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Boise State Preview: Can The Hoos Go On A Winning Streak?

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The Hoos play a rare Friday night contest, facing off against everybody's favorite BCS buster, the Boise State Broncos. The Hoos and Broncos have never faced, but the Hoos did play on BSU's home turf in the 2004 MPC Computers bowl. The Hoos look to remain in the win column and get back to .500 by knocking Boise State.

Another big game from Matt Johns could help the Hoos upset the Broncos.
Another big game from Matt Johns could help the Hoos upset the Broncos.
Amber Searls-USA TODAY Sports

What do you know about Boise State? Probably you remember the 2007 Fiesta Bowl, when Ian Johnson scored the game winning 2-pt conversion on the "Statue of Liberty" play and then proposed to his cheerleader girlfriend on the sidelines. And maybe you remember that the Hoos played in the 2004 MPC Computers Bowl, which was played on Boise State's famous blue turf.

Probably, that is about all you know of Boise State. Do you even know what conference Boise State plays in? (Mountain West.) Did you know that they were briefly in the Big East? (For 24 days they were a member of the Big East, but then decided to stay in the MWC.)

The Hoos have never faced the Broncos, but Virginia's Jon Oliver is a 1994 graduate of Boise State. He likely played a big role in setting up this home-and-home series. The Hoos play in Boise next September.

Entering this game, the Broncos are 2-1, coming off a 52-0 win over Idaho St last week. That win, however, was costly as the Bronco's starting QB, Ryan Finley was knocked out of the game with the broken ankle. He'll miss 8 weeks. However, despite the injury and the relative weakness of the opponent, this was the best that BSU has looked this season.

The Hoos, as you well know, are 1-2, coming off a narrow win over William and Mary. The Hoos struggled at times to slow down the Tribe offense, and after taking a 15 point lead in the 2nd half were surprised to find themselves in a tight battle towards the end. The Hoos need to go for the jugular and knock out lesser opponents when they have the chance. (No knock intended on the Tribe, who played a very good game. But at home against an FCS school, the Hoos need to be better.)

Boise State Offense

This Broncos team is not the teams of 10 years ago, when they were going to BCS bowls year in and year out. Those teams were regularly among the nation's top offenses. In 2007, when Boise St beat Oklahoma in that famous Fiesta Bowl, they ranked 2nd in the nation in total offense. The chart below shows their ranking in that stat during the Chris Peterson era (including his years as the Offensive Coordinator under Dan Hawkins), and since.

Year

National Rank in Total Offense

Record

2001

18

8-4

2002

1

12-1

2003

1

13-1

2004

2

11-1

2005

9

9-4

2006

2

13-0

2007

4

10-3

2008

12

12-1

2009

1

14-0

2010

2

12-1

2011

5

12-1

2012

54

11-2

2013

22

8-5

2014

9

12-2

2015 (through 2 games)

107

1-1

First of all, that's a remarkable run of excellence. In 15 years, Boise State has finished in the top 10 in total offense nationally 10 times. Second of all, with a few exceptions, their offensive performance pretty well predicts their performance. That outlier 2012 season included just 1 win over a "good" team (Fresno St).

I suppose three games don't really mean a whole lot, but BSU is currently ranked just 56th in total offense. And that includes the 600 yards and 52 points they put up on Idaho State. In their prior two games, against Washington and BYU, they combined for just 700 yards and 40 points. Obviously last year's numbers aren't a perfect match, but Washington (78th) and BYU (56th) aren't exactly a murderer's row of defenses.

So what is different? Well the first, and most obvious, is the coaching. It isn't just Chris Peterson. He left after the 2013 season, and BSU still finished #9 last year and went to their 3rd Fiesta Bowl. The Broncos are breaking in a new Offensive Coordinator for the 2nd straight season, as Eliah Drinkwitz takes over for Mike Sanford Jr, who is currently the OC at Notre Dame. Sanford is widely considered one of the brightest offensive minds in the nation, coached at Stanford and has coached WRs, RBs, QBs and TEs. Drinkwitz was the RB coach for Arkansas State prior to the being the TE coach for the Broncos. Not quite as impressive a resume.

Another change is at QB. Even with a healthy Finley, the Broncos were playing their least experienced QB since 2008, when Kellen Moore (4 year starter and current starting QB for the Tony Romo-less Dallas Cowboys) was a freshman. Finley is a redshirt sophomore. His two backups are Thomas Stuart (reshirt sophomore JUCO transfer) and Brett Rypien (true freshman). Both players have ties to the Mid-Atlantic region. Stuart is from Baltimore, but played his JUCO ball at Butte Community College, which surprisingly is not in Butte, Montana but rather in Oroville, California. Aaron Rodgers also went there before attending Cal. Rypien is the nephew of former Washington Redskins QB and Super Bowl XXVI MVP Mark Rypien.

Finley played reasonably well against Idaho State prior to the injury. But he had not played very well prior to that, as he was averaging just 6.7 yards per pass attempt (Matt Johns is averaging 8.2 yards per attempt). Even after his performance against Idaho State (he played just 1 quarter), Finley is ranked 96th in the nation in passer rating (Johns ranks 40th).

The Broncos are likely going to play both QBs against the Hoos. Stuart is a dual-threat QB who didn't have any DI offers before leading Butte to the Junior College National Championship. He's undersized, quick and accurate. He doesn't have the biggest arm, but he's very good at eluding the rush and making plays both with his feet and his arm. He's a shotgun, spread offense guy. In other words, he's the prototypical Boise State QB. He rushed 11 times for 42 yards against Idaho St and also completed 9/13 for 69 yards and a TD.

Rypien, on the other hand, is a pure pocket passer and was a 4 star recruit with offers from just about every school in the Pac-12. He's also a bit undersized, at just 6'2" 199, but has a strong arm and a quick release and reminds people a bit of Kellen Moore (although he's a righty and Moore is a lefty). Rypien isn't a dual threat guy, but he does move pretty well. He'll move around in the pocket and he'll extend a play, but he's looking to throw not to run. He completed 8/9 for 126 yards against Idaho St.

Yet another problem for the Boise State offense this year is the loss of RB Jay Ajayi, a 5th round draft pick of the Miami Dolphins. Ajayi was 5th in the country in rushing yards last year with 1823. He was also 2nd in TDs, with 28.

Perhaps not surprisingly for a team that lost a talent like Ajayi, the Broncos will rotate more than one RB. The starter and likely the busiest will be Jeremy McNichols, who has rushed 54 times for 204 yards and 7 TDs this year. (Amazingly, he's rushed for at least 2 TDs in every game this year.) McNichols was actually a WR recruit out of HS, and therefore is a very good receiver out of the backfield. He's got 8 receptions for 73 yards and a TD on the season.

Also getting looks in the backfield will be Kelsey Young and Devan Demas. On a per carry basis, both have actually been better than McNichols. Young has 21 carries for 86 yards and Demas has 12 carries for 109 yards. In both cases, though, much of their success came against Idaho State.

Those RBs will run behind a pretty good offensive line. Perhaps not quite as good as the Notre Dame or UCLA OLs, but still very good. LT Rees Odhiambo is a Lombardi Award nominee and likely NFL draft pick and OC Marcus Henry is a Lombardi, Outland and Rimington Award nominee. Sophomore RT Archie Lewis is returning to the starting lineup after not starting against Idaho State.

Though the OL and the ground game remain the focus of the BSU offense, the WRs might be its most talented unit. They are led by Belitnikoff nominee Thomas Sperbeck and senior Shane Williams-Rhodes, who combined for 119 catches and 1462 yards last season. This year, the duo has combined for 30 catches and 313 yards already. Converted CB Chaz Anderson finishes the group as the 3rd starting WR in Boise State's spread offense. Jake Roh is a solid pass receiving TE who caught 35 balls last year for 408 yards and 2 TDs.

The Broncos offense has some playmakers, but is laking in experience. They looked great last week against Idaho State, and maybe they are rounding into form. Or maybe Idaho State simply isn't very good. By the end of the season, the Broncos might have a good offense, especially if Stuart or Rypien really take over. But right now, this offense might be the worst of the 4 the Hoos have faced so far this year, including the Tribe last week.

If the Hoos defense continues to play an uber-aggressive style, trying to force mistakes, they are going to continue to give up big plays. They do not have the horses up front to get consistent pressure on the QB, and therefore the CB are left out to dry far too often.

The strength of the BSU offense is the WRs, so the Hoos should limit the amount of single coverage they are in. But, knowing Jon Tenuta, they'll keep blitzing and blitzing and hope to force mistakes. Since BSU is playing two untested QBs, that strategy might work. If they can get pressure. That's a big if.

Boise State Defense

If the Broncos offenses have been great, the defenses have been very good. Not as many top-ten finishes, but for the better part of the past decade, Boise State has been consistently ranked in the top 20 in total defense year in and year out.

However, the past 2 years have been different. In 2013, the Broncos ranked 75th in total defense. Last year, they were 48th. That has changed again, though. Boise State currently ranks 21st in the nation. And that isn't all from the Idaho State game. They held a pretty good Washington offense to 179 total yards. BYU, generally one of the better rushing teams in the nation, was held to just 72 yards rushing and 381 overall.

The Broncos play a 3-3-5/4-2-5 hybrid defense. This year, that defense is loaded with upperclassmen. It starts on the DL, where they are starting 3 seniors (two are redshirt seniors). The two DTs, Armand Nance and Justin Taimatuia are both stout run stoppers at around 300 pounds. The interior of the Hoos OL hasn't been able to get much push this year and this week will probably not change that equation much.

The key position on the Bronco's defense is their STUD position. It is a DE/OLB hybrid, and this year is manned by Kamalei Correa, a 6'3" 248 pound junior. Correa could be a high draft pick this year if he decides to forego his senior season.

Next to Correa at LB are juniors Ben Weaver and Tanner Vallejo, who are tied with each other for the team lead in tackles. Weaver is actually listed on the depth chart as OR with senior Tyler Gray. Weaver will start, but both players will get playing time. Last year, Vallejo led the team in tackles, with Weaver 3rd and Gray 4th.

Second place in tackles last year when to current senior safety Darian Thompson. He's 3rd this year, just 1 tackle behind the LB duo. Thompson also had 7 INTs last year. He is a 6'2" 210 lb safety who is on many defensive player watch lists and could be a first round draft pick this year. The two CBs are senior Donte Deayon and junior Jonathan Moxey.

Next to Thompson at safety are Dylan Sumner-Gardner and Chancellor James (remember that Boise plays 5 DBs as their base defense). These are the two least experienced players on the Boise State defense, and perhaps its only weak link. Johns needs to be cognizant of where Thompson is at all times, but if he has time to throw, he could have success with deep routes because Boise's CBs are small and other than Thompson, the safeties are a weakness (relatively speaking anyway).

The Hoos aren't likely to have much success on the ground this week, especially not between the tackles. The past two weeks, there was some success running to the edges, and that could work again. But, most likely, the run is going to be setting up the pass. If the Hoos are going to have any success offensively, it is going to be by hitting some big pass plays.

The return of T.J. Thorpe will help in that regard. Thorpe, who returned last week but for only a handful of plays, was the star of the spring and fall practices prior to breaking his clavicle. He is a big play WR who can go deep as well as make plays with the ball in his hands. He and Canaan Severin provide a strong WR duo that should be able to make plays against Boise State's CBs.

The Hoos probably aren't going to score 35 points this week like they did last week. BYU scored 34 against Boise State, but that was aided by the 3 INTs that Ryan Finley threw. If the Hoos defense can finally force some turnovers this week, that will certainly help the offense out.

Special Teams

This may sound crazy to Wahoo fans, but the Hoos may have an advantage this week on special teams. Yes, the Hoos coverage teams have been poor this year, but Boise State's return teams have been poor as well. And the Hoos return teams have been quite good (the Maurice Canady led punt return unit is 2nd in the nation right now) and Boise State's coverage teams haven't been all that.

Boise St PK Tyler Rausa is 3/3 on the year, but the redshirt junior is in his first year as the team's placekicker. He has a big leg and made a 45 yarder against BYU. Ian Frye has struggled this year, missing a big kick against both Notre Dame and William & Mary. But we know what Frye is capable of, and hopefully his confidence hasn't been shaken.

Once again, with Boise State's stout D, the Hoos are going to have trouble scoring points. Maurice Canady's punt return TD was the deciding points last week, and another big play from the return game could similarly decide this game.

Conclusion

Coming into the season, this looked like a mismatch. But then Boise State struggled against both Washington and BYU and the Hoos played Notre Dame to a standstill. All of a sudden, a win seemed possible for the Hoos. Then BSU went and shellacked Idaho State 52-0 and the Hoos struggled to put away William and Mary. Now, all of a sudden, the Hoos season is in turmoil again and Boise State looks like their dominant selves again.

The Hoos solid offense is facing a very good defense and the Hoos porous defense is facing a mediocre offense. I don't think you'd have found too many people on either side of this game who would've predicted that kind of matchup.

The game will come down to the Hoos defense. Can they begin to turn the corner? Can they avoid getting beat on big plays? Can they finally force a turnover? If the Hoos defense shows up, they can absolutely win this game. If not, they won't score enough to stay with the Broncos.

The Hoos historically have gotten up for big games. Friday night on ESPN against big name team is a big game. I think the Hoos will be hyped, the crowd will be hyped and I think the Hoos are up for the challenge. Of course, it helps that Boise State is traveling 2500 miles to play without their starting QB. I think it'll be a low scoring game, and the Hoos (somewhat amazingly considering the past 5 years) have the better offense. If they get a decent game from the defense, they'll prevail. If not, they won't.

Prediction: Hoos 17, Broncos 14