High-scoring affair likely in Miami Beach Bowl matchup
Bowl season is upon us, and the Miami Beach Bowl selection committee, led by chairman Butch Davis, has selected a pair of teams that could potentially prove to be one of the most entertaining games of the postseason. The 11-2 program and Conference-USA champion Western Kentucky Hilltoppers will face off with red-hot South Florida Bulls. Western Kentucky finished the season ranked 25th in the AP poll, and will face their former coach and player, Willie Taggart, in the second-annual bowl game played at Marlins Park.
Both of these teams caught fire late in the season, as South Florida closed out the year with seven victories in eight games that included Week 11 and 12 wins over Temple and Cincinnati by an average of 29.5 points. While Western Kentucky lost two games to Power-5 opponents, they were able to close out a victory over Vanderbilt, and finished on a five-game winning streak. The Hilltoppers concluded the season with wins over Marshall and Southern Miss by an average of 19.5 points.
The Vegas over/under is set at 66, but the Tops finished fourth this season in average scoring at 44.2, and the Bulls averaged 37.8 points from Week 6 on. Western Kentucky is a 14 percent favorite in money line wagering, and currently considered a three-point favorite. The strength of WKU’s offense is featured within a passing attack that finished third with 356.4 passing yards per game. The USF offense highlights the nations 11th-most productive ground game that averaged 242.9 yards per game.
Players to watch:
Former Taggart recruit, QB Brandon Doughty, has been one of the nation’s best this season and finished with the top PFF College passing grade, as well as finishing first or second in the FBS in completion percentage, accuracy percentage, passing yards, and passing TDs. He also finished within the top-10 in yards per passing attempt, accuracy percentage under pressure, yards from 20-plus yard throws, and TDs on 20+ yard attempts. However, he may be without the services of superstar TE Tyler Higbee, after he re-injured his left knee in the 45-28 victory over Southern Miss in the C-USA championship game.
Doughty will continue to rely on WR Taywan Taylor, after posting the seventh-best PFF College receiving production grade. Taylor provided top-five production in yards per route run, receiving yards, TDs, and TDs of 20+ yards. He rewarded Doughty’s trust with 15 touchdowns to only one interception on intended targets, and the nation’s seventh-lowest drop rate. Doughty also possesses the services of the top-overall PFF College offensive tackle production grade in LT Forrest Lamp, who provided the 10th-highest pass blocking efficiency in the FBS. Western Kentucky’s defense is led by ILB T.J. McCollum, who recorded the ninth-highest run stop percentage, and would be the key to halting the formidable Bulls’ rushing attack.
As for South Florida, they are led by QB Quinton Flowers who, since Week 7, posted PFF College’s 12th-highest overall grade and best run production grade. He closed the year with 883 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns, forming an intimidating combo with featured back Marlon Mack. Since Week 10, Mack furnished the 18th-highest run production grade, and the 10th-highest overall RB production grade on the season. He also finished with the 19th-best elusive rating and 21st-most yardage on 15+ yard runs. Flowers will likely look to WR Rodney Adams, whom he connected with for eight receiving touchdowns, and his 22.2 yards per reception was second among all WRs with 25+ receptions.
The seam-creating offensive line is led by RT Mak Djulbegovic, with 23rd-highest run block production grade, who committed zero penalties and didn’t allow a single QB hit or sack all season. In order to have any chance of giving pause to the Hilltoppers vertical passing attack, CB Deatrick Nichols and SS Jamie Byrd will be required to continue their excellent play. Nichols posted the ninth-overall and third-best run defensive cornerback production grades, allowed only one touchdown to three interceptions, and recorded the 13th-highest cornerback run stop percentage. Byrd finished with the 24th-highest overall grade and second-highest pass rushing safety production grade, allowing only one touchdown this season to two interceptions.
Scoring chances should come in abundance to challenge the over/under, considering the impressive list of playmakers and aggressive offensive schemes. This matchup provides a revenge-scenario for both programs, and the three-point spread highlights the near-even collision. The prediction falls in favor of the Hilltoppers outscoring the Bulls in a must-see beginning to bowl season