The Cincinnati Bearcats and San Diego State Aztecs will be celebrating Christmas Eve in Hawaii, as these two square off in the Hawaii Bowl at Aloha Stadium in Honolulu. Game time is set for 8:00 PM ET, and the game will be televised on ESPN.
How They Got Here: Cincinnati brings a 7-5 record into this matchup, with all five losses coming against bowl teams. San Diego State started the season 1-3 in non-conference play. The Aztecs then proceeded to run the table in Mountain West Conference play, going 8-0 and then beating Air Force in the MWC Championship game.
Cincinnati offense vs. San Diego State defense: The Bearcats bring the nation’s #5 offense into this contest. Cincinnati’s attack is led by QB Gunner Kiel, who completed 65.2% of his pass attempts this season. However, Kiel is not making the trip to Hawaii with his teammates, as he is dealing with a personal issue. That leaves the keys to the offense in the hands of Hayden Moore. Moore started two games this season, completing 58.8% of his passes, including nine TD’s. Moore’s eight interceptions in just 194 attempts is cause for concern. The Bearcats employ the “running back by committee” approach, utilizing the talents of Hosey Williams (725 rushing yards, four TD’s, 5.6 yards per carry), Mike Boone (717 rushing yards, eight TD’s, 7.5 yards per carry), and Tion Green (697 rushing yards, eight TD’s, 4.9 yards per carry).
If Cincinnati chooses to rely on the run in Kiel’s absence, they will be running into the nation’s #6 run defense. The Aztecs allowed just 3.2 yards per carry this season, and 111.2 rushing yards per game. Moore won’t find the sledding any easier through the air, as San Diego State also owns the nation’s #13 pass defense, allowing just 176.8 passing yards per game. The Aztecs are also #6 in the country with 20 interceptions this season (three returned for touchdowns), so Moore will definitely have to take better care of the football. The Aztecs 3-3-5 defense puts an extra DB on the field and will try to confuse Moore by mixing up their blitzes. To make matters worse for the Bearcats, the Aztecs rank #5 in the nation in third down conversion defense, allowing just 27.8% conversions.
San Diego State offense vs. Cincinnati defense: San Diego State operates one of the run-heaviest offenses in college football. The Aztecs have run the football on 71.6% of their plays this season. The Aztecs ground attack is led by RB Donnel Pumphrey, the MWC Offensive Player of the Year. Humphrey ran for 1,554 yards (5.5 yards per carry) and 16 TD’s. Humphrey will be running at a Bearcats defense that has allowed 190.3 rushing yards per game on five yards per carry this season. The Aztecs have the potential to control this game on the ground against that vulnerable Bearcats run defense.
San Diego State QB Maxwell Smith had tossed 13 TD’s and just two INT’s in 200 pass attempts before an ACL injury against Nevada seemingly ended his season. Smith is listed as “questionable” for this game, as he is determined to play. “He says he’s going to try to play in the bowl game,” Aztecs head coach Rocky Long said. “He’s going to try to rehab and put it in a brace and see if he can play with the brace and then he’s going to get operated on after the bowl game. That’s his plan right now. That’s what he wants to do.” If Smith doesn’t play, the offense gets turned over to Christian Chapman. Chapman led the Aztecs in their 27-24 win over Air Force in the MWC title game.
Special Teams: The Aztecs rank #7 in the nation with a 26.9-yard average on kickoff returns. The Bearcats rank 116th in kickoff return coverage, allowing 24.9 yards per return. The Aztecs also rank #43 in punt return average, while Cincinnati is ranked #84 in punt return coverage. The two teams are about even in regards to Cincinnati returns and Aztecs coverage. So it would seem the return game advantage goes to San Diego State. The two kickers, Cincinnati’s Andrew Gantz and San Diego State’s Donny Hageman, have performed evenly.
Intangibles: Both teams are in the bottom half of the FBS in penalty yardage, but no real edge for either side. Where the Aztecs do have a solid edge is in turnover margin. San Diego State is the #1 team in the nation, sporting a +19 turnover margin this season. Cincinnati ranks #124 out of 127 teams in that category, with a -16 turnover margin on the season.
Outlook: It comes down to the passing attack of Cincinnati against the defense and running game of San Diego State. The Aztecs figure to have success on the ground. The key may very well be, as it is in many games, turnovers. That’s where the Aztecs have a huge edge. Having the better defense, better turnover team, and better ground game is about as much as we can ask for in a football game. Sprinkle in an edge in the return game, and San Diego State looks like a solid play.
Read moreHawaii Bowl Free Pick: San Diego State Aztecs vs. Cincinnati Bearcats