The road to a conference championship always runs through the Boise State Broncos, and this year is no exception. After a faltering start, the Broncos have won their last two games against Fresno State and San Diego State, giving them a 3-0 start to conference play and a clear path to the championship game. The Falcons on the other hand are reeling from early conference losses to Wyoming and Utah State and need to win this game to have any real chance at reaching the championship game. Even then, the Falcons will likely have to win out and hope for losses from the other three contenders.
After being picked as the preseason favorite to win the Mountain Division, Boise struggled on offense early in the season and hit bottom in a loss to a very mediocre UTEP team. Head Coach Andy Avalos made the decision to fire his offensive coordinator and bench three year starting quarterback Hank Bachmeier. He installed redshirt freshman Taylen Green as the starter against San Diego State, and Boise was shutout in the first half of the game. Something happened at half time (my theory is the devil payed a visit to the locker room) and Boise scored 35 points and racked up over 300 yards offense in the second half. In the next game against Fresno State, the Broncos gained 443 yards and won 40-20. Notably, most of the yardage in the last two games have come on the ground, over 300 yards in each game.
Much like the Falcons, the Broncos have a trio of runners who can produce big yardage running the ball. George Holani is back at full speed after suffering through injuries the last two years, and has returned to the form that made him a 1,000 yard rusher his freshman year. Taylen Green is a speedy dual threat quarterback, and elusive in the pocket. Ashton Jeanty is a redshirt freshman who alternates with Holani at tailback. Holani has back-to-back 100 yard games, and Green and Jeanty have each had a 100 yard game in the last two.
The offensive line has a ton of experience. Four members of the line are redshirt of sixth year seniors, and the fifth member is a redshirt junior.
The defensive backfield is led by senior safety JL Skinner, a preseason first team all MW choice. The Broncos are No. 1 in FBS in passing yards allowed with 134 per game. They have a strong linebacking crew led by 6th year senior Ezekiel Noa and redshirt senior DJ Schramm. The defensive line is extremely experienced (this is a recurring theme) with redshirt senior Scott Matlock, redshirt senior Jackson Cravens, and 6th year senior George Tarlas. The Broncos rank 19th in FBS in rushing yards allowed at 102 per game.
Analysis and Prediction
As I gathered all this information on the Broncos, two questions formed in my mind: 1) How did this team lose to UTEP? and 2) Why are the Falcons 3.5 point favorites? We might find some keys to a Falcon victory in the answer to those questions.
The primary reason that Boise lost to the Miners was that their offense was horrible in that game. It was Hank Bachmeier’s last game as a Bronco, and he had perhaps the worst game of his career. He went 13 for 34 passing and threw for only 93 yards. Although he has been a top quarterback in the conference far several years, he has had a knack for throwing some inopportune interceptions that have hurt the Broncos at times. He also was limited in his running ability, which has become more a necessity in college football in recent years with the RPO being all the rage.
However, another big reason the Miners were able to beat the Broncos was their ability to run the ball and sustain drives by doing so. UTEP only threw 11 passes and ran for 199 yards while converting 8 of 15 third down opportunities. This leads to the answer to the second question - the Falcons have the best rushing attack in the nation running behind a Joe Moore Award watch list offensive line built specifically to limit the number of drives the opposing team has to score points.
Air Force generally limits the number of drives for an opponent to 9 or 10 drives compared to about 11 to 12 drives in most college games. An excellent offense generally gets about 3.5 points per drive, an average offense gets about 2.4. Air Force this year leads the Mountain West with 2.8 points per drive and allows 1.6. It’s important to note that the Falcon defense has been good at keeping opponent scoring low while allowing fairly high average yards per play. Air Force is 12th in FBS in points allowed, but is 46th in yards per play. Keeping opponent possessions to a minimum does a lot of work for the Falcon defense. Of course there will be variability based around how good the opponent is, but executing the offense as designed will go a long way towards at least keeping the Falcons in the game. This has proven true the last two years, as the only 4 losses have been by less than one score.
One of the announcers said in the game last week that UNLV coach Marcus Arroyo had said to him that you usually know pretty early in the game if your scheme is going to work against an option team. I think that’s a pretty good guide to go by. After a couple possessions, if Brad Roberts is getting 3-8 yards per carry and John Lee Eldredge has a couple 10 yard runs, it will probably be a long day for the Broncos. I don’t expect it to be that easy, but early momentum for the Falcon offense is one of the keys to the game.
One of the biggest keys to the Broncos performance lies in the hands of their freshman quarterback. I’ve noted before that the problems the Falcons have had this year have been mostly against mobile quarterbacks, and Green may be the most mobile QB the Falcons have seen since Malik Cunningham. If he doesn’t make many freshman mistakes and can rip off a few long runs and regularly evade the Falcon pass rush, it will be a long day for Air Force fans.
I expect this game will be very close, and may be determined by a field goal. Fortunately for both teams, they have kickers who are among the best in college football. Boise kicker Jonah Dalmas was named preseason All MW first team kicker this year and is 10-12 in field goals. For Air Force, Matthew Dapore is quietly kicking himself toward becoming one of the best ever at the Academy. He is currently 10-11 and 3-4 on kicks over 50 yards.
The game will kick off on Saturday evening at 5pm MT. It will be broadcast on CBS Sports Network. The Falcons are currently 3.5 point favorites and the over/under is 47.5.
It pains me to say it, but with the way the Broncos have played the last 1 1⁄2 games, I would pick the Broncos to win by 27-24. Take the Broncos +3.5 and take the over.