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Boise State and the keys to victory over UNLV

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The Broncos will play the Rebels Saturday afternoon in Las Vegas, Nevada

Boise State Broncos at Sam Boyd Stadium December 22, 2010 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Boise State Broncos at Sam Boyd Stadium December 22, 2010 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Vegas, baby, Vegas!

What you need to know:

Who: Boise State (6-2, 3-1 MW) vs UNLV (2-5, 1-2 MW)

When: Saturday, October 31, 2015, 1:30 PM MST

Where: Sam Boyd Stadium, LasVegas, NV

TV: ESPNU

Head coach Bryan Harsin and his Boise State Broncos are back on the road this week. This time it is down to Las Vegas, Nevada. Harsin hopes his team will be filled with the same buzzing energy and intensity as the 24-hour casinos along the 4 mile long Strip, and filled with the same excitement as the dazzling hotels and replicas of an Egyptian pyramid and Eifel Tower---but not distracted by the neon lights and endless revenues of bustling entertainment.

That is because waiting for the Broncos at Sam Boyd Stadium will be first year head coach Tony Sanchez and his team of focused Rebels whose intention this week is to bring down another loss on the Boise State team. Sanchez’s UNLV Rebels are coming off a bye week after a heartbreaking 3-point loss to Fresno State two weeks ago when the Bulldogs scored on a big running play in the closing minutes of that game.

Keys to victory for the Boise State offense: The Broncos are at the top of the Mountain West in total offense with an average of 455.6 yards a game, thanks to the #1 passing offense that averages 280.3 yards per game. Those numbers comes mostly on the arm of freshman quarterback Brett Rypien, 6-2, 199 lbs. He was 22 of 28 pass attempts for 211 yards and 3 TD’s against Wyoming last week, revealing how quickly he shook off the loss two weeks ago against Utah State. He is now in first place as the highest rated passer (151.98) with the most yards per game (261.2) in the conference. Another key to victory will hinge on the performance of WR Thomas Sperbeck, 6-0 175 lbs. He is the #2 receiver in the conference with 95.8 yards per game and his receptions are averaging 19.64 yards per grab.

A big question here is how effective the offensive line will be in protecting their quarterback. The Broncos are tied with UNLV at 8th in the conference in sacks allowed and each has allowed 19 this season. To their credit, last week the Broncos gave up none, and this week could be another good week for Boise State in pass protection. That is because UNLV has managed to get just five sacks this season. If the Broncos O-line does its job Rypien and his receivers could have a good afternoon against a Rebel defense that gives up 236.1 yards per game to the pass and allows a total of 419 yards per game overall.

To get to the bigger numbers the Broncos running game will need to perform. With RB Jeremy McNichols, 5-9, 205 lbs, back in the lineup they generate an average of 175.4 yards on the ground per game. This could be an opportunity for all the Broncos tailbacks to shine, because UNLV gives up an average of 183.71 rushing yards per game.

That is not to suggest the Rebels defense is totally hapless. They have their big weapons against both the run and the pass. Senior DB Blake Richmond, 6-3, 205 lbs, is one of the better pass defenders in the conference and is tied for 1st place in fumbles forced, while DB Tim Hough, 5-11, 190 lbs, is 6th in the conference with interceptions. Both of these athletes are capable of helping the Rebels achieve a breakout performance.

Keys to victory for the Boise State defense: The Broncos defense is the top ranked defense in the conference giving up an average of 265.5 yards per game in total defense. The D-line continues to be a stellar defense giving up just 81.38 rushing yards per game. But it will be important they bring their A-game and not get lax in Saturday’s contest. That is because the Rebels field the 3rd best rushing offense in the conference. They chew up an average of 213.57 rushing yards per game because of a fleet of talented tailbacks like RB Keith Whitely, 5-9, 195 lbs, and RB Xzaviar Campbell, 5-11, 220 lbs.

Another slippery Rebel who can run is QB Kurt Palandech, 6-2, 185 lbs. Last week he burned the Bulldogs for 51 yards on 14 carries with one of those runs going for 39 yards. One of his biggest weaknesses, however, is a penchant for being sacked (14 times this season).  Another flaw is the fact that he has only completed about 51.1% of his passes and averages just 63.9 yards through the air per game. But that might be a non-factor in Saturday's meeting.  UNLV senior QB Blake Decker, 6-2, 215 lbs, is back in the game after suffering a shoulder injury a few weeks ago. At the time of his injury Decker had completed 45 of 83 pass attempts and averaged 7.8 yards a pass. His appearance in the lineup could a game-changer for the Rebels.

Whoever the Rebels have under center will have to contend with a Broncos pass defense that is running strong, even without injured star CB Donte Deayon, 5-9, 155 lbs. CB Jonathan Moxey, 5-10, 188 lbs, and S Darian Thompson, 6-2, 212 lbs, are still making big plays in the secondary and others have stepped up to help offset Deayon’s absence. Last week the Broncos held pass-happy Wyoming to just 70 yards through the air, far below their passing average of 209.8 yards per game. Moxley is ranked 3rd in the conference in passes defended and Thompson is ranked 2nd in interceptions.

Keys to a victory for the Boise State special teams: UNLV is 9th in the conference in punt returns and in last place on kickoff returns. On the other side of the ball Boise State is in the cellar defending punt returns and 6th in defending against kickoffs.  This game could give the Broncos a chance to improve their performance and their standings if they can actually make some big plays. Last week, Wyoming had 4 kickoff returns against Boise State that accounted for 80 total yards.  To be fair that was below the Cowboys average going into that game.  A good performance this week would indicate an improvement by the Broncos in defending against kickoffs. On punt returns the Broncos need to stay focused on UNLV’s WR Aaron Criswell, 5-10, 180 lbs, who is averaging 20.90 yards per return.

The Broncos return teams have reorganized quickly to cover the loss of Donte Deayon. Ace WR Shane Willaims-Rhodes, 5-6, 173 lbs, is handling punt returns, while moving into the lineup to handle kickoff returns is WR Terrell Johnson, 5-9, 173 lbs. Last week Johnson posted two returns for 58 yards with one being a 33-yarder. It goes without saying both of those players could have a critical impact in establishing the Broncos starting position on drives.

BSU punter is averaging 63.11 yards per kickoff with 33 of his 57 kicks being touch-backs.

Another key to victory worth mentioning: While turnovers have proven to be the bane of Boise State losses this year and will always be of great concern so the coaches, there is another area that continues to be of concern: penalties. The Broncos rank 67th nationally in penalties committed with an average 6.5 for 55.8 yards a game. In the loss to BYU the Broncos committed 11 penalties and were penalized 76 yards which was one of the major forces that contributed to the Boise State defeat. Last week the Broncos committed 8 at a cost of 74 yards indicating that penalties continue to be a disconcerting issue.

Prediction: Hey Reb! Boise State is still in the driver’s seat to get a piece of the MWC championship. With post-season bowl selection looming on the horizon, there are only four games left in which to make some final impressions.  Boise State is favored by 20 points over UNLV. That seems like a tall order when only two teams have beaten the Rebels by 20 points this season: UCLA by 34 and Michigan by 21. But they need to cover the spread.

Boise State 41, UNLV 20.