Akron-Utah St. Preview
In addressing the media moments after learning his team was playing in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, Akron coach Terry Bowden stumbled over his words when acknowledging the bowl.
"We are excited to be going to Boise to play in the Famous Potato Idaho Potato Bowl ... the Boise Bowl ... the Bowl in Boise," he said.
It's understandable that Bowden wasn't 100 percent sure of the name of the bowl seeing as his team hasn't been to one in a decade.
Utah State coach Matt Wells had no such trouble reciting the bowl's name. Not a big surprise, either, considering his team is appearing in the Idaho Potato Bowl for the third time in five seasons.
In the first meeting between the programs, the Zips try for their first bowl win as an FBS team while the Aggies look to cap an up-and-down season with a fourth bowl victory in as many years Tuesday in Boise, Idaho.
A bowl invite didn't look promising for Akron after it opened 3-5, but it finished the regular season with four consecutive wins to go 7-5 and reach one for the first time since losing the 2005 Motor City Bowl.
"We obviously are excited for our players to go out there as a reward for their accomplishments," said Bowden, whose team tied for second place in the Mid-American East Division.
The Aggies' season also got off to a rough start as they opened 1-2 and lost senior quarterback Chuckie Keeton to a knee injury. They rebounded to win four of their next five before stumbling to a 1-3 finish to go 6-6 - their worst record since 4-8 in 2010.
Utah State still tied for second place in the Mountain Division of the Mountain West Conference to earn a fourth invite to the Potato Bowl. The Aggies won it in 2012, and also won bowl games in 2013 and '14 to enter this season one of just four FBS teams with at least 30 wins and three bowl victories in the past three years, joining Clemson, Michigan State and Oregon.
"We gladly accept the invitation to represent Utah State University and the Mountain West Conference in the 2015 Famous Idaho Potato Bowl," Wells said.
Wells got Keeton back to run the offense for the season's final two games, but it looks like he'll be sharing snaps with sophomore Kent Myers.
Keeton completed 47.2 percent of his passes for 352 yards with a touchdown and an interception in the last two games and has three TDs to six picks on the season.
Myers threw for 823 yards with eight touchdowns and one interception over a three-game stretch before giving way to Keeton.
"We've got two good quarterbacks and they're both healthy, so they'll both have their role," Wells said. "Akron will have to prepare for both of them."
Whoever lines up under center will be targeting Hunter Sharp.
Despite being suspended for the season's first two games for a violation of team rules, Sharp still had 36 more receptions than Utah State's No. 2 receiver, Andrew Rodriguez. Sharp was tied for the Mountain West lead with eight touchdown receptions and caught 60 passes.
Moving the ball, however, could be trouble for both teams as Utah State and Akron are led by their defenses.
The Aggies were 14th in the FBS against the pass, limiting opponents to 180.4 yards, and have a pair of first-team all-Mountain West performers at linebacker in senior Kyler Fackrell and junior Nick Vigil.
Fackrell has recovered five fumbles and has 13 1/2 tackles for loss while Vigil, a two-time first-team all-conference selection, has 140 tackles - 12 1/2 of those coming behind the line of scrimmage.
Akron's defense is led by the MAC Defensive Player of the Year, Jatavis Brown. The senior linebacker totaled 10 1/2 sacks and 17 1/2 tackles for loss for Akron, which is third in the nation in opponents' rushing yards per game (89.8) and per carry (2.8).
Brown also had three forced fumbles while DeAndre Scott had six interceptions for a defense that hounds opponents. The Zips have come up with 12 takeaways in the last four games to aid a pedestrian offense.
Akron will likely lean heavily on running back Conor Hundley, Thomas Woodson's legs and the ground game given Southern Utah's success against the pass and Woodson's inconsistency throwing.
Woodson completed 53.2 percent of his passes for 2,034 yards with 16 touchdowns and 10 interceptions but also ran for 553 yards with three scores.
Hundley has 883 rushing yards with 10 TDs and has topped 90 yards three times in the last four games.
"They are really dynamic," Fackrell said. "Conor Hundley is bigger and is a thick player. ... They do have a lot of size for those short-yardage situations and they do pass well enough to keep you honest. With the draws and everything they do, the running game is absolutely a threat."
Utah State is facing a MAC team in a bowl game for the fifth time in school history and is 9-2 overall against the MAC.