Steve Megargee Rivals.com College Football Staff Writer
An otherwise-obscure bowl kicking off on the eve of the BCS championship game merits watching for one major reason.
You may not find a better unit vs. unit matchup this postseason than the showdown between Nevada's third-ranked rushing offense and Boston College's top-ranked run defense in Sunday's Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl at San Francisco's AT&T Park.
Nevada's vaunted running game earned plenty of attention after the Wolf Pack's 34-31 overtime victory over Boise State knocked the Broncos out of national title contention, but Boston College hasn't garnered as much notice for its outstanding run defense.
The Eagles don't seem to mind the lack of publicity. They aren't bragging about what they've accomplished. In fact, they don't even realize some of their greatest achievements.
For instance, BC hasn't allowed an individual to rush for 100 yards since Virginia Tech's Ryan Williams gained 159 yards on Oct. 10, 2009, but senior defensive tackle Damik Scafe reacted with surprise this week when he was asked about the streak.
"I actually didn't know that," Scafe said. "That's great. That's awesome. We take pride in stopping the run."
BC has ranked among the nation's top 26 teams in run defense and has allowed below 3 ½ yards per carry in each of the past six seasons. This marks the fourth time in that span that the Eagles have ranked seventh or better in that category.
"Our defense is a very hard-nosed defense," said sophomore linebacker Luke Kuechly, who leads the nation with 171 tackles. "We play every play hard and physical. We play a physical grade of football. That's been the theme for the last couple of years."
BC has allowed only eight individuals to rush for 100 yards since 2005, the lowest total of any FBS team. The Eagles have proved they can overcome all types of adversity and still deliver a standout run defense.
Last season, Boston College had to replace first-round draft pick B.J. Raji and second-round pick Ron Brace, who had formed one of the nation's top defensive tackle tandems in 2008. They also played the whole season without 2008 ACC defensive player of the year Mark Herzlich, who was recovering from Ewing's sarcoma, a rare form of cancer. And they were adjusting to new defensive coordinator Bill McGovern, who took over the position after Frank Spaziani was promoted to coach.
Amid all that uncertainty, the Eagles still allowed only 2.99 yards per carry while ranking 14th in the nation in run defense. They're doing even better this season, as they've yielded only 2.66 yards per carry and 80.2 rushing yards per game.
"They're a beast," Duke coach David Cutcliffe told reporters after his team rushed for 4 net yards on 24 carries in a 21-16 loss to Boston College. "They're really good and really physical. There's a reason they're ranked where they are. This is not a pretend thing with them."
The Eagles once again have overcome plenty of obstacles. Scafe had shoulder surgery and back surgery in the offseason before returning to play. Senior free safety Wes Davis suffered a career-ending neck injury in a 24-21 loss to Maryland on Oct. 23. Senior defensive end Alex Albright broke his fibula in the same game and missed the rest of the regular season, though he's expected to play against Nevada. Yet BC still found a way to stop the run better than any other team in the country.
WHEN: Jan. 9, 9 p.m.
WHERE: AT&T Park, San Francisco.
TV: ESPN (Mark Jones will do play-by-play, with Bob Davie and Rod Gilmore as the analysts).
THE LINE: Nevada by 7.5.
RECORDS VS. BOWL TEAMS: Boston College 2-5, Nevada 3-1
NCAA SCHEDULE STRENGTH: Boston College 65th, Nevada 103rd.
BCS RANKINGS: Boston College unranked, Nevada 15th.
OFFICIATING CREW: From the Big 12.
COACHES: Boston College- Frank Spaziani (1-1 in bowls); Nevada- Chris Ault (1-6 in bowls).
WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH: This game features one of the nation's most dynamic dual-threat quarterbacks (Nevada's Colin Kaepernick) and the NCAA's leading tackler (Boston College LB Luke Kuechly). It's also the next-to-last bowl of the season. And after the NFL playoffs end for the day, this one should be a nice nightcap.
KEY STATS: BC comes in on a five-game winning streak and has the nation's No. 1 rush defense (80.2 ypg). Nevada has the nation's No. 3 rush offense (305.9 ypg).
BC needed to play this kind of defense to earn its 12th consecutive bowl bid. The Eagles rank 109th in scoring offense and haven't exceeded 26 points against an FBS opponent.
The lack of offensive firepower caused the Eagles to suffer through a five-game losing streak that dropped their record to 2-5 and put their postseason hopes in doubt. BC responded by ending the regular season on a five-game winning streak in which it allowed just three offensive touchdowns.
"We sat down and said, 'This is do or die,' " Kuechly said. " 'This is the breaking point in the season. If we don't win now, we're not going to a bowl game.'
"We wanted to give Alex Albright another chance to play a game. The only way how was to play in a bowl game. A lot of guys took it upon ourselves.''
BC's defensive line doesn't have anyone with the star power of Raji or Brace, but the front four has done a nice job of clogging the lanes and making things easier for the Eagles' exceptional linebacker corps.
Herzlich has made 60 tackles and has served as an inspiration to teammates since making his remarkable comeback from cancer. True freshman Kevin Pierre-Louis is a rising star who ranks second on the team with 86 stops. And there's Kuechly.
Kuechly helped make up for Herzlich's absence last season by delivering 158 tackles to rank second in the nation. Kuechly is averaging 14.25 tackles per game this year and has recorded at least 10 tackles in 21 consecutive games.
The Butkus Award finalist enters the bowl game 22 tackles shy of the NCAA single-season record owned by Texas Tech's Lawrence Flugence, who made 193 stops in 2002. That might seem like a tall order, but Kuechly already has two 20-tackle games this season.
He admits he didn't anticipate making quite this big an impact so early in his career.
"I didn't really know what to expect coming into my freshman year," Kuechly said. "Our coaches do a great job of drawing up schemes for us and giving us an opportunity to get there. One of the biggest things that helps me out defensively is our defensive line really helps cause problems and opens things up that wouldn't be there if they weren't doing such a great job."
Kuechly exemplifies the overachieving nature of this defense. Redshirt freshman tackle Dillon Quinn, sophomore free safety Okechukwu Okoroha and Pierre-Louis are the only former four-star recruits on the two-deep defense.
This defense full of sleeper prospects will need to continue beating the odds Sunday. Boston College may have the major-conference affiliation, but the Eagles head into the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl as 7.5-point underdogs.
BC hasn't seen an attack quite like Nevada's "Pistol" offense, a variation of the shotgun that has the quarterback line up 4 yards behind the center. In the shotgun, the quarterback is 7 yards behind the line.
Kuechly noted that Duke showed the "Pistol" on a few occasions in their regular-season meeting, but Boston College hasn't faced any team that uses this formation as frequently - or as effectively - as the Wolf Pack.
Nevada running back Vai Taua and quarterback Colin Kaepernick have combined to gain more rushing yards (8,602), score more touchdowns (113) and compile more points (682) than any two teammates in NCAA history. Kaepernick also is the first quarterback ever to rush for 1,000 yards in three consecutive seasons.
The Eagles will respond to this challenge by relying on the same formula that has helped them consistently produce one of the nation's top run defenses.
"It's the BC mentality - mental toughness," Scafe said. "A lot of stopping the run has to do with mental toughness, throwing your body in there and not accepting defeat."
The Eagles haven't needed to accept defeat since Oct. 23. They're in no mood to change that pattern now.
WHO GETS THE EDGE?
Boston College rush offense vs. Nevada rush defense: This depends on the health of Montel Harris, who has run more than 3,600 yards in the past three seasons. Harris had rushed for at least 109 yards in six consecutive games before an ankle injury sidelined him for the Eagles' regular-season finale against Syracuse. He has been practicing this week. Nevada ranks 23rd nationally in rush defense, but the Wolf Pack will have a tough time stopping a healthy Harris. But if Harris isn't close to full strength, he could have a tough time matching his usual production. The Eagles have reason to feel confident they can run the ball even if Harris isn't in peak form. Andre Williams rushed for 100 yards in each of Boston College's last two games, including a 42-carry, 185-yard effort against Syracuse. BC OT Anthony Castonzo is one of the best linemen in the nation. Edge: Boston College.
Boston College pass offense vs. Nevada pass defense: True freshman Chase Rettig took over as Boston College's starting quarterback in October and has gone 86-of-161 for 1,117 yards, with six touchdown passes and seven interceptions. BC's passing attack has improved under Rettig, but this remains a run-oriented team. The Eagles don't have anyone with as many as 500 receiving yards. Nevada ranks 50th nationally in pass efficiency defense. A potential matchup between Castonzo and Nevada DE Dontay Moch would be fun to watch. Castonzo is a four-year starter and possible first-round draft pick, while Moch has recorded 8.5 sacks and 22 tackles for loss this season. Edge: Nevada.
Nevada rush offense vs. Boston College rush defense: This matchup makes this game worth viewing. Nevada's Colin Kaepernick has rushed for 1,184 yards and 20 touchdowns this season, making him only the third quarterback ever to throw 20 touchdown passes and run for 20 touchdowns in the same season (Tim Tebow and Cameron Newton are the others). Nevada also has TB Vai Taua, who has run for 1,534 yards and 19 touchdowns out of the "Pistol" formation. Boston College leads the nation in run defense and has allowed just 80.2 rushing yards per game and 2.7 yards per carry. Boston College LB Luke Kuechly leads the nation with 171 tackles. This game could come down to how fast Kuechly can wrap up Kaepernick or Taua. Edge: Nevada.
Nevada pass offense vs. Boston College pass defense: Kaepernick is known as a runner, but he ranks 16th nationally in passing efficiency and has 20 touchdown passes and seven interceptions this season. Rishard Matthews (49 catches, 793 yards, four TDs) showed his big-game ability with his huge performance in a victory over Boise State, while Virgil Green (31-453-5) is one of the nation's better pass-catching tight ends. But much of that production came against poor WAC pass defenses (Boise State is the only WAC team ranked higher than 50th in pass efficiency defense). BC offers a much tougher challenge, ranking 20th nationally in pass efficiency defense. Edge: Boston College.
Boston College special teams vs. Nevada special teams: Boston College's Nate Freese has gone 20-of-23 on field-goal attempts, though he's only 1-of-3 from at least 40 yards out. Ryan Quigley has averaged 41.8 yards per punt to help Boston College rank 21st in the nation in net punting. Nevada's Anthony Martinez is 9-of-13 on field-goal attempts and made the game-winning 34-yarder in overtime against Boise State, but he hasn't even tried a kick from 40 yards out. Brad Langley averages 42.4 yards per punt for Nevada, which ranks 36th nationally in net punting. Nevada is 59th and Boston College 104th in punt-return average. Nevada is 38th and Boston College is last in kickoff-return average. Boston College is fifth in punt-return coverage and 20th in kickoff-return coverage. Nevada ranks 57th in punt-return coverage and 113th in kickoff-return coverage. Edge: Boston College.
Boston College coaches vs. Nevada coaches: Nevada's Chris Ault is a College Football Hall of Famer who is credited with developing the "Pistol" offense and helping shape the current overtime format. His 1-6 bowl record is a concern, but this Nevada team showed its ability to beat high-profile opponents with its wins over Boise State and California. Boston College's Frank Spaziani deserves credit for making his quarterback switch in time to save the Eagles' season. Edge: Nevada.
X-factor: How healthy is Harris? The Eagles aren't good enough to beat Nevada unless they're running the ball effectively. While Andre Williams has done an outstanding job filling in for Harris, the Eagles need their best back to be in his best condition.
Boston College will win if: The Eagles need their rushing attack to control the clock and keep Kaepernick and Taua on the sidelines. Rettig has a bright future, but he's probably not far enough along at this point to win this game on his own. He needs to lean heavily on his running backs.
Nevada will win if: Nevada has a great shot to win if it takes an early lead. BC has a suspect passing game, and Nevada should be playing in front of a partisan crowd. If the Wolf Pack pull ahead and force BC into passing situations, they should be in good shape.
Olin Buchanan: Nevada 34, Boston College 21
Tom Dienhart: Nevada 33, Boston College 24
David Fox: Nevada 35, Boston College 20
Mike Huguenin: Nevada 27, Boston College 20
Steve Megargee: Nevada 24, Boston College 17