in a mid-November loss to Northwestern two weeks before he decided to transfer.

Conversely, though, he was good with his feet as his 309 yards rushing and four rushing touchdowns were fourth and third on the team, respectively.

Troy leading North Texas halfway through an entertaining New Orleans Bowl

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Brandon Silvers hit his first 11 passes and Troy threatened to blow the game open early, but North Texas found its footing at fought its way back into the New Orleans Bowl. As it stands, Troy holds a 22-20 lead at the break.

Troy accepted the ball to open the game and promptly rolled 80 yards in nine plays, capped by a 1-yard Josh Anderson scoring run. The Trojans immediately pushed the lead to two scores when North Texas quarterback Mason Fine was sacked and fumbled at his own 14, setting up Anderson’s second touchdown run of the first half of the first quarter. Silvers hit John Johnson for a 2-point conversion to stake the Trojans to a 15-0 lead at the 9:21 mark of the opening frame.

The Mean Green went three-and-out on their next possession but, facing the prospect of getting buried for the game in just the first quarter, the North Texas defense rose up when Joshua Wheeler sacked Silvers on third down at the Troy 39. The UNT offense awoke with an 11-play, 75-yard drive culminating in a 12-yard pass from Fine to Rico Bussey, Jr.

Anderson immediately responded with a 55-yard run on the final play of the first quarter, and Silvers completed the drive four plays later with a 7-yard strike to Damion Willis at the 14:24 mark of the second quarter. North Texas attempted to return service with another touchdown, but Fine under-threw a wide open Bussey on 3rd-and-2 from the Troy 31 and his fourth down pass to Michael Lawrence was dropped.

Troy threatened to push its lead to three touchdowns on its next drive, moving to the North Texas 22, when disaster struck — a snap went over Silvers’s head and was scooped up by the Mean Green’s Colton McDonald, who returned the loose pigskin 56 yards for a touchdown. Fine’s 2-point conversion rush failed, but North Texas was still within 22-13 with 5:49 left in the first half.

North Texas had a golden opportunity to pull within one score of the Trojans when Kishawn McClain intercepted Silvers at the UNT 46 on Troy’s first play of the ensuing possession, but the Mean Green were forced to punt after just one first down.

But North Texas forced its third straight stop, this drive ended by another Wheeler sack, and Fine capitalized with a 13-yard touchdown pass to Lawrence with 49 seconds left before the break to pull the Mean Green within two. Fine completed 13-of-23 passes in the half for 146 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. The Mean Green have mustered just 15 yards on 14 carries.

Silvers closed the half hitting 16-of-21 passes for 138 yards and a touchdown and a pick, and Anderson led all rushers with 13 carries for 90 yards and two touchdowns.

North Texas will receive to open the second half.