8:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Boise State -17
Mountain West rivals clash tonight in Boise, Idaho, as the Boise State Broncos host the Fresno State Bulldogs. In the wake of the Chris Petersen Era, Boise State (4-2, 2-1 in MWC) has continued to handle their business without the man that led them to seven consecutive ten-win seasons and a pair of BCS Bowls. Replacing Petersen is Bryan Harsin, who spent one season at Arkansas State after Gus Malzahn left for Auburn, leading the Red Wolves to an 8-5 record, concluding with a 17-13 victory over Kent State in the GoDaddy.com Bowl. This season, the Broncos kicked things off with a defeat at the hands of Ole Miss, now ranked third overall in the country, in a game that was a helluva lot closer than the score would indicate; under the bright lights of the Georgia Dome, Harsin’s charges kept the pressure on the Rebels, trailing 7-6 heading into the Fourth Quarter. At that point though, they simply ran out of gas, yielding three consecutive touchdown passes to open the final stanza en route to a 35-13 loss. Drawing from that performance, these Broncos were clearly game, going on to win four out of their next five games, including last weekend’s 51-46 at Nevada.
In a contest in which both teams combined for a total of 97 points and 1,032 yards of offense, Harsin’s club was able to outlast the Wolfpack in Reno largely on the strength of their backfield, led by junior Tailback Jay Ajayi. As a sophomore, Ajayi rushed for 1,425 yards (5.7 yards/carry) and eighteen touchdowns, and is on pace towards comparable numbers this season. The 6-0, 216-lbs bruiser ran wild at Nevada, trampling the hosts on 152 yards and three touchdowns, all of which came over the game’s final thirty minutes. Ajayi has been the driving force behind a rushing attack that has averaged 182.3 yards on 4.5 yards per carry thus far, Senior Quarterback Grant Hedrick accounted for another score and 40 more yards on the ground, all the while putting together arguably his finest performance of the campaign. Against the Wolfpack, Hedrick completed a very efficient 26-of-31 for 346 yards, a pair of touchdowns and an interception, successfully rebounding from a dreadful performance at Air Force, in which he was picked off four times. Decision-making has been this kid’s biggest challenge thus far, for he has thrown ten interceptions over the course of only six games, compared to just seven touchdowns. With that said, eight of those turnovers have occurred in two games; in the Opener against Ole Miss, Hedrick also tossed four balls that went the other way. And wouldn’t you know it? The Broncos lost both of those games. Funny how that works, huh?
Thankfully, Boise State can make their share of plays on the defensive side of things, helping to negate some of the damage done by the litany of turnovers. While the offense has committed sixteen turnovers this season, Harsin’s defense has forced sixteen of their own, including at least three in four of their six outings. This experienced unit has acquired a dozen interceptions, with five different players logging a pick. Chief among them is junior Safety Darian Thompson, who has been a bonafide playmaker since suiting up for the Broncos; the 6-2, 208-lbs veteran has picked off four passes this year, further adding to his career total of eleven in just 20 games. Fellow junior Donte Deayon has registered another three interceptions to his credit, ringing his career total ten over sixteen games, providing Harsin with a pair of sharks roaming the Secondary. With that said, good pass defense is equal parts coverage and pressure, and Boise has applied plenty of the latter. Ten different players have produced a sack this season, with Defensive Linemen Beau Martin and Kamalei Correa notching four and three respectively, while Linebacker Mat Boesen adds another three himself. With nineteen sacks and twelve turnovers to their credit, Fresno State had better be wary against these guys…
Meanwhile, while their opponent tonight stands second in the Mountain West’s Mountain Division (seriously?), Fresno State (3-4, 2-1 in MWC) currently occupies the third rung of the conference’s West ladder. In his third year on the job, Tim DeRuyter is trying to break in a new Quarterback after Derek Carr led his prolific offense over the past two seasons. With Carr on to the NFL, Brian Burrell earned the job over the summer, and has played well given the the arduous schedule that he’s had to play against. Talk about a baptism by fire; the Bulldogs’ first three opponents this season were against USC (52-13) and Utah (59-27) on the road, followed by Nebraska (55-19) at Bulldog Stadium, with all three contests ending in defeat. Together, those three team have posted a cumulative record of 19-4, with the Utes, Trojans and Cornhuskers standing twentieth, twenty-second, and nineteenth in the rankings. DeRuyter must have been channeling the essence of his predecessor Pat Hill, who was famous for scheduling anyone, no matter how strong of a team they were.
Fortunately for the Bulldog faithful, after running the gauntlet and left wanting, the schedule has softened considerably. Fresno State earned their first victory of the season as they dismantled Southern Utah to the tune of 56-16, accumulating 694 yards of offense, followed by a 35-24 win at New Mexico in their Mountain West Opener, where they racked up 593 more yards. Upon returning home, a 24-13 victory at San Diego State was much more difficult to come by, as Burrell struggled mightily under center completing just 14-of-28 passes for 143 yards and in interception. He did however, account for 51 of his team’s 172 rushing yards, with Marteze Waller churning out another 67 of his own. Then came a trip to Las Vegas last weekend, where DeRuyter’s charges succumbed late to the Runnin’ Rebels, who kicked a late, game-winning, 33-yard field goal to steal a 30-27 win. For the second consecutive game, Burrell wasn’t very sharp, this time completing 25-of-44 passes for 302 yards, three touchdowns and a pair of interceptions. Waller was once again solid, rushing for 131 yards and a score on just seventeen carries, but the mistakes (three turnovers) simply did the ‘Dogs in. And the bottom line is this; while Waller has been a beast in conference play (120.3 yards/game), this team will continue to struggle util they get more consistent performances from Burrell, who has completed just 56.4% of his passes thus far, with eleven touchdowns and six interceptions. Hellish schedule aside, it must be concerning for the Coaching Staff that their young Quarterback really hasn’t improved much since September’s opening slate; in the opening three losses, the junior completed 52.1% of his passes for an average of 146.3 yards on just 4.7 yards per attempt with three touchdowns and an interception, but in three conference games he has completed a better 59.5% for 254.3 yards per game on 6.9 yards per attempt, yet has tossed six scores and four picks.
With all that said, Burrell and the offense has a whole would benefit greatly from some improvement from their defense, which has been dismal this season. DeRuyter’s defense has allowed 31.1 points thus far on 470.6 yards, including 257.9 versus the pass and another 212.7 versus the run. Granted, those numbers are skewed a bit due to the quality of their first three opponents, but the bottom line is that this unit simply hasn’t gotten enough stops make a difference. Against USC, Utah, and Nebraska, Fresno State was eviscerated, yielding 55.3 points on 596.3 yards, including a whopping 271.7 on the ground. The Bulldogs just don’t have the talent or speed on that side of the ball to consistently stop those teams, but have proven to be capable of holding their own against Mountain West competition…or at least we think they do. Against the likes of New Mexico, San Diego State, and UNLV, they managed limit the opposition to a far more respectable 22.3 points on 376.7 yards, 205.7 coming against the run. Furthermore, they’ve been outstanding against the pass in those outings, relegating their opponents to a mere 171.0 yards, allowing three touchdowns, while racking up three interceptions. The problem is that teams aren’t throwing the ball much against them. Then again why would you when they’re allowing 6.2 yards per carry? This season, the Bulldogs’ defense has sustained an average of 48.6 carries, which is good for 63.6% of the plays that their opponents have run. DeRuter will need these kids to get Boise State in to long down and distance, so that they can get the opportunity to add to their total of fifteen sacks. Hybrid Defensive End Donavon Lewis would agree; the senior leads Fresno with four sacks, along with a forced fumble and an interception.