The spread for the second rendition of the Mountain West Football Championship opened with Boise State a 20-point favorite and has since ballooned to as high as -21 at the MGM/Mirage. If Fresno State is able to beat Boise State on Saturday night at 7:00 PM on CBS in Boise, Idaho and ruin their chances of a New Year's Day Bowl, it will be an upset of epic proportions and these will be the three key match-up as to why the Bulldogs will achieve their unlikely destiny.
Key Match-up Number One: Marteze Waller vs. The Boise D
Okay, so I'm being a bit dramatic here, there are a lot of other parts involved to the Fresno State run game, the often unmentioned cohesive offensive line that has been fortunate enough to stay healthy and play every game together, left tackle Alex Fifita, LG Sean Rubalcava, C Bo Bonnheim, RG Cody Wichman, RT Justin Northern.
These are the guys, the unspoken, the behind the scenes, that need to lay waste to the menace in the middle, Sophomore, Tanner Vallejo (12 TFL, 73 Tackles Total), the STUD (as officially stated on the Boise State Official Depth Chart) Sophomore, Kamalei Correa (16.5 TFL, 47 Tackles Total) RS Senior Beau Martin (11 TFL, 30 Total Tackles) and the rest of the Boise State defense to clear a path for Marteze Waller.
As shown in the first game, Waller won't go down on the first hit, he can go a long way if you give him a little space and he's got the speed to beat you to the back of the end zone. If Waller gets loose early and often, look out.
Key Match-up Number Two: The Battle of the Bulldog Bulge
For the better part of the first nine games of the season it was known amongst many Fresno State fans that at some point in the game a running back would pop through the middle of the line and comfortably sprint off to glory.
Somehow over the last three games, whether it was Tyeler Davison becoming the man child we had grown to love, but sometimes lost (as he moved back and forth between NT and DE), tossing centers aside with shear will and power...or Karl Mickelsen hitting every angle on point like there's a bullseye on the runner's torso...or the defense as a whole just trusting their assignments, filling their gaps and hitting, wrapping and bringing to opponent to the ground, something has shifted with the Fresno State defense, for the better.
Sure it hasn't been perfect and the that's the concern. The Bulldog defense which has improved so much over the season will need to continue their improvement to near perfection in Boise. They will need to stay "assignment sound" as we so often hear the Fresno State coaches mention. They will need to trust each other and trust themselves to make they play. They may not make them all, but if they bend instead of break, they may just come out ahead on this one.
Key Match-up Number Three: Brian Burrell vs Himself
Another sudden positive development over the last three games along with the defense has been the maturation of Brian Burrell. The first eight games he started he looked hesitant in the pocket, slow to make decisions, late to make a throw, it was frankly painful to watch and the reason I felt pain for because I felt for him. Burrell seems like kid who really wants to succeed, not only for himself, but for his team.
It's obvious to everyone how impossible it would be to follow Derek Carr. That's simply not a job that would be easy for anyone and at times it felt like the pressure had gotten to Brian and then came the Boise game. For three quarters, as Waller ripped through a shocked Boise defense at 9.1 yards a clip, Brian Burrell began to look poised, confident even. At times it was the wide receivers that would drop a well placed ball, but after Waller tied the game at 27 with 1:57 to go in the third quarter, he didn't touch the ball until under five minutes to go in the fourth quarter and that's when Burrell came a bit undone.
Since then the Bulldog coaches have relied on a run first approach that has alleviated some of the pressure off of Burrell and allowed him to elevate to new heights. Frankly, he's gotten out of his own way. He's trusting his eyes, his instincts and his body is reacting without thinking...and he's making plays. Like the defense there have been some signs of past flaws, but for the most part he's been decisive and on point in key situations of the game. If his development continues in the current direction on Saturday, the Bulldogs just may have a chance.