LAS VEGAS — Little is said or written about running back Breece Hall, yet that will probably change Saturday if he carries favored Iowa State to a win in the Fiesta Bowl.
Hall, who entered the postseason as the nation’s leading rusher with 1,436 yards, is a big reason the Cyclones passed the eye test and landed a spot in a New Year’s Six bowl. The best offenses are a balancing act, and Iowa State is in good hands with Hall and quarterback Brock Purdy.
The Cyclones (8-3) traveled a long, winding road to reach the Arizona desert, an 11-game journey that started with a stunning loss to Louisiana-Lafayette, but also included upset victories over Oklahoma and Texas on the way to the Big 12 title game. Iowa State’s opponent, Oregon, took a shortcut and is lucky to be here.
The Ducks (4-2) played an abbreviated Pac-12 schedule, lost to California and Oregon State, and backed into the conference title game as the last-minute replacement for a Washington team that was forced to bail because of COVID-19 issues. Oregon took advantage of the opportunity and beat USC 31-24 despite a 91-yard passing game by Tyler Shough, who’s not making anyone forget his predecessor, Justin Herbert.
Purdy might not follow Herbert’s path as a first-round pick in the NFL draft, but he’s a solid pro prospect. Hall looks like a future star at the next level, and the sophomore should be able to work over a Ducks defense that allows 159 yards per game on the ground.
Iowa State has two advantages aside from Hall and Purdy — its run defense ranks 10th in the nation, and Matt Campbell is a much sharper game-management coach than Oregon’s Mario Cristobal, who often appears clueless when it counts.
The Big 12’s image took a beating early in the season, but impressive bowl wins by Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas indicate the Cyclones could outclass the Ducks.
The pick: Iowa State -4.5.
North Carolina (+8) over Texas A&M (Orange Bowl): This initially set up as an ideal situational spot for the Tar Heels, who figured to be motivated ’dogs facing an emotionally flat favorite. Aggies coach Jimbo Fisher lobbied hard for a playoff spot, so there’s no doubt this bowl is a letdown and his players had bigger things in mind. His quarterback, Kellen Mond, called the playoff exclusion a “joke.”
Mond might not find it funny that he’s definitely the second-best quarterback in this matchup. Sophomore star Sam Howell has completed 69 percent of his passes with 27 touchdowns to lead a North Carolina offense scoring 43 points per game. This, however, will not be the same offense.
The Tar Heels are stuck with several key defections. Leading rushers Michael Carter and Javonte Williams, leading receiver Dyami Brown and top linebacker Chazz Surratt have opted out to prepare for the NFL. The line has moved only a half-point for a reason. Howell should be good enough to keep his team in the game, especially if the Aggies show a lack of focus.
Last Week: 3-1. Liberty (W), Colorado (L), Oklahoma (W), Cincinnati (W)
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