Boise State fans hold tight on any thoughts of a BCS appearance or another unbeaten regular season, at least for the moment. All focus for Friday night’s game against Nevada is on the WAC championship. The Wolf Pack have quietly reeled off eight straight wins, including a WAC best 7-0 record as they travel to Boise for a winner take all conference showdown. Any Bronco hopes for a major bowl game include a WAC title with it, putting everything at stake on Friday night. For Nevada, the irony is they finally have a chance to knock off the WAC bully and return the favor of collecting a title on Boise State’s home field. By scheduling coincidence, the Broncos have captured league championships in 2002, 2004 and 2006 in Reno, and all but did so in 2008 as well. Now, they must fend off the team which over the past five seasons has joined Boise State as the most consistent team in the WAC. Here are the key storylines for tonight’s game.
THE SCHEDULE HOLDS TRUE: After Nevada dropped its first three games to start the season, many were scoffing at the pre-season schedule makers who matched the Broncos and Wolf Pack in a key nationally televised late-November game. Eight wins later, Nevada has made the schedule makers look genius, as Friday’s game will decide the winner of the 2009 WAC championship. Boise State has won six of the last seven crowns, including sharing the title with Nevada in 2005 (but winning the head-to-head matchup), while Nevada has yet to win an outright WAC title. Plenty of motivation for both teams as the primary goal at the start of the season is on the line Friday night.
GROUND HOGS: Nevada boasts the top rushing team in the nation, averaging nearly 375 yards per game on the ground. Led by junior quarterback Colin Kaepernick, the Wolf Pack are the first team in NCAA history to have three different 1,000 yard rushers (Kaepernick and the tailback tandem of Vai Taua and Luke Lippincott). But it’s not a grind it out, methodical rushing attack, as Nevada is a quick strike team with big play ability on the ground, evidenced by averaging nearly eight yards per carry. Boise State counters that with a very balanced offensive attack, one that received a shot in the arm to its rushing game in last Friday’s win over Utah State as the Broncos gained 323 yards on the ground, scored 6 rushing touchdowns and had dual 100 yard rushers in Jeremy Avery and Doug Martin. On the season, Boise State averages 192 yards per game, a number that ranks among the top 25 in the nation.
AND THE HONOR GOES TO…: No one needs to remind either team of the prize that awaits the winner, but more than just a WAC title may be at stake. Individual conference honors could very well be on the line in both major MVP categories. With the late season injury to Fresno State running back Ryan Matthews, the battle for offensive player of the year is shaping up to be a two-man race between the quarterbacks in this Bronco-Wolf Pack showdown. Kellen Moore has led the nation in pass efficiency much of the year, while throwing for a WAC high 33 touchdowns and a WAC low three interceptions. Meanwhile, Kaepernick is the WAC’s top rushing quarterback (#2 nationally for rushing yards by a quarterback) and has accounted for 32 touchdowns through the air or on the ground. Meanwhile, defensively, the top four likely candidates for WAC Defensive Player of the Year will all be on the field Friday night as well. Nevada defensive ‘book’-ends, Dontay Moch and Kevin Basped are among the top three in the WAC in sacks and tackles for loss. The third member of that group is Bronco defensive end Ryan Winterswyk, who ranks second in the conference in sacks to Basped and second in tackles for loss to Moch. Boise State safety Jeron Johnson also has to be considered for the league’s top defensive player, as he is certainly the most intimidating, leads the league’s top defense in tackles, ranks second in the WAC with four interceptions and is fourth in the conference in passes defensed.
WILL THE DEFENSE REST?: With all this talk about the nation’s top rushing team in Nevada, the country’s top scoring team in Boise State and the fact that the two teams combine to average 85 points per game, some may wonder if either defense will get a stop. Of course, that will happen, but which defense comes up with the most stops or forces the critical turnover could very well decide the game. Boise State is the far and away leader in the WAC in just about every defensive category, but it’s actually Nevada’s defensive unit that has put up better numbers of late. The Pack have allowed just 41 points in the last three games to New Mexico State (14 of those points came after Nevada led 63-6 in the fourth quarter), Fresno State and San Jose State, and rank first in the WAC against the run. While Nevada has been solid defending the run, they have been burned through the air, ranking last in the WAC in pass defense, giving up over 300 yards per game via the air and having 18 more touchdowns against them than interceptions. Boise State’s defense has been the most consistent unit in the WAC all season, allowing 17 points per game. But the most telling statistic for this unit has been turnovers forced, 29 to be exact leading to a +19 turnover margin for the season. In the last five games along, the Broncos have forced 18 turnovers, including 11 of the team’s WAC high 20 interceptions.
BLUE MAGIC: Under head coach Chris Petersen, Boise State is 24-0 on the Blue Turf of Bronco Stadium, and have had only two games in that four year span that have been decided by less than 10 points. The closest any team has gotten to beating Boise State came two years ago against the very same Nevada team the Broncos face Friday night. An epic four overtime game back on October 14, 2007, introduced a then freshman quarterback Colin Kaepernick to the nation. In Kaepernick’s first collegiate start, he ran for 177 yard and two touchdowns, while throwing for three touchdowns as the Wolf Pack pushed the Broncos to the limit before falling 69-67. Since that game, Boise State has not been threatened in any of the last 13 games on ‘The Blue. This season, Boise State has won its five home games by an average margin of 32.5 points per game, and puts the second longest home winning streak in the nation on the line Friday night.THE COMMON THEME: Boise State and Nevada have played six common opponents this season, with all six being WAC opponents. Both teams have both gone 6-0 against Fresno State, Idaho, Louisiana Tech, Hawaii, Utah State and San Jose State. Boise State is averaging 51.7 points per game in those six contests, while allowing 20.7 for an average margin of victory of 31 points per game. Nevada is averaging 47.8 points per game and allowing 22.2 for a margin of victory of 25.6. Of that group, the Broncos drew Fresno State, Hawaii, Louisiana Tech and Utah State on the road, while the Wolf Pack hosted Fresno State, Idaho, Louisiana Tech and Hawaii, traveling to San Jose State and Utah State. In those games, Nevada has had two decided by 10 points or less, defeating Utah State 35-32 on the road and winning 31-21 over Hawaii at home. Boise State’s only conference game decided by less than 10 points was a 45-35 victory at Louisiana Tech.