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January 6, 2009

GMAC: Small consolation for Ball State, Tulsa

MORE: Bowl schedule and coverage

Enthusiasm comes easy when the grand prize is within reach. But generating excitement could be much more difficult when settling for the consolation prize.

That's the issue facing Ball State and Tulsa.


Ball State (12-1) vs. Tulsa (10-3)

WHEN: 8 p.m. Jan. 6
WHERE: Ladd-Peebles Stadium, Mobile, Ala.
TV: ESPN (Dave Pasch will do play-by-play, with Andre Ware as the analyst).
THE LINE: Ball State by 1.
RECORDS VS. BOWL TEAMS: Ball State 4-1, Tulsa 1-2.
NCAA SCHEDULE STRENGTH: Ball State 112th, Tulsa 118th.
BCS RANKINGS: Ball State 22nd, Tulsa N/A.
COACHES: Ball State Stan Parrish (first bowl); Tulsa Todd Graham (1-1 in bowls).
WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH: Like touchdowns? Tulsa has scored 84 this season. Ball State has scored 62. That's the highest combined total of touchdowns in every bowl other than the national championship game.
KEY STATS: Ball State is 11th in the nation in total offense at 459.4 yards per game. Tulsa is second in the nation in total offense at 565.1 yards per game.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Ball State junior QB Nate Davis has thrown for 3,446 yards and 26 touchdowns. He's also playing for redemption after a disastrous showing in the MAC title game in which he threw an interception and was involved in four fumbles, two of which were returned for touchdowns
Both had hopes of going undefeated and playing in a BCS bowl. Instead, both suffered disappointing losses, failed to win their conference title and had to settle for Tuesday's GMAC Bowl.

Bowls often are won by the team that most wants to be there. The question for the GMAC Bowl is whether the players on either team truly do.

A plague of turnovers caused Ball State (12-1) to lose the MAC title game, but whether that limited its postseason options is uncertain. Even if the Cardinals had gone unbeaten, they had no realistic chance at a BCS bowl. Plus, Ball State will be playing its first game with Stan Parrish as coach; Parrish was elevated from offensive coordinator when Brady Hoke was hired as San Diego State's coach last month.

Tulsa obviously had greater aspirations. Throughout the season, coach Todd Graham boldly asserted the Golden Hurricanes' goal was to play in a BCS bowl. But back-to-back November losses, to Arkansas and Houston, squelched that. Then, there were the seven turnovers against East Carolina in the Conference USA title game, which knocked the Golden Hurricane out of the Liberty Bowl.

"We definitely set our goals to go to the BCS," Tulsa senior running back Tarrion Adams said. "You should go into every game feeling like you can win it, so going undefeated should be expected.

"This year we felt we could have done it. We still feel that way. And next year, Coach Graham will have the same goal and the same mentality. We definitely fell short, but we're happy to go to a bowl. The GMAC treated us well last year when we went [a 63-7 rout of Bowling Green]. They had great Southern hospitality."

But having a good time doesn't necessarily mean a good performance.

A week after losing to Arkansas 30-23 a loss that ended any BCS hopes Tulsa was blown out 70-30 by Houston. Now, Tulsa has to prove it can bounce back from its 27-24 loss to East Carolina in the C-USA title game.

"Offensively, we came up short. We had a lot of mistakes," Adams said. "We know how to correct those, and we've been practicing to make sure they don't happen again.

"Nobody likes losing, but we know we beat ourselves. I'm not taking anything away from East Carolina, but with all the turnovers we had and as close a game as it was, we beat ourselves. It happens. We have to focus and get ready for the next one."

Refocusing might be easier for him than some of his teammates, though. This will mark Tulsa's fourth consecutive bowl appearance. But as a senior, he remembers when Tulsa was struggling to make it into the postseason.

Tulsa made one postseason appearance from 1992 to 2004. A second-tier bowl beats no bowl at all.

"A lot of teams don't get to go to bowls," he said. "There are only 30-odd bowl games, so not every team qualifies. Before I came to the university, we had dropped off a bit and [playing in bowl games] wasn't expected. We put it back together."

Who has the edge?

Ball State run offense vs. Tulsa run defense
TB MiQuale Lewis is third in the country with 1,701 rushing yards and leads the nation with 22 rushing touchdowns. He exceeded 100 rushing yards in 11 of the Cardinals' 13 games, including each of the past five. Three of Tulsa's past four opponents have rushed for at least 156 yards.
Edge: Ball State.

Ball State pass offense vs. Tulsa pass defense
QB Nate Davis has had an excellent season. He has completed 67 percent of his passes and has thrown for more 270 yards and multiple touchdown passes in seven games. And although star WR Dante Love has his career ended by a neck injury four games into the season, the Cardinals have more than compensated. Freshman Briggs Orsbon has emerged as the top receiver with 65 catches for 767 yards. Meanwhile, Tulsa has faced four opponents that rank among the nation's top 20 in passing offense and all four threw for more than 300 yards. Tulsa can apply pressure, though. The Golden Hurricane have 36 sacks and average 2.8 per game, which is 11th nationally.
Edge: Ball State.

Tulsa run offense vs. Ball State run defense
Tulsa's passing game is so prolific that its run offense is overlooked. But TB Tarrion Adams has rushed for 1,316 yards and 11 touchdowns. He has exceeded 100 yards and scored at least one touchdown in each of the past three games. Ball State allows 141.8 rushing yards per game, which is alarming considering the Cardinals usually have the lead.
Edge: Tulsa.

Tulsa pass offense vs. Ball State pass defense
David Johnson has passed for 3,866 yards and 43 touchdowns, but he has also thrown 18 interceptions. Four players have at least 36 catches. Brennan Marion averages 25.9 yards per catch and has eight touchdown receptions. Ball State's defense has given up 14 touchdown passes and grabbed 16 interceptions. Freshman FS Sean Baker has six picks. The Cardinals' pass rush is mediocre at best.
Edge: Tulsa.

Ball State special teams vs. Tulsa special teams
Tulsa freshman WR Damaris Johnson averages 25.9 yards on kickoff returns and has brought one back for a touchdown. K Jarod Tracy has converted 9-of-12 attempts, but none longer than 37 yards. Tulsa has had trouble on kickoff coverage. Ball State's Ian McGarvey has hit 14-of-19 field-goal attempts with the longest coming from 47 yards. P Chris Miller is a good one and has had 16 kicks killed inside the 20. B.J. Hill averages 12.8 yards on punt returns.
Edge: Ball State.

Ball State coaches vs. Tulsa coaches
Todd Graham of Tulsa is completing his third season as a head coach and taken teams to bowls in each of his seasons. Brady Hoke coached Ball State during the regular season, but he left to take over at San Diego State. His replacement, offensive coordinator Stan Parrish, was a finalist for the Broyles Awards, which recognizes the nation's premier assistant. He also was on the staff of the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers when they won the Super Bowl in 2002 and at the University of Michigan when it won a share of the national championship in 1997.
Edge: Tulsa.

X-factor: How focused are these teams? Both were hoping for greater rewards and perhaps a place in a BCS bowl. Instead, neither won its conference championship and had to settle for a consolation prize. The team that most wants to play definitely will have an advantage.

Tulsa will win if: Avoiding turnovers and playing better on special teams is a must. Tulsa has committed 15 turnovers in its three losses and has allowed two kickoffs return for touchdowns. Tightening up the pass defense will be key, too.

Ball State will win if: Keeping Davis protected has to be the Cardinals' top priority. Neutralizing the pass rush will allow Davis time to find holes in Tulsa's questionable secondary. Lewis also has to run effectively, and Ball State needs to find a way to stymie Tulsa's rushing attack.

The picks
Olin Buchanan: Tulsa 45, Ball State 42
Mike Huguenin: Tulsa 44, Ball State 40

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.

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