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2015 Alamo Bowl preview

 

An index finger, a shoulder, an ankle, and a wrist.

Those four body parts are likely all that separated the No. 15 University of Oregon Ducks (9-3, 7-2 Pac-12) and No. 11 Texas Christian University Horned Frogs (10-2, 7-2 Big 12) from meeting in a New Year’s Six bowl game as national title contenders, as opposed to their January 2 matchup in the Valero Alamo Bowl.

Now a wrist and a fist may be what turns the game into a lopsided affair, rather than the eagerly anticipated shootout under the Alamodome lights.

Coming into the season, both teams were loaded on offense and were led by explosive, playmaking quarterbacks. The Associated Press had the Horned Frogs at No. 2 and the Ducks at No. 7; the Coaches Poll also had TCU at No. 2, with one first-place vote, and the UO nipping on its heels (or claws—the mascot is actually a lizard, not a frog) at No. 5.

Unfortunately for fans of both schools, the respective medical staffs were kept just as busy as the scoreboard operators. Even more unfortunately for TCU's fans, their medical staff couldn't heal star wide receiver Josh Doctson in time for the game, and senior quarterback Trevone Boykin couldn't make it through his final week as a college football player, getting suspended for the Alamo Bowl after hitting a police officer following a bar fight two days before the game.

Boykin, who finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy voting in 2014 and tenth in 2015, ranked second nationally in total offense (380.6 yards per game), eighth nationally with 31 passing touchdowns, and fourteenth nationally with 3,575 passing yards. First team All-American and Biletnikoff Award finalist Doctson set TCU records for catches (79), yards (1,387), and touchdowns (14) this year, and ranked first in the NCAA in receiving yards per game (132.7), fourth in receiving touchdowns, and seventh in receiving yards.

The Horned Frogs have already spent plenty of time without Doctson and Boykin on the field this year, as the receiver suffered a season-ending wrist injury against No. 14 Oklahoma State on November 7, and in the very next game Boykin suffered an ankle injury, missing the ensuing game against No. 7 Oklahoma. Oklahoma State and Oklahoma are the only losses on TCU’s record.

Doctson's absence in the Alamo Bowl will provide an opportunity for redshirt freshman Shaun Nixon to shine though, as the one-time running back led the team with 23 receptions for 253 yards and 1 touchdown over the final four games of the season. True freshman KaVontae Turpin, who was second on the team behind Doctson with 40 receptions for 584 yards and 8 touchdowns, will also be a candidate to lead the Horned Frogs' wideouts against the Ducks.

Just who will replace the suspended Boykin is slightly murkier though, as TCU has two candidates to start under center. Redshirt freshman Foster Sawyer, the No. 13-ranked quarterback in the nation coming out of high school, started the game against Oklahoma and threw for 103 yards in the first quarter alone, but was pulled in favor of senior Bram Kohlhausen after throwing three interceptions. TCU trailed 30-13 heading into the fourth quarter, but Kohlhausen led the Horned Frogs on a furious late comeback, and two fourth quarter touchdown passes cut the score to 30-29 with 51 seconds left. TCU elected to go for two instead of kicking a PAT to tie the game, and Kohlhausen threw an incomplete pass, giving the Horned Frogs just their second loss of the season.

On the green and yellow sideline (or white, as the case may be, as Oregon is the visiting team) the Ducks are raring to go on offense. Despite losing 2015 National Championship Game starting running back Thomas Tyner for the season after he underwent shoulder surgery in August, the Ducks didn't miss a beat on the ground as 2014's leading rusher, sophomore Royce Freeman, ranked fourth nationally in rushing yards per game (142.2) and rushing yards (1,706), and seventeenth in rushing touchdowns (14), while being the only player in the FBS with at least 100 yards from scrimmage in every game. His yards-per-game average was tops in the Pac-12, bettering Heisman Trophy finalist Christian McCaffrey by a tenth of a yard. Freshman Taj Griffin filled Tyner's shoes admirably, averaging 7.2 yards per carry en route to 529 yards and three touchdowns, while adding a further 162 yards and a score through the air.

Through the air though is where the trouble came for the Ducks in 2015, as quarterback Vernon Adams broke the index finger on his throwing hand in the season opener against Eastern Washington, was hampered the following week against No. 5 Michigan State, and missed almost all of the games against Georgia State, No. 18 Utah, Colorado, and Washington State.

Michigan State, Utah, and Washington State are the only losses on the UO’s record.

Despite missing one third of the Ducks’ games, though, Adams still lead the nation with a pass efficiency mark of 179.6, and ranked among the top 30 in points responsible for and passing touchdowns.

The Ducks' high-powered offense will look to feast on TCU's defense, which allows 182.3 yards per game on the ground and 214.3 through the air, numbers that should have Freeman, Griffin, Adams, and the rest of Oregon's sixth-ranked offense salivating.

Until last week, TCU was likewise expected to light up the Alamodome's scoreboard, with the Horned Frogs' third-ranked offense going against a Ducks' pass defense giving up 301.2 passing yards per game, third-worst in the FBS. However, Doctson's inability to recover from his injury in time—he was initially hopeful that he would be healthy for the Alamo Bowl, but was ruled out last week—and Boykin's errant punch thrown during a bar fight that connected with an intervening police officer, could see a redshirt freshman quarterback throwing to a redshirt and a true freshman receiver in the team's biggest game of the year.

Complicating matters even further for TCU's offense is the fact that the Ducks possess the single best defensive player in the Alamo Bowl in senior defensive end DeForest Buckner. Buckner, who stands 6-7 and weighs 300 pounds, was named Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year in 2015; a disruptive force on the end of the defensive line, he has eight solo sacks and 9.5 total sacks, while adding 16 tackles for loss. In all, Buckner’s prowess has cost opposing teams 150 yards of field position through 12 games—no matter which quarterback TCU starts in the Alamo Bowl, it's a good bet Oregon’s No. 44 will be breathing down his neck the entire game.

Ducks and Horned Frogs fans and players are not alone in circling the Alamo Bowl on their calendar. Prior to Boykin's arrest, a number of national media writers named the game one of the best matchups of the entire bowl season, with the Washington Post ranking it second (saying “For pure entertainment value, this might be the best game the postseason has to offer”) while ESPN, FOX Sports, Yahoo! Sports, and Sports Illustrated all rank it fifth.

All eyes will be tuned to ESPN at 3:45 p.m. PT on January 2. Tune in, relax, and be thankful you’re not the Duck having to do pushups to keep up with the scoreboard.