Bowl season is finally here, and the smaller bowl games we’ve seen have been exciting to say the least. With Liberty getting its first win ever over a ranked opponent and Buffalo being able to take down Marshall despite the absence of star running back Jaret Patterson, there was a lot to write home about in the first week of bowl season. Here are five small-school players who stole the spotlight in the first week of bowl action:
Malik Willis, QB, Liberty
Stats vs. Coastal Carolina: 19/29 C/ATT, 220 YDS, 7.6 Y/A, 0 TDS, 2 INTS, 21 CAR, 137 YDS, 6.5 Y/A, 4 TDS
Liberty played in an all-time classic against Coastal Carolina, as the Flames prevailed in overtime by a score of 37-34 thanks to a blocked field goal. Before this extra period, Liberty got a huge game from the second player to make a repeat appearance in our weekly tribute to small-school players, Auburn transfer Malik Willis. The 6-1, 215-pound junior didn’t have the best day in the air, but he made sure to make an impact in the run game. The former Auburn Tiger finished with 21 carries for 137 yards and 4 touchdowns on 6.5 yards per rushing attempt while also throwing for 220 yards. Willis was almost unstoppable using read-options and QB-designed runs in order to gain huge chunks of yardage on the ground. He was even able to show off his elusiveness in the open field on multiple runs. Coastal Carolina often needed four or five players to bring the dual-threat QB down. Willis’ most impressive run of the day came on his second touchdown run. On this play, Willis ran a read-option and there were four different Coastal Carolina defenders waiting for him. Willis was able to truck through not one, not two, but three defenders to get into the end zone and give Liberty a 14-0 lead at the end of the first quarter. This was only a preview of the type of havoc the Willis would wreak on Coastal Carolina all night.
Camerun Peoples, RB, Appalachian State
Stats vs. North Texas: 22 CAR, 319 YDS, 14.4 Y/A, 5 TDS, LONG OF 76
North Texas had a tall task going up against Appalachian State’s dynamic rushing attack, and it was evident in the Mountaineers’ 56-28 victory over the Mean Green. There was one clear performance that stood out in this one, and it was from running back Camerun Peoples. The 6-2, 210-pound sophomore torched North Texas’ defense to the tune of 319 yards and 5 touchdowns, tying and breaking bowl records along the way. It didn’t matter if it was an inside run or outside run, Peoples was able to use impressive frame really well to break tackles and ensure that he could gain more yards after contact. He had a whopping 14.4 yards per attempt, and his longest run of the game came on a 76-yard run at the end of the third quarter. One of the best moments for Peoples in this game was a 62-yard touchdown run where he was able to weave his way through several would-be tacklers to break out into the open field. Appalachian State’s sideline was so excited after this play that they brought out a golden plunger in celebration of Peoples’ feat. This was truly an historic day for Peoples, and this may be just the beginning of his legacy at Appalachian State.
Zach Wilson, QB, BYU
Stats vs. UCF: 26/34 C/ATT, 425 YDS, 12.5 Y/A, 3 TDS, 0 INTS, 98.4 QBR, 5 CAR, 12 YDS, 2 TDS, 1 REC, 16 YDS
BYU hasn’t always been considered a “small school,” and this team has certainly been put back on the map this season with the effort put in by star quarterback Zach Wilson. He continued his excellent season in a dominant 49-23 victory over the Knights of UCF. This performance epitomized Wilson’s entire season, as he was able to pick apart any coverage UCF threw at him for 425 yards through the air to go with three scores. Wilson added another two scores on the ground and he even had a reception. The 6-3, 210-pound junior had such an impressive day that it had people wondering if he could pass Ohio State’s Justin Fields as perhaps the second QB taken in the NFL draft. The junior was in complete control, able to make any type of pass in this game. His throws were incredible, and it seemed like every touchdown he threw was going viral on social media. Wilson’s most impressive throw of the day came in the second quarter, when he was able to throw the ball on a line in the perfect spot to his receiver for a 35-yard touchdown, his third of the half. The receiver was tightly covered, and Wilson made a throw that even some NFL quarterbacks can’t make.
Ferrod Gardner, LB, Louisiana
Stats vs. UTSA: 8 TOTAL TACKLES, 3 SOLO, 1 SACK, 1 TFL, 1 FUMBLE RECOVERY
Louisiana capped a great 2020 campaign with a tough 31-24 win over a pesky UTSA squad. There were plenty of defensive standouts to choose from in this game, but none was bigger than linebacker Ferrod Gardner. The 6-1, 220-pound senior had a great game to close out his 2020 season as he compiled 8 total tackles to go with a sack, a tackle for loss, and a huge fumble recovery that helped set up the Ragin’ Cajuns for a 24-7 lead early in the second half. The fumble came off a low snap that Roadrunner QB Frank Harris was unable to corral, and he hit it toward his own goal line, where Gardner was nearly able to scoop it for a score. Thankfully, Gardner was able to still recover the ball and set up the Ragin’ Cajuns with very favorable field position to take what looked like a commanding lead. Gardner was all over the field for Louisiana and was a huge reason for UTSA running back Sincere McCormick not having an even bigger day. This was a great way to go out for Gardner and company, and we’ll see what lies ahead for this impressive senior.
Calvin Turner, RB, Hawaii
Stats vs. Houston: 12 CAR, 60 YDS, 5.0 Y/A, 4 REC, 88 YDS, 22 Y/R, 1 TD, 2 KICK RETURNS, 104 YDS, 1 TD
Many people did not expect the Rainbow Warriors of Hawaii to take down the Cougars of Houston in the first week of bowl season; however, Hawaii was able to do just enough in order to secure a 28-14 victory. The Rainbow Warriors can attribute two of their touchdowns to senior running back Calvin Turner, who made his presence felt in multiple ways. The 6-1, 195-pound senior had 60 yards on the ground on 12 carries while also catching four passes for 88 yards and a score. Furthermore, Turner also had two kickoff returns, one of which he was able to take 92 yards to paydirt. On this kick return, Turner was able to break several would-be tacklers and then stiff arm the last man to beat in order to get to the end zone. Hawaii wasn’t the most efficient team on offense, but Turner provided a spark whenever it needed him to. On Turner’s receiving touchdown, he was able to take a pass that should have just been a first-down reception all the way to the house for a 75-yard touchdown as he was able to use a strong stiff arm along with his electric speed to beat every Houston defender to the end zone. Turner’s contributions for Hawaii were huge in this one as Houston had no answer for him.