Fresno St.-Rice Preview
Awful starts to the season nearly cost Fresno State and Rice the chance to make a bowl game, but they recovered enough to earn a matchup in paradise.
The Bulldogs would like to make this visit to Aloha Stadium much more memorable than the last.
Fresno State makes its second appearance in three years at the Hawaii Bowl looking to snap one of the nation's longest active bowl losing streaks on Christmas Eve against the Owls.
The Bulldogs (6-7) are the only team to make a bowl with a losing record, thanks in part to opening their season with three straight losses by an average of 35.6 points.
Rice (7-5) endured a similar start, going 0-3 with a margin of defeat of 23.0 points per game.
Fresno State improved defensively to turn around its season and win the Mountain West Conference's West Division. The Bulldogs gave up an average of 25.8 points over the final 10 games, a striking decrease from 55.3 in the first three.
That's helped give them a chance to end what is currently the country's third-longest bowl slide at five, including a 43-10 loss to SMU in the 2012 Hawaii Bowl. The drought dates to a win over Georgia Tech in the 2007 Humanitarian Bowl.
"I am extremely proud of this year's team, who battled and persevered all season long," coach Tim DeRuyter told the team's official website. "... Having been to the Hawaii Bowl just two years ago, our staff and players know that we are in for a fantastic week."
Having Brian Burrell take better care of the ball could make this visit to Hawaii much better. The junior tied for second in the Mountain West with 22 touchdown passes in his first season as a starter, but his 16 interceptions were also good for second.
Burrell tossed five picks compared to two TDs in the last two games. One of his three interceptions was returned for a 63-yard touchdown in a 28-14 loss at Boise State in the MWC championship game Dec. 6.
DeRuyter came away encouraged despite the result.
"We came into the game expecting to win. I think our guys competed like it," he said. "We kept fighting, we kept believing, and kept trying to make plays to get back into the game."
Josh Harper caught 10 of Burrell's passes for 131 yards against Boise State, as he continued to be Fresno State's top threat in the passing game. His 86 receptions and 1,072 yards put him second in the league in both categories behind Colorado State's Rashard Higgins.
The Bulldogs also hope to get Marteze Waller going after he was held to 23 yards on 15 carries in the MWC title game. The junior is third in the conference with 1,292 rushing yards, averaging 6.2 per carry with 11 touchdowns.
Fresno State is dealing with a Rice defense against which it has truly been feast or famine. The Owls allowed averages of 16.6 points and 274.4 yards in their victories, compared to 49.6 points and 568.2 yards in five defeats. Most recently, they were shredded for a season-high 677 yards - 408 through the air - and allowed their most points since 1977 in a 76-31 loss at Louisiana Tech on Nov. 29.
Still, they did enough to set a school record by reaching a bowl game for the third consecutive season.
"I know they are very proud to be the first team to earn a third straight bowl berth, but they are not going to be satisfied with a bid," coach David Bailiff said. "... I know our players will be excited at the chance to travel to Hawaii, but I have no doubt that our team is also looking forward to the opportunity to end our season on a winning note."
Doing so will likely require fewer mistakes from Driphus Jackson, who tossed three of his eight interceptions on the season against Louisiana Tech. He completed 25 of 40 passes for career highs of 337 yards and four TDs.
The junior might find coming close to those numbers difficult, as Fresno State has given up an average of 176.0 passing yards over the past three games.
Jackson's favorite target is 6-foot-5 Jordan Taylor, who led Rice with 49 catches and 781 yards with six TDs in just nine games. The senior had a career-high 10 catches for 136 yards and a score in the regular-season finale.
Fresno State has won all six matchups with the last coming in 2004.