Posted by Jerry Hinnen
Why You Should Watch: Because one half of the matchup is Navy, the team that continues to defy its service academy constraints with big wins, bowl berths, and the nation's most reliable year-in-year-out running game ... and their opponent might be even more interesting for the diehard college football fan. San Diego State has long been regarded as the sleeping giant of the Mountain West, a program with the resources and metro recruiting base to challenge for league titles if they ever got the right coach in place. Brady Hoke looks like he might be that coach, and after a huge step forward this season, a Poinsettia win would stamp the Aztecs as the up-and-comer in the new-look MWC.
Plus, this is the last chance to watch Navy's indefatigable Ricky Dobbs, arguably the best triple-option quarterback of college football's past decade. His swan song alone makes the game worth the look.
Keys to Victory for Navy: Things have mostly gone well for the Midshipmen this season, as they enter the bowl with their second straight nine-win campaign already under their belt. But when they've gone wrong, there have been two main culprits. One of them has been the pass defense, which ranks 66th despite playing two games against fellow option teams Air Force and Army . Even with the presence of senior star safety Wyatt Middleton couldn't keep the Midshipmen from giving up an incredible 28 completions in 30 attempts (for 314 yards) in a 34-31 loss to Duke, 413 passing yards and 5 touchdowns in the wild win over East Carolina, and 394 yards and 3 scores to Central Michigan in a 38-37 escape from the 3-9 Chippewas ... all without an interception. If a few leaks aren't plugged, SDSU's Ryan Lindley, the Mountain West's leading passer , will have a field day.
The other issue? Red zone execution. Though their numbers for the year aren't bad, the Midshipmen might have tipped 10 or 11 wins if not for zero points on five different red zone trips against Maryland and just six on three trips against Air Force. If Dobbs continues to throw the way he did down the stretch (including a career high 186 yards against Army) and Navy executes in their usual fashion, the Midshipmen will get their yards. The question is whether they'll turn those into points, and if they do, whether those points will be enough if the pass defense collapses.
Keys to Victory for San Diego State: Most schools would cringe at the thought of having to prepare for Navy's option shenanigans, but the Aztecs have to be quietly confident about the matchup. SDSU has already faced and defeated one option school this season, downing Air Force 27-25 while holding the Falcons to 12 points through the first 52 minutes. Defensive coordinator Rocky Long has years of experience with defending the option from his time as New Mexico's head coach, and he's been better at it than most. Between Long's expertise, the extra time to prepare, and the Aztecs' prior encounter with the option, they should be as ready as anyone to deal with Dobbs and Co. Though it's always easier said than done against the Midshipmen, they'll just have to execute. (It'll also help to have players like Miles Burris around; the first-team all-conference junior linebacker led the Mountain West in tackles-for-loss with 17.)
Offensively, if Lindley is on his game, it's hard to see the Midshipmen doing much to slow down the Aztecs. First-team all-MWC senior wideouts Vincent Brown and Demarco Sampson combined for 2,362 receiving yards and present major matchup problems with Sampson's size and Brown's speed. Navy also won't be able to commit extra bodies to pass defense, thanks to the presence of MWC Freshman of the Year Ronnie Hillman, a tough, explosive runner who finished 12th in the nation with 1,304 yards on the ground and averaged a sterling 5.6 yards per-carry. Lindley put up some huge numbers at times, but he also struggled with interceptions, his total of 14 tying for the second-highest in the country. If he can find Brown and Sampson more often than he finds Middleton and the rest of the Navy secondary, the Midshipmen could be in for a long day.
The Poinsettia Bowl is like: a forgotten pulp comic from the 1960s, in which a heroic naval commander, at the end of a long journey, has one final battle to fight when his division is ambushed in San Diego bay by ... a horde of bloodthirsty Aztecs?!?! Like the imaginary tussle out of those comic pages, this one promises to be hard-fought, action-packed (with these two offenses? You bet), and in doubt right up until the final frames.