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Boise State and the keys to victory over San Jose State

The Broncos will take on the Spartans Friday afternoon in San Jose, CA

BOISE, ID - NOVEMBER 20: Running back Jeremy McNichols #13 of the Boise State Broncos catches a pass along the sidelines during second half action against the Air Force Falcons on November 20, 2015 at Albertsons Stadium in Boise, Idaho.
BOISE, ID - NOVEMBER 20: Running back Jeremy McNichols #13 of the Boise State Broncos catches a pass along the sidelines during second half action against the Air Force Falcons on November 20, 2015 at Albertsons Stadium in Boise, Idaho.
Loren Orr/Getty Images

What you need to know:

Who: Boise State (7-4, 4-3 MW) vs SJSU (5-6, 4-3 MW)

When: Friday, November 27, 2015, 1:30 PM MST

Where: Spartan Stadium, San Jose, CA

TV: CBS Sports Network

Head coach Bryan Harsin’s Boise State Broncos are on the road following back-to-back losses at home to two of their rivals in the Mountain Division. Last week’s game also resulted in their second loss in two years to Air Force. This week the Broncos are pitted against the San Jose State Spartans, who are coming off a 42-23 road-win over Hawaii in Honolulu. The Spartans are hopeful that this spurt of momentum will be enough to defeat Boise State for the first time in 11 previous attempts.

Keys to victory for the Boise State offense: In spite of a 4-3 Mountain West record, somehow the Broncos are still at the top of the conference in total offense with an average of 487.8 yards a game. The passing offense is also #1 with an average of 314.1 yards per game and freshman quarterback Brett Rypien, 6-2, 199 lbs, still the highest ranked passer in the conference with 308.4 yards per game. But last week was his worst outing of the year. He struggled to complete just 23 of 48 pass attempts for 217 yards and a TD. The mediocre blocking of the offensive line has allowed him to be sacked 17 times in just nine games, and absorb many big hits that would have sidelined other quarterbacks. Perhaps the biggest key to a Boise State victory will be if the O-line does its job and protects the quarterback.

Any passing key to victory will hinge on the performance of the Broncos receivers. WR Thomas Sperbeck, 6-0 175 lbs, is the #1 receiver in the conference with 1,289 receiving yards and is averaging 117.2 yards per game. But those stats are not going unnoticed by opposing defenses; last week he was well-guarded by the Air Force defenders and had just 7 catches for 79 yards. That opening should have been the que for other Broncos receivers to step up their own game. TE Jake Roh, 6-3, 229 lbs, and WR Chaz Anderson, 5-10, 186 lbs, each caught 4 passes for a combined total of 105 yards, but unfortunately as a team, the Broncos receiving corps once again failed to make some big plays amidst a myriad of dropped footballs.

It won’t get any easier this week. Guess who has the #1 ranked pass defense, not only in the conference, but in the entire country? You guessed it: the San Jose State Spartans. Their pass defense is second to none and gives up just 149.6 passing yards per game. That Spartan strength also reveals a Spartan weakness: the ground game. They have given up an average of 207.9 rushing yards per game and that could be a key to victory for the Broncos Friday afternoon. This final game of the regular season could allow the Broncos to deploy a solid running game and take some pressure off Rypien. Last week RB Jeremy McNichols, 5-9, 205 lbs, rushed for more than 100 yards for the sixth time this season with 151 yards on 20 carries. This week he will be seeking a 7th 100-yard-plus game to enhance his 1,052 rushing-yard season. McNichols also has 16 rushing touchdowns, the most by any back in the league.

Keys to victory for the Boise State defense: If the Broncos are looking for a flashy San Jose State offense, they won’t find it. What they will find is an offense that generates 409.1 yards of total offense, puts up 28.5 points per game, and fields the #3 passing offense in the MWC. QB Kenny Potter, 6-2, 212 lbs, has completed 144 of 210 pass attempts (68.8 percent) for 1,559 yards, 11 TDs and only 4 interceptions, giving him a passer rating of 144.41 and a third place ranking in the conference. He threw for 312 yards and 3 TD’s last week in the win over Hawaii.

A stout passing game is only one of tools at the Spartans disposal. Another is RB Tyler Ervin, 5-10, 177 lbs, the number one rusher on the team. He has rushed for 1,417 yards, averages 5.6 yards a carry, and has 13 touchdowns. He can also catch passes: 40 to date for 307 yards and 2 more touchdowns.

So it looks like the biggest key to victory will once again fall on the backs of the Boise State defense. Defensive coordinator Marcel Yates and his coachirang staff have a rush defense that is ranked 13th in the country, and a team ranked 19th nationally in total defense.  Yes, the Broncos defense has given up big plays recently, especially in pass defense, but much of that blame can be laid at the feet of a secondary depleted by injuries to key players. What is surprising is the 214.3 yards per game lost by the pass defense has actually improved over last year. They gave up an average of 232.9 passing yards per game to the pass in 2014.

Keys to a victory for the Boise State special teams: Boise State’s punter, P Sean Wale, 6-2, 185 lbs, got a lot of practice last week with a total of 7 punts that averaged 42 yards a punt. This week he’ll be kicking to a team that is last in the conference in punt returns with an average of just 3.5 yards per return. On the other side of the ball the Spartans have the #1 punter in the conference: P Michael Carrizosa, 5-10, 229 lbs. He is a Ray Guy Award Finalist. Carrizosa's 40 punts this season have averaged 47.93 yards a punt and 174.3 yards per game.

The Broncos didn’t have to look far for a kickoff return specialist to step up for the injured Shane Williams-Rhodes, who is questionable to play this week. WR Terrell Johnson, 5-9, 173 lbs, returned 6 kickoffs last week for 148 yards, one being a 36-yarder. He has had 16 this year and is averaging 23.75 yards per return. The Spartans special teams has been allowing 26.97 yards per kickoff return this season so Johnson could have another good outing Friday.

BSU kicker Tyler Rausa, 5-10, 195 lbs, is #2 in the conference in kicking making 21 of 26 field goal attempts (80.8 percent) and 48 of 49 extra points.

Perhaps the most important key worth mentioning is the coaching department: Last February, Harsin promoted tight ends coach Eliah Drinkwitz to the key position of offensive coordinator when Mike Sanford left to take the job at Notre Dame. The jury is still out on whether Drinkwitz is ready for prime time. He took over a program that went 12-2 in 2014, including a Fiesta Bowl win over Arizona, and inherited a 2015 offense that returned almost the entire starting lineup from that 2014 team. It was augmented by a talented cadre of both old and new players, including having the 14th nationally ranked quarterback and the #3 receiver in country in the lineup.

Nowhere is the coaching criticism more centered than on line coach Scott Huff. It is the line that has failed to protect the quarterback and has allowed 28 quarterback sacks, and the line that doesn’t seem able to open the holes needed for the tail backs to squeeze through. Huff was adamant this week that his O-line is actually playing better, pointing out other reasons for Boise State’s downward spiral amid what others see as a plethora of mistakes.

But both Drinkwitz and Huff deserve immense credit. The Broncos still have the 20th ranked scoring offense in the nation with 37.5 points per game---just not lately. In the past five games that included 3 losses against beatable Mountain West opponents, the Broncos once high-powered offense has scored just an average of 24.2 points a game. That is a far drop from the first six games of the season when they were averaging 40.6 points per game.

At some point you have to affix the blame for Boise State’s recent fall from grace.

Prediction: SJSU has a lot more at stake in Friday’s matchup than Boise State. The Spartans need this win desperately in order to become bowl eligible. The Broncos are already bowl eligible and now playing for a favorable spot in post-season bowl selection. Boise State opened as a 10-point favorite over San Jose State, but has since dripped to 7 ½. A wise move downward by the bookies hoping to attract bets from Broncos supporters in the wake of the Broncos’ on-field inconsistency.

Boise State 34, SJSU 30.