Honolulu, HI As Boise State coaches and players draw up the game plan for Sunday’s Sheraton Hawai’i Bowl (6:00 p.m. MT on ESPN), no doubt they’ve noticed several key statistics which tell the tale of East Carolina’s 7-5 season. 


Offensively, the Pirates rank first in the nation in scoring drives of less than one minute at 19 different drives, showing an explosive offense.  The all important turnover battle has been dominated by East Carolina, as the Pirates rank sixth in the country with a +14 turnover margin this season (15 interceptions and 12 forced fumbles).  Defensively, ECU has been susceptible to the pass, ranking 115th nationally allowing nearly 300 yards per game and 24 touchdowns.    


In a nutshell, those things will end up being the keys that #22 Boise State (10-2) will focus on in working to win its sixth bowl game since 1999:  Turnovers (a key to every game), tackling and limiting big plays by ECU’s versatile offensive skill players, and establishing the run to open up the rest of the Bronco playbook (ie downfield passing attack).


“When evenly matched teams play, many times it comes down to the obvious and that is where turnovers are critical,” said Boise State head coach Chris Petersen.  “We also have to be good tacklers and not give up big plays.  We did a little study and they score within five plays.  Their scoring drives average about five plays are less.  They are very explosive.”


The Bronco defense will contend with a running back that many consider to be a sure fire NFL prospect, if not a potential first rounder in Chris Johnson.  The senior tailback has put up very similar numbers to his Bronco counterpart, Ian Johnson.  The Pirates’ Johnson has ran for 1,200 yards and 16 touchdowns, averaging nearly six yards per carry. 


“Their running back is as good a back as we’ve seen all year,” said Petersen.  “As fast as anybody we’ve seen this season, and we’ve faced some good backs”


A two quarterback tandem runs the East Carolina offense.  Junior Pat Pinkney is more of the running threat and leads a spread attack.  Sophomore Rob Kass is big (6-4, 247 lbs.) and more of the standard drop back passer.  Kass started seven games, while Pinkney started four during the season.  The duo combined for 19 touchdown passes, while Pinkney served as the team’s second leading rusher.


“They have an offense for both quarterbacks,” said Boise State defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox.  “One is more of a runner with more play action.  The other is a traditional drop back passer, but he can move as well.  They do have two plans going in, so you have to adjust some on the fly.  We have to have a little broader focus for a game like this in preparing for them.”


Sophomore wideout Jamar Bryant is the team’s go to receiver, with a touchdown reception in six of the last seven games.  Bryant leads the Pirate team with 42 catches and six touchdowns.  He’s a field stretcher, gathering in at least three passes this season of 50 yards or more.  East Carolina also uses the passing game to get the ball into Johnson’s hands in space, as he ranks second to Bryant in receptions (34) and touchdown catches (5). 


“They’re very good athletically and with their schemes.  They present a lot of challenges,” added Wilcox.  “We need to stop the run and not allow explosion plays.  They look for big pass plays, big screens and big runs to score fast.  They’ve done that this year, so those explosion plays are key.  It’s going to come down to tackling in one-on-one situations and working to contain the tailback.”


Defensively, it’s been a good news, bad news story for East Carolina.  Yes, they’ve thrived on turnovers, forcing 27 or an average or more than two per game.  But, it’s a team that has also allowed nearly 30 points per game, including 34 or more points in seven of 12 regular season games.


Opponents did damage through the air against ECU, as the Pirates allowed an average of 290 yards per game to rank among the bottom five in the country in passing yards given up and passing touchdowns allowed (24).  Memphis and UTEP torched East Carolina for more than 400 yards passing, as six teams threw for 300 yards or more and five for three touchdowns or more.  That certainly appears to bode well for a Bronco offense that enters the game ranked fifth in the country in scoring at 42.8 points per game, behind a balanced attack which averages 284 passing yards and 192 rushing yards per game.


Boise State senior quarterback Taylor Tharp had an All-WAC season, earning second team honors, after throwing for more than 3,000 yards and 28 touchdowns.  He threw for 300 yards in three of BSU’s 12 regular season games.  Tharp and the Broncos will be without leading receiver Jeremy Childs for the Sheraton Hawai’i Bowl, which means true freshmen Austin Pettis (37 catches / 6 touchdowns) and Titus Young (37 catches / 5 touchdowns) will be counted on in a big way to replace Childs’ 82 receptions and nine touchdowns.


Pettis emerged late in the season, making 25 of his 37 receptions in the final four regular season games, including a three touchdown, 139 yard performance against Idaho.  Young is the deep threat, averaging a team best 16.0 yards per catch, including catches of 53 and 43 yards during the season.


While some may immediately think the Broncos will attack through the air, Boise State’s game plan will always start with the ground game.  Ian Johnson again earned first team All-WAC honors with another thousand yard season and 16 rushing touchdowns.  Freshmen Jeremy Avery and D.J. Harper also recorded 100 yard rushing games during the season, and entering the Hawai’i Bowl all three are completely healthy for the first time since the Nevada game back on October 14th.


“We have to run the ball to be effective,” said BSU offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin.  “That will help establish the rest of the game plan.  If we can get that done up front and handle their defensive line, it will help us out overall in the game.”


“They’re one of those defensive teams that the more you watch, the more you are impressed,” added Petersen.  “They’ve done a good job of keeping teams out of the end zone.  They’re not real star studded, but play hard and are well coached.  Like all good teams, they make you earn things.” 


This is a bowl game where both teams played well at the end of the year.  East Carolina won six of its final eight games after starting the season 1-3.  The Broncos won nine in a row before falling at Hawai’i in the regular season finale, behind a powerful offensive attack that averaged 48 points per game in October and November.


A game with some intriguing storylines:  Explosive offenses on both sides and defensive units that will feel the pressure to match-up against those offensive units; A star duel of Johnson tailbacks in either backfield (Ian for BSU and Chris for ECU); And, of course, a bowl championship for the winner, something every bowl team thirsts to do in building momentum for 2008. 


For East Carolina, a chance to take a major step forward by winning a bowl game against a program that every non-BCS school works to be compared to in Boise State.  For the Broncos, a win would all but secure another end of season top 25 ranking, the school’s fifth in a six year span.  An impressive run that will only help solidify their position as one of college football’s premier programs.

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