Boca Raton, Fla-It’s Florida! It’s fun ‘n sun time! It’s ocean and pool time!
Yes, the Boca Raton Bowl trip is a well-deserved reward for the University of Memphis football players and staff, and head coach Mike Norvell realizes that. But, Norvell also wants to make sure his squad knows there is a purpose for this trip: a bowl game victory.
The 2016 Boca Raton Bowl is set for a 6 p.m. (CT) kickoff Tuesday, Dec. 20. ESPN is televising the contest from FAU Stadium on the campus of Florida Atlantic University.
“By finishing strong, we put ourselves in a position to go to a beautiful place like Boca Raton,” said Norvell, who is making his head coach debut in a bowl game Tuesday. “It’s somewhere our guys are excited to go and play against a tremendous opponent.
“Getting to a bowl game is a great accomplishment, but it’s about going and winning the game. Nowhere on our goal board does it say to just go to a bowl. We want to be bowl champions. But it’s going to take great preparation and playing every second of those 60 minutes to have a chance for a win.”
Indeed, Western Kentucky provides a stern test for the Tigers with the Hilltoppers’ high-flying offense and stout defense, especially in the run game. Norvell is well aware of the weapons Western Kentucky has on both sides of the ball, but he is quick to point out that the game may be won by special teams – an area that receives some attention but largely goes under the radar.
“Western Kentucky is dynamic at receiver,” said Norvell. “They have three, four guys that are really special with the ball in their hands. Their quarterback is really good at distributing the ball and letting them make plays. They also run the ball well, and they are one of the most-balanced teams we’ve face this season. On defense, they are multiple, and they like to attack and apply pressure. They are similar schematically to what we saw against Houston.
“One of the keys to this game is special teams. This is the best special teams units we will play against this season. They have a couple of dynamic returners, and they also have really good coverage units. Our guys know they are going to have to play at a high level.”
Memphis and Western Kentucky are ranked fourth (26.95 ypg) and fifth (26.80), respectively, in kickoff returns, and both kick return units have at least one return for a touchdown (UM, 3; WKU, 1). Both squads also defend kick returns well, with Memphis ranking second (15.46 ypg) and Western Kentucky 23rd (18.47) nationally in that statistical category.
An advantage the Tigers may have in the kick return game is senior kicker Jake Elliott. His 60 touchbacks, which are third-most nationally, has negated opponents’ number of returnable kicks this season. Memphis will rely on Elliott’s ability to kick touchbacks Tuesday, as Western Kentucky has the nation’s top kick returner in Kylen Towner, who averages 40.8 yards per return. Towner, an All-C-USA second team pick, has one return for a score.
On the other side, Hilltoppers’ opponents have 76 kick returns compared to only 22 touchbacks. The chance to return kicks is good news for the Tigers’ tandem of Tony Pollard and Darrell Henderson. Pollard, the 2016 American Athletic Conference Special Teams Player of the Year, is ninth nationally in kick return yardage (28.4) and is tied for second in the country with two returns for touchdowns. Henderson has two returns for a 56.5 average and one score (99 yards at SMU).
The Memphis punt return coverage unit also will be tested Tuesday. Western Kentucky has the country’s second-best punt return team at 17.93 yards per game. Leading the Hilltoppers on punt returns is All-Conference USA first teamer Nacarius Fant, who has returned two punts for scores. The Tigers’ punting tandem of Spencer Smith and Nick Jacobs have had only seven of their punts returned, tied for sixth fewest in the nation. The Tigers have allowed only 9.4 yards per punt return.
The place-kicking game is nearly a wash between the two teams, with both kickers having outstanding seasons. Elliott, a Lou Groza Award semifinalist, has 114 points on a perfect 54-of-54 PAT and 20-of-24 field goals. He is 12-of-14 on field goals of 40 or more yards, including two 50-yarders. Hilltoppers sophomore kicker Skyler Simcox is 64-of-64 PAT and 15-of-20 field goals and also has two field goals of 50 or more yards.