2010 PapaJohns.com Bowl Preview
Connecticut (7-5, 3-4 Big East) vs. South Carolina (7-5, 3-5; SEC)
January 2nd, 2009 @ 2:00 PM (EST) – ESPN – Birmingham, Alabama
Birmingham's PapaJohns.com Bowl has been a showcase for the Big East in its first three years of existence as the conference has won each of the first three editions. However, this season will be their toughest test as they face an opponent for the Southeastern Conference for the first time. Can the Big East stretch their winning streak to four?
The Papajohns.com Bowl features two teams that have endured difficult seasons. Connecticut was rocked at midseason with the shocking stabbing death of starting cornerback Jasper Howard and their entire season since has been dedicated to his memory. Meanwhile, South Carolina comes into this game flying off of a rare victory over rival Clemson and will be looking to finish the season on a high note for the first time in a few seasons.
Connecticut is a relatively new player on the national scene but they have quickly established themselves as a plucky team that is capable of beating anyone. With the death of Howard, this team became the ultimate tough opponent and played inspired down the stretch, winning their final three games. Coach Randy Edsall shepherded the Huskies from D-1AA and has infused his team with a strong work ethic and a never quit attitude. Edsall is 61-58 in nine years at Connecticut and has also led UConn to a 2-1 bowl record.
Offensively, the Huskies were expected to have their troubles after star tailback Donald Brown became a 1st round selection after last season. Yet they surprised everyone by finishing 20th in the country in scoring at 32.1 points per game! UConn’s strength was their balanced offense, which produced the 40th ranked running game and the 47th ranked passing attack. The tailback tandem of Andre Dixon and Jordan Todman were a driving force behind their success and both should finish the season with more than 1,000 yards on the ground.
Defensively, Connecticut was no better than average, allowing 25 points per game to finish 57th in scoring. The Huskies were decent against the run at 50th nationally but they were a sieve through the air, finishing 95th in the country! The loss of Howard certainly played a part as he was perhaps their best defensive back and this team is still dealing with the void left behind without him.
South Carolina has been unable to break through into the top tier of the SEC during legendary coach Steve Spurrier’s tenure. Unfortunately, 2009 fit into that trend quite well. The Gamecocks started 5-1 before hitting a 1-4 slide going into their annual rivalry showdown with Clemson. That was where their season changed direction from recent years: The Gamecocks earned a rare victory over the Tigers, only Spurrier’s 2nd win in five seasons. The Ole Ball Coach has led South Carolina to a 35-27 record during his tenure but their bowl record is only 1-2 and they were blown out in last season’s Outback Bowl. Expect that loss to serve as a major motivator.
It seems like forever ago that Spurrier presided over the country’s most dangerous offense at Florida because his team’s 95th national finish in scoring this year is a microcosm of their showing during his tenure in Columbia. ‘Forever’ also would aptly describe how long USC fans have been waiting for quarterback Stephen Garcia to play up to his talent level and he started to show that ability this season as he threw for 2,733 yards and 17 touchdowns against only 9 interceptions while leading the country’s 44th ranked passing game. The biggest reason for their scoring struggles was their running game, which was only 91st in the country and they are still very much a work in progress.
However, South Carolina has one of the country’s best defenses. The Gamecocks finished 23rd in the country in scoring while allowing only 20.4 points per game and were particularly excellent against the pass, finishing 12th nationally. They struggled a little bit against the run but their 48th ranked finish was still more than respectable. The only negative that can be found with their defense is a curious inability to force turnovers, finishing near the bottom of the country with only 16 takeaways.
So how will this game play out? Upon first inspection, I was leaning towards Connecticut because I thought they were more excited about this game and their offensive firepower looked to be the key. However, that all changes when I take South Carolina’s rousing victory over Clemson into account. They’re also not going to forget the embarrassment of last year’s bowl showing and I think that will even the motivational playing field. Expect USC’s talented defense to be the difference in the Papajohns.com Bowl and expect the Gamecocks to win a close contest.
PapaJohns.com Bowl Pick: South Carolina 24, Connecticut 21
by Matt Baxendell
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