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Boise State vs. Utah State: Championship season arrives

All eyes will be on what could be most important Mountain West game of the season

Brian Losness-USA TODAY Sports

WEEK 12: Boise State Broncos vs. Utah State Aggies

WHEN: Saturday, November 29, 8:15 PM MST

WHERE: Albertsons Stadium, Boise, ID (37,000)

CONFERENCES: Mountain West Conference-Mountain Division

2014 SEASON: Boise State, 9-2, 6-1 (MW); Utah State State, 9-3, 6-1 (MW)

COACHES: Boise State head coach Bryan Harsin (16-7); Utah State head coach Matt Wells (18-8)



RADIO: Bronco Radio Network: KBOI (670 AM) and KKGL (96.9 FM) in the Boise area; Utah State Radio Network: KVNU (610 AM and 102.1 FM) in the Logan area

SERIES RECORD: Boise State leads, 14-4

WEB SITES: Boise State Official - Utah State official

Saturday will be the final game of the regular season for both Utah State and Boise State.  Head coach Matt Wells and his Aggies come into Albertsons Stadium, Boise, ID, with a bag of mixed results to their 2014 season. Similar to Boise State’s loss to Ole Miss, Utah State dropped their season opener to Tennessee. Worse yet, they went on to losing three starting quarterbacks and two squeaker games. One of those losses was to Arkansas State in OT, and the other a heartbreaking 13-16 loss to Colorado State who kicked a game winning field goal with 58 seconds to go in the 4th quarter. Colorado State is the only Mountain West team to beat Utah State.  Had the Aggies won that game they would be headed to the Mountain West championship and in the drivers seat for the access bowl with wins over #18 BYU, Wake Forest, and CSU heading into Saturday’s showdown with #25 Boise State.

But Boise State is the one in the drivers seat, however, and in control of their own destiny. Broncos head coach Bryan Harsin and his team are on a roll after dropping that opener to Ole Miss and the subsequent upset to Air Force in October. Their victories over BYU, Connecticut, Colorado State and six other MW rivals has rekindled their drive and swung their momentum leading into Saturday’s contest on The Blue. One thing is for sure: if the Broncos are to have any chance at a NY6 access bowl, they need to win this game.

Here are three reasons Boise State will pull off the win:

(1) Boise State wants it more. Since the loss at Air Force back in week 5, the Broncos have gone on a 6-0 tear by outscoring their opponents by an average of 50.6 to 32.5 points per game. Now on the cusp to win their first outright Mountain West championship title, they suddenly find themselves in the lead for the coveted spot in a New Year Six access bowl. Utah State, on the other hand, could be a little demoralized and is just looking for another win to add to their résumé.

(2) The duo of QB Grant Hedrick and RB Jay Ajayi. Hedrick,6-0, 198 lbs, has emerged as one of the best quarterbacks in the nation and is second in the Mountain West. He has completed 243 of 341 pass attempts (71.3 percent) for 3041 yards, averaging 276.5 yards per game with a 157.9 pass rating. He has also rushed 124 times for 483 yards and 6 touchdowns. Then there is Ajayi, 6-0, 216 lbs. He is the 13th best running back in the nation and second best in the conference averaging over 126 yards per game.

(3) Boise State is just plain tough at home. In the past 15 seasons the Broncos have only lost 4 games at home and the last time Utah State won a game in Boise was 1996. The Aggies have been on an eleven game losing streak to the Broncos that dates back to 1998.

What to expect when Utah State has the ball: The loss of three starting quarterbacks has left the Aggies with freshman QB Kent Meyers, 6-1, 185 lbs, who has stepped into the game and played like a pro. In the last five games he has completed 58 of 79 pass attempts (73.4 percent) for 639 yards, 5 touchdowns, and only one interception He has also rushed for 179 yards and 3 more touchdowns, perhaps making him the most efficient of all four quarterbacks who have been under center this year. WR Hunter Sharp, 6-1, 190 lbs, is the top receiver on team but has not seen a lot of action in the last few games because Meyers likes to spread his targets out a little---that, and because Utah State calls more rushing plays than pass plays. RBs LaJuan Hunt, 5-8, 158, and Joe Hill, 5-11, 190 lbs, are two of their top rushers and will be doing most of the grunt work out of the backfield Saturday. But it is WR JoJo Watson, 5-7, 151 lbs, who is their one man wrecking crew and another top rusher. He gets it all done receiving, rushing, and punt returns and will be all over the field.

Utah State’s rushing attack could be facing a challenge from the Boise State defense. While the Broncos defense has been spotty leading up to New Mexico's 627 total yards ( 505 on the ground) they have been tightening up. They now have one of best defenses in the conference. Two weeks ago they held San Diego State to 165 rushing yards and 188 passing, and last week Wyoming struggled to get 227 total yards with the Broncos holding the Cowboys to just 80 yards on the ground. The Broncos are second in the conference with tackles for loss.

What to expect when Boise State has the ball: The Broncos have the eighth best offense in the nation behind a balanced attack that rushes about half the time from scrimmage. They average 513 yards per game and 6.57 yards per play. Last week against Wyoming QB Grant Hedrick completed 13 of 19 pass attempts for 246 yards and three touchdowns capping off a 63-13 win over the hapless Cowboys. Those passes were spread around to a number of receivers including WR Thomas Sperbeck, 6-0, 173 lbs, WR Shane Williams-Rhodes, 5-6, 158 lbs, and TE Jake Roh, 6-3, 228 lbs.

Of Boise State’s 558 total yards last week, 110 of those belonged to star running back Jay Ajayi. He also caught 2 passes for 92 yards and a TD. Expect RB Jeremy McNichols, 5-9, 195 lbs, to also see action Saturday after getting got a few touches and making some big plays in last weeks romp in Laramie.

But those two won’t have it that easy this week against the Aggies, who have the best rushing defense in the conference. Especially with a pair of hard, tough linebackers who continually have runners lined up in their sights: LB Zach Vigil, 6-2, 240 lbs, and his brother Nick Vigil, 6-2, 230 lbs. Those two lead their team in tackles and Zach leads the conference with 133 tackles (67 solo, 66 assisted). In fact, the Aggies give up just 116.5 yards on the ground per game and lead the conference in tackles for loss. And it won’t be any easier for Boise State QB Grant Hedrick if he is forced to the air or hangs around too long in the pocket. Three of the top five players who lead the conference in sacks belong to the Aggies: DL B. J. Larsen, 6-5, 275 lbs, and the two Vigil brothers.

Special Teams: Utah State also has some great talent on their special teams and JoJo Natson is one of them. He handles punt returns and is averaging 12.14 yards per return. Kicker Nick Diaz does the kicking duties and is ranked 2nd in the conference, making 11 of 13 in field goals (84.6 %) and 40 of 43 extra point attempts. PK Jake Thompson, 6-1, 200 lbs, takes care of the kickoffs and is averaging 61.44 yards a kick. Both WR Hunter Sharp, 6-1, 190 lbs, and CB Jalen Davis, 5-10, 160 lbs, have been handling most of the punt returns the past few games.

Broncos kicker Dan Goodale, 5-10, 185 pounds, booted 8 extra points through the uprights last week, but missed another field goal that dropped his average to 6th best in the conference ( 75%). But he is still second in the MWC in kickoffs, averaging 63.45 yards per kick with 55 touchbacks. Broncos punter Sean Wale, 6-2, 186 pounds, is averaging 41.24 yards per punt. One place on special teams were the Broncos excel is on punt returns. They lead the conference with an average of 11.78 yards per return. Last week CB Donte Deayon, 5-9, 152 lbs, busted loose with a 75-yard punt return for a touchdown. Williams-Rhodes is expected to keep taking the kickoff returns after he returned 3 for 40 yards last week at Laramie.

The Bottom Line: This game has conference wide and national implications.  A loss by Broncos would send Colorado State (10-1, 6-1 MW) to the MW championship and/or CUSA's Marshall (11-0) to the access bowl.  A win sends the Broncos.  The odds makers have Boise State as a 9-point favorite. While Utah State team is a much improved squad this year and it promises to be a very close game, the Broncos are determined to send the Aggies back to the Beehive State with a loss.