College Football

Former Big East rivals renew play in Florida’s Russell Athletic Bowl

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This story was compiled and written by University of Connecticut journalism students Justin Ayer and Hector Molina, with information and statistics provided by ESPN, the West Virginia University sports information department, the Miami Herald, WestVirginiaRivals.com, BleacherReport, The University of Miami sports information department, Sun Sentinel, and Collegefootballreference.com

For the first time since 2003, the West Virginia Mountaineers (10-2, 7-2 Big 12) will meet the University of Miami Hurricanes (8-4, 5-3 ACC Coastal), only this time at the 2016 Russell Athletic Bowl instead as conference rivals.

The two former Big East rivals will meet Dec. 28 at Camping World Stadium in Orlando, FL. at 5:30p.m. airing on ESPN.

This will be the first time these teams meet in a bowl.

The last time these teams played in the regular season, the Hurricanes were ranked second in the nation, beating the Mountaineers 22-20 at Orange Bowl Stadium, according to the Miami Herald.

The Hurricanes have an edge in the head-to-head series against the Mountaineers, holding a 16-3 advantage, according to ESPN stats and information page.

Miami will look to win its first bowl game since 2006, when they beat a Nevada, team that featured current San Francisco 49ers Quarterback Colin Kaepernick, in the MPC Computers Bowl.

Miami, a team that has fallen a bit off the radar since their championship years in the 1980s and in the early 2000s, goes into the game as the presumed favorites in the matchup, according to ESPN.

The team has been streaky in their 2016 campaign under first-year head coach and former Miami quarterback (1978-82), Mark Richt. The team had a hot start this season starting out 4-0, and suffering a nail biting 20-19 loss in week 5 to in-state rival Florida State.

Following the loss to the Seminoles, Miami suffered a 3-game losing streak to ACC rivals, North Carolina, Virginia Tech, and also to Notre Dame. The team was able to flip the script after their loss to the Irish, as Miami finished the season on a 4-game win streak with wins against Pittsburgh, Virginia, NC State, and Duke.

Richt owns a 9-5 record in bowl games with his most win in 2014, during his tenure at Georgia where he and the Bulldogs won the Belk Bowl 37-14 over the Louisville Cardinals.

In an interview with the Sun Sentinel, Richt expressed his excitement about playing in his first bowl game, 240 miles from home campus, as Miami head coach.

“I’m very excited about this opportunity to play in Orlando, to play in the Russell Athletic Bowl. I’ve not talked to any of the players [yet], but I’ve talked to a couple coaches and I know everybody is really loving this opportunity,” Richt said. “We’re going to play a great team in West Virginia, just got 10 victories this season and coach [Dana Holgorsen] has done a great job there. We know Orlando itself is a great town and a great place to have a bowl. … It’ll be a great challenge and a lot of fun for us.”

According to Collegefootballreference.com, the Miami offense comes into the game averaging 157.7 yards per game on the ground (85th in FBS) and 273.5 yards per game through the air (27th in FBS).

Much of the success through the air has come from the arm of Junior QB Brad Kaaya, who has had an exceptional career thus far as a Hurricane. Kaaya finished the 2016 regular season throwing for 3250 yards, 23 touchdowns and a 61.2% completion percentage, according to ESPN.

Kaaya told the Sun Sentinel, “To play ourselves into a fairly good bowl game and finish the season with a five-game win streak, I don’t think that’s happened here in a while.”

ESPN’s Todd Mcshay currently has Kaaya, the school’s all time leading passer, ranked as the number 2 overall quarterback in the 2017 NFL draft class. Kaaya has not yet said if he will come back for his senior year or enter the NFL Draft. Following the team’s most recent win against Duke, a game where he threw for a career-high 396-yards in the 40-21 over the Blue Devils, Kaaya addressed the opportunity to leave school early and go to the NFL, according to the team’s recent press conference.

“It’s something that’s definitely been on my mind, it crosses every kid’s mind… there’s a lot of things to factor out, I have to sit down with coach Richt, my family, teammates and hash things out but I couldn’t tell you at this point,” Kaaya.

Wide Receiver Ahmmon Richards has been Kaaya’s favorite target, as the two have connected for 46 receptions, 866 yards and 2 touchdowns. Running back Mark Walton has lead the ground attack for the Hurricane as he’s rushed 192 times this season for 1065 yards and 14 touchdowns, according to ESPN.

The Miami defense ranks 58th overall in the FBS in pass yardage allowed, allowing 220.4 yards per game, ESPN stats and information report. Their rush defense ranks 31st overall in FBS allowing 134.8 yards per game. Shaquille Quarterman and Jamal Carter both lead the defense in tackles with 79 apiece.

This season, the West Virginia Football team won 10 games for the first time in five years in Big 12 play. On Dec. 28, the 16th ranked Mountaineers can reach 11 wins for the first time since 2007, and sixth time overall with a bowl victory.

Westvirgina.rivals.com stated that the Mountaineers overall bowl record is 15-19, compared to the Hurricanes 18-17 record.

According to HailWestVirginia.com, this will be the 35th bowl appearance for WVU, and the fourth appearance under head coach Dana Holgorsen.

ESPN reports Holgorsen is 2-2 in bowl games at WVU, and has increased the program’s win total every season since 2013.

West Virginia stayed unbeaten into October, looking like a quiet playoff contender, according to ESPN’s stats and information page. Their most glamorous win was a 24-20 victory against the Texas Longhorns, stopping four Texas drives in the fourth quarter.

The Mountaineers only losses, a 20-37 deficit to Oklahoma State, and a blowout 56-28 loss to Oklahoma, ended their playoff hopes.

One player in particular, senior cornerback Rasul Douglas, is tied for the nation’s lead in interceptions with eight.

On offense, the Mountaineers have senior quarterback, Skyler Howard. The Charleston Gazette Mail reports Howard threw for 26 touchdowns, and completed 237 out of 387 passes, making him the eighteenth-ranked quarterback nationally.

Howard hands the ball of to junior, Justin Crawford. According to the ESPN stats and an information page on WVU, Howard is the seventh-ranked running back nationally with 1168 rushing yards and four touchdowns.

Shelton Gibson, a 200-poiund junior, is the leading wide receiver for the team, tallying up 40 receptions for 927 yards and eight touchdowns.

Defensively, Douglas is hoping to add to his interception total in the secondary; picking off Kaaya every chance he gets, while locking down Kaaya’s favorite target, Ahmonn Richards.

2016 marks Dana Hologorsen’s sixth year as head man at WVU. He was named American Football Coaches Association’s District 4 Regional Coach of the Year on Dec. 7th, according to WVU’s football news website.

Hologorsen is only one of three coaches, along with Don Nehlen and Rich Rodriguez, to post multiple 10-win seasons.

He has led the Mountaineers to bowl games in five of the past six years, including three straight.

According to the Miami Herald, Hologorsen said in a teleconference after the bowl teams were named, “the good news is we’ve got about a month to rekindle some of that flame,” said Hologorsen “We’ll be down there in droves, I can assure you of that.”

The West Virginia offense will have many options, both on the run and pass with Howard, Crawford, and Gibson running the show, but will need to bring their A-game against the 27th overall ranked Hurricane defense.

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