December 19, 2008

EagleBank Bowl: Who has the edge?

MORE: Bowl schedule and coverage

Navy run offense vs. Wake Forest run defense
Navy's victory over Wake Forest in September wasn't the first time the Middies' option attack had given the Deacons fits. Navy rushed for 328 yards in a 44-24 loss to Wake Forest last season. Shun White is Navy's big-play threat and leading rusher with 1,021 yards, but he managed just 20 yards on 11 carries against Wake. But the Deacons couldn't stop fullback Eric Kettani, a bruising runner whose 2008 total of 932 yards includes a career-high 175-yard performance at Wake Forest. The Deacons are allowing just 3.4 yards per carry this season, but their recent history suggests they'll struggle against the option.
Edge: Navy.

EAGLEBANK BOWL

Navy (8-4)
vs. Wake Forest (7-5)

WHEN: 11 a.m. Dec. 20.
WHERE: RFK Stadium, Washington, D.C.
TV: ESPN (Terry Gannon will do play-by-play, with David Norrie as the analyst).
THE LINE: Wake Forest by 3
RECORDS VS. BOWL TEAMS: Navy 4-3, Vanderbilt 4-5.
NCAA SCHEDULE STRENGTH: Navy 62nd, Wake Forest 59th.
BCS RANKINGS: N/A for either.
COACHES: Navy − Ken Niumatalolo (0-1 in bowls); Wake Forest − Jim Grobe (2-1 in bowls).
WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH: Can a team get better at stopping an option attack the second time? This game could provide the answer. Navy rushed for 292 yards on 51 carries in its 24-17 victory at Wake Forest on Sept. 27. This also represents the last chance to watch Butkus Award-winning linebacker Aaron Curry and All-America cornerback Alphonso Smith play for Wake Forest, though you should have plenty of chances to see them on Sundays over the next several years.
KEY STATS: Navy leads the nation with 298.3 rushing yards per game, while Wake Forest ranks 21st in the nation in run defense. Wake Forest ranks second in the nation with 35 takeaways. Navy and Wake Forest are tied for third in the nation in turnover margin at plus-16, though Navy had six takeaways and turned the ball over just twice in its regular-season victory over the Demon Deacons.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Wake Forest QB Riley Skinner played arguably the worst game of his three-year career in the regular-season loss to Navy. He committed five of Wake Forest's six turnovers in that game. The performance was out of character for Skinner, who had a streak of 133 consecutive passes without an interception broken that day. This rematch represents Skinner's chance for redemption. If Skinner doesn't turn the ball over, Wake Forest should win. If he makes a bunch of mistakes, Navy ought to beat the Deacons again.
Navy pass offense vs. Wake Forest pass defense
This matchup might not make a whole lot of difference. Navy has run the ball 89 percent of the time this season and has averaged just 7.2 passes per game. In a 21-17 victory over Akron this season, Navy didn't attempt a pass. On the rare occasions when Navy throws the ball, the Middies will want to stay away from Smith, who shares the ACC career record with 20 interceptions.
Edge: Wake Forest.

Wake Forest run offense vs. Navy run defense
Wake Forest ranks 101st in the nation in rushing offense and has averaged just 2.9 yards per carry. The line has struggled with injuries and inexperience. The Deacons' leading rusher is Brandon Pendergrass, who came on strong late in the season and has 528 yards on 150 carries. Navy ranks 31st in the nation in run defense and limited Wake Forest to 43 yards on 31 carries in September.
Edge: Navy.

Wake Forest pass offense vs. Navy pass defense
Navy certainly got the better of this matchup in September by intercepting Skinner four times, but his track record suggests he will play much better in the rematch. Skinner threw 11 touchdown passes and only three interceptions in Wake Forest's other 11 regular-season games, though he wasn't quite as accurate this season as he has been in the past. Navy ranks 91st in the nation in pass efficiency defense. Navy must watch out for D.J. Boldin, the brother of Arizona Cardinals wideout Anquan Boldin. D.J Boldin has 77 receptions for 782 yards this season, but no other Wake Forest player has more than 25 catches.
Edge: Wake Forest.

Navy special teams vs. Wake Forest special teams
As long as Sam Swank is healthy, Wake Forest has one of the best combination kicker/punters in the nation. Swank seemed on track to become the ACC career scoring leader until a quadriceps injury knocked him out for six games this season. Swank's statistics aren't as strong as usual this season, but his range typically extends beyond 50 yards. Navy also has an excellent kicker in Matt Harmon, who is 17-for-19 on field-goal attempts this year. Wake Forest ranks 19th and Navy is 72nd in net punting average. Wake's return units are weak, as is Navy's kickoff return team. But the Middies are good when it comes to returning punts.
Edge: Wake Forest.

Navy coaches vs. Wake Forest coaches
Niumatalolo has done a fine job in his first season since replacing Paul Johnson as Navy's coach. He led Navy to a sixth consecutive bowl bid even after injuries forced him to start three quarterbacks. Navy could tie a school record with its ninth victory this season. But Niumatalolo doesn't have the experience of Grobe, who has established himself as one of the nation's top coaches with his ability to win consistently the past three seasons at Wake Forest - which won a total of 38 games throughout the 1990s.
Edge: Wake Forest.

X-factor: Navy's comeback ability is underrated. Conventional wisdom suggests that an option team can't rally from a large deficit because it's unaccustomed to throwing the ball, but Navy has staged two of this season's most remarkable comebacks. Navy beat Temple 33-27 in overtime after trailing 27-7 in the fourth quarter. After trailing Notre Dame 27-7 with 2:39 remaining, Navy actually had the ball with a chance to win the game before finally falling 27-21. Even if Wake Forest grabs a double-digit lead in the second half, Navy still has reason to believe it can win.

Navy will win if: The Middies must rely on the same formula that helped them beat Wake Forest in September. They have to run the ball successfully and win the turnover battle. If Navy fails to reach each of those goals, Wake Forest probably wins.

Wake Forest will win if: Skinner has to avoid the mistakes that cost his team the game in September. Wake's victory over Navy in 2007 showed that the Demon Deacons can beat this team even if the Middies run the ball effectively. But that can only happen if Wake Forest also runs the ball well. If Wake Forest repeats its woeful rushing performance from its regular-season loss to Navy, the Deacons can expect the same result they got in September.

The picks
Mike Huguenin: Wake Forest 23, Navy 17
Steve Megargee: Wake Forest 20, Navy 17




 

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