WHEN: Saturday, December 6, 8:00 PM MST
WHERE: Albertsons Stadium, Boise, ID (37,000)
CONFERENCES: Mountain West Conference-Mountain Division vs. West Division
2014 SEASON: #22 Boise State, 10-2, 7-1 (MW); Fresno State, 6-6, 5-3 (MW)
COACHES: Boise State head coach Bryan Harsin (17-7); Fresno State head coach Tim DeRuyter, (26-11)
RADIO: Bronco Radio Network: KBOI (670 AM) and KKGL (96.9 FM) in the Boise area; Fresno State Media Partners: ESPN Radio (640 AM) and ESPN Deportes Radio (1600 am) in the Fresno area
LAST MEETING: Boise State defeated Fresno State 37-27 in Boise on Oct. 17.
SERIES RECORD: Boise State leads, 12-5
Fresno State returns to the Mountain West Championship for the second year in a row seeking a third conference title. It is also the second time this season they have appeared in Albertsons Stadium, Boise, Idaho. The difference this time is that the Bulldogs will face a Boise State team that is not only in the hunt for its first outright Mountain West title, but also playing for a chance to represent the Group of 5 against a top-ranked Power 5 representative in one of the NY6 access bowls.
Yes, Saturday’s game is considered by many as a rematch of week 8, when Boise State defeated Fresno State 37-27. But the game this time is for all the marbles and will wrap up the regular season where both teams have struggled at times. Fresno State won back-to-back Mountain West championships in 2012 and 2013. Now here they are once again for the third year in a row living up to a promise Bulldog head coach Tim DeRuyter promised when he was hired as Fresno State's head coach back in December 2011: winning conference championships.
Key Match-up Number One: Boise State defense vs. the Waller-Burrell duo: The Bulldogs are the 4th best team in the conference in total offense even though they have struggled at times. That is thanks in large part to the ground game of junior RB Marteze Waller, 5-11, 209 lbs. Since Fresno State has turned him lose, Waller has averaged 6.51 yards a carry and over 105 yards a game. Last week against Hawaii Waller romped for 137 yards and two touchdowns. He and Josh Quezada, 5-11, 217 lbs, will both be testing the Broncos front line for weakness Saturday. Quezada has had more carries in the past three games (56) than he had in the previous nine.
But if the Boise State defense rises to the occasion it could spell trouble for the Bulldog running game. The Boise State front line has steadily improved since they were caught napping at New Mexico and the Lobos hung 505 rushing yards on the lethargic Broncos. Last week the Broncos defense held Utah State to 109 total rushing yards and the week before that they held Wyoming to just 80 yards on the ground.
If that happens this weekend, Bulldogs QB Brian Burrell, 6-4, 221 lbs, and his air attack could be the game changer. So far in the six away games this season he has competed 57.7 of his pass attempts and is averaging 211 yards per game, giving him a 130.28 passer rating on the road. Those road games have included 13 touchdowns verses 5 interceptions. Last week he connected on 25 of 44 pass attempts for 302 yards and three touchdowns. It is performance like that that makes Frenso State dangerous. That’s because Burrell has some great go-to weapons at his disposal. One of those is WR Josh Harper, 6-1, 185 lbs, the second best receiver in the conference and who accounts for over 78 yards on average per game. The Bulldogs are the 4th best team in total offense in the conference, and their road games that are averaging 433 yards per game.
Key Match-up Number Two: Jay Ajayi vs. the Bulldog defense: In the last Broncos-Bulldogs matchup Jay Ajayi ran for 158 yards and two touchdowns, including a 54-yard run on Boise State's clinching drive in the Broncos' 37-27 victory over Fresno State. Could it happen again? Who knows, but one thing for certain is you can expect at least a 100-yard game out of Ajayi. In last week's outing against Utah State he rushed for a career-high 229 yards and five touchdowns as the Broncos crushed the Aggies 50-19. Ajayi is ranked the 7th best running back in the nation and averaging almost 135 yards per game. He has an excellent chance to play on Sundays so he will be wanting to add some style points to his résumé.
Fresno State is bound to geared up for the Boise State juggernaut, so Ajayi could have a tough time against an entire Fresno State defense that will be keyed on stopping him. Ajayi’s biggest obstacle will be attempting to slip past a pair of standout linebackers: DL Tyeler Davison, 6-2, 309 lbs, who leads the team with 47 tackles for loss and Kyrie Wilson, 6-2, 238 lbs, who leads the team in tackles (86 with 51 solo). In the past three games the Fresno State rush defense has gotten mean and stingy, giving up an average of just 136.6 yards per game.
Key Match-up Number Three: QB Grant Hedrick vs. Grant Hedrick: Boise State's quarterback Grant Hedrick,6-0, 198 lbs, had a reputation going into the October Bulldogs-Broncos matchup as a choker. Beginning at the end of last season when he was pressed into the Broncos starting lineup, he had a tendency to throw multiple interceptions and make poor decisions when under pressure. That carried into this season with turnovers being the main culprit in the Broncos only two losses: the opener at Ole Miss and at Air Force. Saturday’s game hinges on Hedrick keeping the quarterback in himself under control. Especially if the Bulldogs bring pressure by busting up his pass plays. When he gets rattled that is when he has a tendency to force the ball. And if he hesitates too often he gets sacked (24 times this season) and Fresno State has two best conference sack artists in the league: Teyeler Davison and LB Donavan Lewis, 6-2, 249 lbs.
But since his meltdown at Air Force back in September where he turned the ball over 4 times and was benched, Hedrick has emerged as one of the best quarterbacks in the country. He has completed 261of 365 pass attempts (71.5 percent) for 3,232 yards, averaging over 269 yards per game. Hedrick has a 158.66 passer rating, good for second best in the conference. Last week against Utah State he was 18 of 24 passing attempts for 191yards and 2 touchdowns.
Hedrick will have his hands full with the Bulldog defense. In the October contest it was the Fresno State defense that made his life miserable, kept the Bulldogs in the game, and kept it tied with the Broncos going into the 4th quarter. Hedrick was no longer in the game when the Bulldogs faded and let Boise State escape with a 10 point win. That margin of victory for the Broncos was by the fewest points Boise State has scored against an opponent since September.
Bottom Line: A lot of people believe it is nearly impossible to beat a team twice in one season, thus they believe Fresno State has Boise State’s number. But it is not that hard to beat the same team twice according to Scott Allen in an article he published here for SB Nation two years ago. According to his stats Boise State still maintains the edge for Saturday’s championship contest. And yesterday’s excellent write up here by Scott Tejerian on this match up suggests that the odds makers in Vegas have the winner of this championship all figured out.
That sounds good enough to me. Now go vote in Scott’s poll.