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Boise State and the keys to victory over Air Force

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The Broncos will host the Falcons at Albertsons Stadium in Friday night football action

Sep 27, 2014; Colorado Springs, CO, USA; Air Force Falcons quarterback Kale Pearson (2) lines up across from the Boise State Broncos in the first quarter at Falcon Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 27, 2014; Colorado Springs, CO, USA; Air Force Falcons quarterback Kale Pearson (2) lines up across from the Boise State Broncos in the first quarter at Falcon Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports
Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

What you need to know:

Who: Boise State (7-3, 4-2 MW) vs Air Force (7-3, 5-1 MW)

When: Saturday, November 20, 2015, 7:30 PM MST

Where: Albertsons Stadium, Boise, ID

TV: ESPN2

Following a stunning upset at home to New Mexico by a score of 34 to 21, head coach Bryan Harsin and the Boise State Broncos will be seeking some redemption Friday evening. This week they will once again be at home in a Mountain Division matchup with Air Force. The Falcons have won four in a row including last week’s win over Utah State, 34-28. Air Force is intent on making it five in a row with a repeat of last season’s 28-14 victory over the Broncos in Colorado Springs.

Keys to victory for the Boise State offense: Freshman quarterback Brett Rypien, 6-2, 199 lbs, is the still leading passer in the conference.  In spite of last week’s loss he has risen in the national ranks as the 12th ranked quarterback in the nation with an average of 317.4 passing yards per game. In 8 games Rypien has passed for 2,539 yards, 14 TD’s, and 7 interceptions. One of the major keys to victory against Air Force will be the performance of the receiving corps, and not by Rypien. Most of the interceptions this season have been the result of Boise State receivers bobbling and juggling catchable balls right into the hands of the defenders. The results of those have been devastating and have been major contributors in two if not all three of the Broncos losses.

Added to Boise State’s woes was the loss last week of two wide receivers to injuries: Akilian Butler, 5-10, 175 lbs and senior Shane Williams-Rhodes, 5-6, 173 lbs. Both are out indefinitely, although Williams-Rhodes is still questionable for Friday. Then on Wednesday it was learned that TE David Lucero has been suspended from the team. That means that Rypien’s target list just got a lot smaller. More pressure will now fall on star WR Thomas Sperbeck, 6-0 175 lbs, and WR Chaz Anderson, 5-10, 186 lbs, to do even more. Sperbeck is the #1 receiver in the conference and ranked 4th nationally, averaging 121 yards per game and 17.5 yards per reception. Anderson is 10th in the conference and averaging 14.9 yards a catch.

That might be asking a lot when Air Force has the 4th ranked pass defense in the conference and gives up just 90 yards on average through the air. The Falcons have some serious defensive weapons to deploy against the Broncos pass-catchers. DB Roland Ladipo, 5-10, 185 lbs, is #1 in the conference in pass defense and DB Weston Steelhammer, 6-2, 200 lbs, is 5th. Rypien and his shrinking band of receivers will have their work cut out.

That brings up another key to a Boise State victory. The Broncos cannot afford to become one dimensional with a passing attack. Last week Rypien threw 75 passes for 506 yards and completed 41 of them, but what was telling was the absence of a solid running game. It failed to materialize even after a bye and the return of RB Jeremy McNichols, 5-9, 205 lbs, to the backfield. It took 40 rushing plays to generate 135 total rushing yards (3.37 yards per play). McNichols accounted for 128 of those yards, but it is evident he is also becoming the magnet of opposing defenders who expect him to get the lion’s share of the carries. RB Kelsey Young, 5-10, 198 lbs, needs to be used more. He had just 5 runs for 16 yards last week but is averaging 4.56 yards per carry.

Any Broncos running attack will be going up the 3rd stingiest rush defense in the conference. Air Force gives up an average of just 115.6 yards per game. Some of the tools at their disposal are are LB D. J. Dunn, Jr., 6-3, 240 lbs, and DL Alex Hansen, 6-3, 260 lbs, who are tied at 5th in the Mountain West conference in sacks. Dunn, Jr, is also 5th in the conference in tackles for loss and Hansen 14th while Weston Steelhammer  leads the Falcons in tackles with 61.

Boise State’s passing and running game is the #1 offense in the conference, producing an impressive 498.8 yards per game. Their 38.3 points per game is the best in the conference. But it has sputtered and coughed of late. Last week they struggled to put just 3 points on the board in the first half against a New Mexico team that was giving up an average of 407.9 yards per game.

Keys to victory for the Boise State defense: New Mexico’s Austin Apodoca's big-play strikes and Jhurell Pressley's 132-yard rushing performance will be the Falcons blue print Friday night in an effort to hand Boise State a second stunning loss in a row. The key to victory for the Broncos defense is to prevent that repeat from happening.

Air Force will be coming at Boise State with their triple option attack which is the #1 ranked offense in the conference. Their ground game averages 5.3 yards a run with 333.2 rushing yards per game. It will be imperative that the Broncos defense stuffs that run. That is going to be hard to do with the Falcons arsenal of playmakers: RB Jacobi Owens, 6-1, 202 lbs, is one of their top guns this season with 673 yards and 6 TD’s, averaging 4.84 yards a carry. Then there is RB D.J. Johnson, 5-10, 235 lbs, sharing the backfield. He has 425 yards and has bounded into the end zone 6 times this season. QB Karson Roberts, 6-1, 195 lbs, has 463 rushing yards of his own and punched in 8 TDs. The Falcons rotation of tailbacks allows them to keep their backfield fresh. No less than seven running backs have seen action in at least 8 of 10 games this season.

The Broncos field one of the top rush defenses in the nation. Yet Boise State struggles to contain the option attack. Last week they held New Mexico to 195 rushing yards, below the Lobos average of 235 rushing yards going into that game, but New Mexico still averaged 5 yards a carry. By comparison Air Force averages 5.3 yards per rush. The Falcons scoring offense is ranked second in the Mountain West and is averaging 34.1 points per game, second only to Boise State’s (38.3). In addition 35 of Air Force’s 43 TD’s have been rushing TD’s.

If there is a surprise coming Friday evening it could be with an Air Force passing attack. They rank last in the conference in passing and average just 121.7 passing yards per game, but that is more of a preference for the run rather than a weakness in passing. Last week against Utah State, the Falcons passed for 271 yards and a TD. Karson Roberts has a good arm and has completed 50 of 91 attempts for 965 yards this season with a rating of 149.74. There is no question that the Falcons are capable mounting a solid passing game that could take advantage of a weakened Boise State secondary, especially with defensive players like DB Gabe Perez, DB Rondel McNair, S Dylan Sumner-Gardner, and DB Donte Deayon still out indefinitely.

Keys to a victory for the Boise State special teams: Air Force wide receiver Garrett Brown, 5-9, 180 lbs, is 1st in the conference in punt returns and averages 10.75 yards a return. Boise State is last in the conference in defending against the punt, giving up an average of 12.45 yards per return. It is easy to see who is going to win this battle.

The Broncos fare little better when defending against kickoffs, givingup an average of 20.88 yards per return. But the Falcons are even worse and give up 24.69 yards per kickoff return. The larger problem here for the Boise State kick return team is that they have lost two of their key players: Akilian Butler and Shane Williams-Rhodes were the two kickoff returners.

Other keys worth mentioning: If Boise State cleans up one area they seem to fall in others. In their last outing the Broncos committed just 4 penalties for a loss of 39 yards, while New Mexico committed 16 for a loss of 135 yards. New Mexico also had just 11 first downs to Boise State’s 40, they never converted a third down in ten tries, and were outgained 641 to 413 total yards. Yet the Lobos won the game. The keys to that loss were two-fold: Boise State giving up the big plays and losing the battle in turnovers. It will be key to any win that the receivers and running backs grab onto and hold onto the football.

Prediction: A lot is at stake in Friday night’s matchup. Air Force is looking at holding onto the lead in the Mountain Division and getting into Mountain West Conference Championship game. Boise State is still in it and they also need the win on Friday night. Once again the Vegas crowd has Boise State favored as the outright winner by 11.5 points.

Boise State 32, Air Force 24.