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Hawaii Bowl Preview: Cincinnati Bearcats vs. San Diego State Aztecs; Tough Matchups for Cincy

Cincinnati takes on a hot San Diego State team in Honolulu, Hawaii for the Hawaii Bowl. They'll do it without Gunner Kiel and the matchup, on paper, is tough on the Bearcats.

Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

The Game

Hawaii Bowl

Thursday, Dec. 24, 2015

Honolulu, Hawaii

8:00 PM ET

ESPN

Meet the Opponent

San Diego State, from the Mountain West Conference, enters the game sporting an impressive 10-3 record with nine-straight wins to close out the season, including a 27-24 win over Air Force in the Mountain West Conference Championship. The Aztecs dropped three games in weeks two, three and four, to the likes of California, South Alabama and Penn State.

The losses to Cal and Penn State weren't particularly unexpected in the early parts of the season, but the 34-27 overtime loss to South Alabama pushed the Aztecs comfortably beyond the national media's sight. Since those losses though, San Diego State has won each of their games by more than 14 points, until the game against Air Force, keyed by a strong defense and punishing run game.

When you look at this San Diego State team, you see a program that has played hungry for most of their season. Not to mention, they matchup as perhaps the perfect team to challenge Cincinnati's strengths.

San Diego State Offense vs. Cincinnati Defense

The San Diego State offense is led by the run game, and boy is it a good one. Donnel Pumphrey is incredibly talented and has been wildly productive this season, ranking 10th in the nation with 1,554 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns to match. He is averaging 5.5 yards per carry behind an offensive line that has set up Aztecs rushers for 3,059 total rushing yards on the season. Pumphrey also is a solid receiver out of the backfield, leading the team with 27 receptions for 397 yards and three touchdowns.

"Backup" running back Chase Price creates San Diego State's one-two punch in the backfield as he has rushed for 940 yards on 177 carries for a 5.3 yard per carry average. He has six touchdowns himself and has also added 96 yards receiving and a touchdown through the air.

San Diego State has only passed for 1,859 yards on the year on the arm of Maxwell Smith. Smith has completed 55 percent of his passes for 1,529 yards and an incredible 13 touchdowns to only two interceptions. That said, the Aztecs could be without the senior who torn his ACL back on Nov. 28. The injury, which is traditionally season-ending, apparently isn't keeping Smith from trying to suit up as he has delayed reconstructive surgery with hopes of playing. He hasn't been practicing, but is a factor if he plays.

If Smith doesn't play, Cincinnati will see redshirt freshman quarterback Christian Chapman. Chapman has 323 passing yards on the season with one touchdown to one interception in limited time. Against Air Force, Chapman was efficient behind a run-centric gameplan, completing 9-of-14 for 203 yards with a touchdown.

For Cincinnati's defense, this is really rough matchup on paper. The Bearcats enter the game ranked 92nd in the FBS in terms of rush defense, giving up 190.3 yards per game and 5.02 yards per carry. Both stats don't bode well for the Bearcats as they take on the Aztecs 14th ranked rushing attack. Clearly, the run game is an area I expect San Diego State to exploit. If there is a silver-lining for the Bearcats rush defense, it's that they allowed 355 rushing yards to USF in their utter blowout in late-November. The stat certainly isn't a good thing, but has surely thrown the statistics off a bit, meaning perhaps the Bearcats aren't quite as bad, against the run, as the numbers suggest. Still, I would be surprised if the Aztecs don't rack up their fair share of yardage against the Bearcats.

Cincinnati's secondary has improved as of late and should matchup well with the San Diego State receivers. Mikah Holder lead the Aztecs with 425 receiving yards on the season for five touchdowns. After that, Pumphrey and Eric Judge are the next two most productive receivers. Cincinnati's young secondary can cover the San Diego State receivers, but will need to be disciplined to avoid getting caught on play-action for a big play, regardless of who starts at quarterback for the Aztecs.

San Diego State Defense vs. Cincinnati Offense

Speaking of quarterbacks, Cincinnati will be starting redshirt freshman Hayden Moore in this one, as Gunner Kiel is dealing with a "personal matter" and didn't make the trip to Hawaii. While the loss of Kiel certainly isn't a positive thing, we have seen Moore play and know that rolling with the backup for Cincinnati isn't quite the death-sentence it is for so many other teams.

Moore has a healthy 1,683 passing yards on the season with a 58.5 percent completion percentage to go along with nine touchdowns and eight interceptions. While Kiel's numbers have improved since the midseason quarterback controversy between him and Moore, it's important to remember that, statistically speaking, both were more than comparable in the early-going. Still, the inexperience of Moore will be something to watch as he leads the 5th best offense, averaging 559.4 total yards per game, into a tough matchup with the Aztecs.

San Diego State's defense ranks 5th nationally in total defense, allowing only 287.9 total yards per contest, using their unique 3-3-5 alignment. The 3-3-5 has been around for a while, but the Aztecs have perfected the defense, which is meant to combat spread, open passing offenses like the one Cincinnati utilizes. San Diego State keeps five players in the secondary, providing extra help in pass defense and the speed on the backend of the defense to come up and support the run defense that ranks 6th nationally, giving up 111.2 rushing yards per game.

Linebacker Calvin Munson, who we introduced you to a couple days ago, is a playmaker. He leads the team with 92 total tackles and has nine of the team's 33 sacks on the year. Munson also has two interceptions, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. He is the type of player who could feed off Moore's relative inexperience under center. Damontae Kazee is another playmaker, this time from the secondary, with 69 total tackles and seven interceptions, to lead the team.

Cincinnati will have to establish the run with Hosey Williams, Tion Green and Mike Boone to help Moore settle into what is a really rough matchup for this Bearcats offense. The 3-3-5 does tend to leave some gaps for the run game to attack, although the Aztecs have been impressive in that area all season. Turnovers will also be key for this Cincinnati offense as San Diego State leads the entire FBS with a turnover margin of plus-19. The Bearcats? 124th with a margin of minus-16. Cincinnati will need to be patient through the air, will need to run the ball effectively and will need to protect the ball to have a chance.

Special Teams

Cincinnati's Andrew Gantz is 48-for-49 on extra points and 21-for-27 on field goals with a long of 51. Punter Sam Geraci averages 45.9 yards per punt with a long of 63 yards. Geraci has downed 16 punts inside the 20-yard line.

Donny Hageman is 51-for-51 on extra points this season for the Aztecs and is 17-for-22 on field goals with a long of 54 yards. Tanner Blain averages 40.6 yards per punt and has had 23 punts downed inside the 20.

Prediction

Score: Cincinnati 21, San Diego State 27

Every aspect of Cincinnati's game seems to play in perfectly with how the Aztecs want to dictate games and how they excel. Cincinnati's defense hasn't stopped the run over the second half of the season and San Diego State runs the ball, almost exclusively, with tremendous success. Cincinnati turns the ball over with reckless abandon and San Diego State forces turnovers at will, while protecting the ball very well themselves. Cincinnati's greatest strength is their offensive firepower, particularly through the air, and San Diego State runs a defense that is designed to stop the spread, which they also do very well. Well Cincinnati can run on them, right? Well, the Aztecs stop the run too...

For every major deficiency in Cincinnati's game, San Diego State has a strength. For every strength Cincinnati has, the Aztecs have the supposed kryptonite. That isn't to say Cincinnati won't find some success and that certainly doesn't mean Cincinnati can't win this game, but the matchup on paper is hard to ignore.

I personally believe Cincinnati's offense will find a way to move the ball. The extended prep time, coupled with Kiel's absence through most of this break, sets up Moore for success. Moore has put up big-time numbers and has played with tremendous poise in tough spots before. The Cincinnati run game is formidable and has the playmakers to make some noise there, while the Cincinnati receiver depth is so ridiculously deep that you expect someone to make plays, even against a formidable secondary like San Diego State's. The Cincinnati defense has improved in pass defense as the youth has gone through their growing pains and the run defense numbers are somewhat inflated by the USF game where they allowed 355 rushing yards, so maybe they aren't that bad. Plus, San Diego State will likely be playing their own backup quarterback, or a hobbled starter.

Still, I have to pick the Aztecs here. Cincinnati will likely make this a closer game than my projected score above, but you can't ignore the winning streak San Diego State is on and how they have accomplished that streak. Plus, that turnover margin is terrifying if you've been watching the Bearcats this season. Protect the ball and Cincinnati will have a chance, as I expect Moore to play a solid game, but if they lose the turnover margin and play like the mistake-prone team we have seen all too often this season, that will be the final domino to fall in a matchup that does no favors for the Bearcats.

Mountain West Connection Preview

Bill Connelly's Preview