Mountain West Championship – Fresno State vs Boise State, 10:00 PM ET, CBS
Every week I sit down with Jesse Kurtz of the Mountain West to review the prior week’s games and take a look at the coming action.
Bulldogs, Broncos….’nough said.
Fresno State Bulldogs – Offense
It wasn’t until a Week 4 breakout game versus Southern Utah by RB Marteze Waller for 117 yards & 1 TD, did the Bulldog’s offensive formula start to come together. Waller ripped off seven 100+ yard games & 9 rushing TD’s over a 6-3 stretch that put Fresno State back into the Mountain West Championship game.
The Bulldogs will need to lean on Waller to keep Boise State’s defense honest. In their earlier mid-October matchup, the Bulldogs rushed for 186 yards & 5.47 per carry, the 2nd highest per carry total given up by the Broncos all season. Waller tallied 164 of that total and scored twice on runs of 76 & 3 yards. But the offensive line struggled to protect QB Brian Burrell who was sacked 5 times by the Broncos.
With the score tied at 27 entering the 4th quarter, Fresno State was unable to move the ball on the ground & found itself in a couple of 3rd & long situations where Boise State’s defense was able to force a sack, a Burrell scramble, and an interception to seal the win.
For the Bulldogs to have a chance, they must establish their ground game first against a Bronco defense that has been gashed not only by Waller & company, but by the likes of Air Force, New Mexico, and San Diego State for just under 1000 yards & 10 TD’s.
Boise State Broncos – Defense
To the Broncos credit, they’ve tightened up things over the past two weeks versus Wyoming and Utah State’s rushing attacks, holding the Cowboys & Aggies well under 4 yards per carry and forcing both teams to the air.
This is where Boise State’s defense really shines…when it can bring the pressure.
The Broncos were 2nd in the Mountain West with 35 sacks and 2nd with 17 interceptions. They led the Conference in opponent 3rd down conversions at just a paltry 33%. The Boise State defense is headed upfront by Kamalei Correa and Beau Martin, who have combined for 14 sacks on the season. Juniors DB’s Darian Thompson & Donte Deayon have turned 11 interceptions off that relentless pressure and each has returned a pick for a score.
In their first meeting, Deayon recorded a takeaway and Correa added a sack to wrap up the last quarter surge that gave the game to Boise State.
Look for Head Coach Bryan Harsin to dial up the pressure on 3rd downs, where Boise State has allowed only 3 of 27 conversions over the past 2 weeks, against a Bulldog offense that ranks 9th in the Mountain West in that same category.
Boise State Broncos – Offense
The Broncos are the most balanced offensive attack in the Mountain West, if not the nation, and it’s a big reason why Boise State finds itself representing as Mountain Division Champs. The Broncos are 3rd in rushing behind the 1600+ yards of Jay Ajayi, and 2nd in passing on the arm of SR QB Grant Hedrick’s completion percentage of 71.5%.
The only thing that’s slowed down the Bronco offense in 2014 is seemingly the Broncos themselves. Boise State finished 3rd in the Conference in turnover margin, but was -6 in its only two losses of the season to Mississippi and Air Force (a combined 11 turnovers). In their two closest wins; 10 points over Fresno State & 11 points over New Mexico they broke even.
Key will be the composure of Hedrick and his ability to decipher whatever Tim DeRuyter and his defensive staff throw at him early. 8 of Hedrick’s 13 interceptions have come in the 1st half of games, and 10 have come when tied or trailing. Boise State’s passing attack was clean against the Bulldogs in their first meeting, and conversely 14 of the Fresno State’s 20 takeaways have come in winning efforts.
So if history tells us anything, the Broncos will need to maintain a healthy balance of run/pass that comes with not falling behind early on the heels of offensive turnovers.
Fresno State Bulldogs – Defense
We talked about the ability, or perhaps flexibility of the Bronco offense in both running and passing the football. The Bulldogs gave up 264 yards on the ground back in October to Boise State, including 158 & 2 TD’s to the Broncos’ Jay Ajayi. Ajayi ripped off a 54 yard scamper late in the game on the drive that put his team up by 10. For the Bulldogs to have a chance, they’ll need to shutdown Ajayi who averages 135 yards per game.
To do this the Bulldogs may have to drop an extra man down in the box. Does DeRuyter rely on sure tackling SR FS Derron Smith or will he go with SO SS Dalen Jones? Whichever way, this will open up man coverage on the edges and the Bulldogs have struggled a bit all season in preventing the big pass play down field. Only Hawai’i and UNLV gave up more passes of 40+ yards or more on the season. Bronco QB Grant Hedrick and company finished 2nd to CSU in creating big plays through the air, and look for the Broncos to try and continue that trend off play action if they can get their running game in gear.
The Bulldogs will have to play a mix of disciplined, assignment based defense, while pinning back their ears and creating some pressure on an offense that doesn’t like people in their face too much. DL Tyeler Davison and LB Donovan Lewis should carry this load; the seniors combined for 12 sacks this season. But that also puts a lot of responsibility on a secondary that’s had its share of ups & downs in 2014. Bottom line is the Bulldogs will need to stop Ajayi first and take their chances in forcing Hedrick into some miscues.
Bottom line key to the game
Two teams known for their prolific passing attacks over the years will meet in the 2nd Mountain West Conference Championship game. But this contest will ultimately be decided by whether Fresno State can both establish and stop the run on the road.
The first meeting was a “well played” and evenly matched contest going into the 4th quarter. For the most part the Bulldogs stood toe to toe with the Broncos over the first 45 minutes, albeit they were operating out of catch up mode for a lot of that time.
It wasn’t until a 17 play, 75 yard scoring drive to start the last 15 minutes, with 27 coming via the ground game, did the Broncos begin to pull away. Fresno State themselves were stopped on successive drives via the run; 2nd & 11 for 1 yard – PUNT, 1 & 10 for 2 yards – PUNT, and then a late scramble on 2 & 15 – INTERCEPTION.
Look for Marteze Waller and Josh Quezada to play pivotal roles in whether the Bulldogs can pull off the upset in Boise to secure their 2nd consecutive outright Mountain West crown.