This year’s Cactus Bowl matches two schools desperately seeking a fitting end to a difficult season.
2016 couldn’t have gone much worse for the Baylor Bears (6-6). Art Briles was dismissed as head coach and Jim Grobe was chosen to salvage the season. Indeed, the Bears did just that by going undefeated in their first six games before closing the year on a six game winless streak.
In late October, all signs pointed towards the Boise State Broncos (10-2) having an outside shot of participating in the College Football Playoffs. That notion quickly faded away after the Broncos lost to the Wyoming Cowboys 30-28. However, they rebounded nicely by reeling off three straight wins before suffering a season-ending loss to the Air Force Falcons 27-20.
Baylor's Void at the Quarterback Position
Heading into the Cactus Bowl, Baylor will have a huge void at the quarterback position. Starter Seth Russell is out with a fractured ankle that was suffered in Week 9 against the Oklahoma Sooners. That means freshman Zach Smith is the new leader of the offense, and he struggled badly in a loss to West Virginia at the tail end of the regular season.
The young QB completed 15-31 passes for 244 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. However, Smith did develop chemistry with wideout Ishmael Zamora, who caught eight passes for 102 yards and one touchdown. Smith’s continued development is critical to Baylor’s long-term success, but it doesn’t guarantee a win against the Broncos.
The Bears offensive line must dominant the line of scrimmage because they will be lining up against a rested and well-prepared defense that is ready to prove they can win on the big stage. Boise State is looking for its 15th win in 20 tries against a Power Five Conference opponent.
The Broncos High-Potent Passing Attack
Broncos starting quarterback Brett Rypien has put together quite sophomore campaign, as he has completed 61 percent of his passes and thrown for 3341 yards with 23 touchdowns and six interceptions. Rypien’s top two receiving targets have been Thomas Sperbeck and Cedrick Wilson, who have combined for 122 receptions for 2234 yards and 19 touchdowns.
The Bears defense will have a difficult time containing this passing attack. The front seven must put some pressure on the quarterback and force Rypien to throw the football into tight coverage windows. Hopefully, this will create some turnovers that Baylor can convert into points on the scoreboard.
McNichols is the X-Factor
Starting tailback Jeremy McNichols is the logical choice for team MVP, he leads all Broncos with 1663 rushing yards and 23 rushing touchdowns. Opposing defenses cannot fall asleep on him coming out of the backfield because McNichols has become a viable option in the passing game. He has caught 32 passes for 450 yards and four touchdowns.
Baylor isn’t very good at stopping the run, but Boise State won’t fall into the trap of becoming one-dimensional and relying strictly on the ground attack. However, the Bears defense must stay discipline in their assignments because McNichols is very capable of making in-game adjustments in regards to his running style.
The Cactus Bowl takes place on December 27th at Chase Field in Phoenix, Arizona.