Two physical defenses prone to creating turnovers, each excelling in stopping specific offenses, face off Tuesday.
It’s Utah State and Akron, a perfect pairing for the chilly winter setting of the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl at Albertsons Stadium.
“Looking at their defense as much as we have, and knowing how good ours is, it will probably be a challenge for both offenses,” Utah State quarterback Chuckie Keeton said.
The Aggies and Zips can create a flurry of turnovers, forcing 17 and 18, respectively, in their wins this season. Utah State is 14th nationally in passing yards allowed per game (180.4), and Akron is third in rushing yards allowed (89.8). Both are in the top 22 in total yards allowed.
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Akron coach Terry Bowden thinks the likely overcast cold weather, perhaps with some precipitation, is what his team was built to play in.
“Our defense, we made a decision that we were going to build our season around our defense and try to build an offense that ran the ball, that controlled the clock a little bit more,” Bowden said. “The Midwest, where we come from, is like this about November, where championships are won or bowl games made. It’s going to be snowing or raining, very cold and it’s going to come sideways. And you’d better be able to run the football and play defense.”
A ball-controlling, run-heavy offense on the other side will mean the Aggies have to bring their tenacity in trying to force an interception or fumble. It’s no doubt something those in Boise know is possible, lest they forget the eight turnovers Boise State yielded in Logan this season.
However, the Aggies have created only three in the six games since.
“Hadn’t got as many lately,” Utah State coach Matt Wells said. “I’d like to see some of that. But a lot of the times that will come and go in a game and it came in a flurry like that (Boise State) game. But as long as you run to the football and you’re very, very aggressive, then those kind of things, they can present themselves and we sure like to take advantage of those opportunities.”
Both teams hope to establish the run early. The Zips have rushed for 155 yards or more during their four-game win streak, and the Aggies have averaged 219.3 rushing yards per game in their six wins. Breaking off a big play would help put the other team in a tough spot, having to make up points against a tough defense.
“They’re an athletic defense. They’re coming in confident, so we have to come out and hit them early, hopefully get some big plays and get them on their heels,” Utah State wide receiver Brandon Swindall said.
Bowden hired defensive coordinator Chuck Amato when his tenure began four years ago, and he knew as a long-time assistant under his father, Bobby, at Florida State, that Amato “always understands defense starts with stopping the run.”
The Famous Idaho Potato Bowl will be the 35th bowl game Amato has coached.
“That’s an ancient guy there,” Akron nose tackle Cody Grice said to a chorus of laughs Monday. “... He’s got enough rings to fill your hands and toes.”
Just as Keeton is looking forward to challenging himself in his final college game, it also is a test Akron is ready to face. Just as both defenses are out to prove which is better, both offenses are seeking the chance to succeed.
“Very good, especially up front and their linebackers,” Akron running back Conor Hundley said. “They play on every play and they use their hands very well, and they’re athletic, and they swarm to the ball. So, looking forward to playing against their defense.”
PLENTY OF MOTIVATION FOR ZIPS AND AGGIES
This is a new experience for Akron and old hat for Utah State. But both have quite a bit riding on the outcome.
It is the Zips’ first bowl game since 2005 and second in school history. It came after the school was forced to cut $40 million from its budget, eliminating baseball and cutting more than 200 jobs.
“I think it’s big for the university,” Hundley said. “... We talked about it at the beginning of this year with some issues with our budget of our university. And we said at the beginning of the year if we do something special, our university can sort of rally around us.”
It is the Aggies’ fifth straight bowl game, and a chance to bookend careers for some of its top seniors, like Keeton and linebacker Kyler Fackrell. Both played in the 2012 Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, the Aggies’ second-ever bowl win.
“Now they’ll get to finish here on the blue turf, so that’s exciting for me to see as a coach and to be able to coach them one last time, hopefully send these guys out as winners,” Wells said.
By the numbers
Measuring the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl’s defensive team statistics, through Saturday’s games (FBS rank in parentheses):
Red zone percentage
Sacks per game
Famous Idaho Potato Bowl: Utah State vs. Akron
▪ When: 1:30 p.m. Tuesday
▪ Where: Albertsons Stadium (36,387, FieldTurf), Boise
▪ TV: ESPN
▪ Records: Utah State (6-6, 5-3 Mountain West); Akron (7-5, 5-3 Mid-American)
▪ Coaches: Utah State, Matt Wells (25-15, third year); Akron, Terry Bowden (18-30, fourth year; 158-92-2, 22nd year overall)
▪ Series: First meeting
▪ Vegas line: Utah State by 6 1/2
▪ Tickets: $20-$90, at ticketmaster.com; $24 for FitOne Family Field Day (pre-game NFL combine-type event at 10:30 a.m., lunch and game ticket)
▪ Kickoff weather: Mid 30s and partly cloudy, with 8 mph winds and a 15 percent chance of rain.