#23 Boise State vs. Fresno State: Game Preview
The Milk Can is on the line, but the Bulldogs will hope to spoil the Broncos’ last best shot at a New Year’s Day bowl game, as well.
Though the championship game is set, the Bulldogs should expect to get Boise State’s best effort.
WEEK 13: #23 Boise State Broncos (9-2, 7-0 Mountain West) vs. Fresno State Bulldogs (8-3, 6-1 MW
WHEN: Saturday, November 25 — 12:30 PM PT
WHERE: Bulldog Stadium; Fresno, California (41,031)
TV: CBS Sports Network
RADIO: The Fresno State broadcast can be found in and around Fresno on the Central Valley’s local ESPN Radio affiliates: 940 (in English) and 1600 (in Spanish) AM. The Boise State broadcast can be heard in and around Boise on 670 AM (KBOI) and 93.1 FM (KTIK), as well as on the rest of the Broncos Radio Network.
SERIES RECORD: The Broncos currently hold a 13-5 advantage in the series. In their last meeting on December 6, 2014, Boise State defeated Fresno State 28-14 at Albertsons Stadium to claim the 2014 Mountain West championship.
It’s been quite a while since these two rivals have clashed and it’s hard to imagine that the paths they’ve taken in the three years since could’ve been any different. The Fresno State Bulldogs, having already peaked following an 11-win campaign in 2013, bottomed out by 2016, while the Boise State Broncos were, well, more or less themselves: After beating the Bulldogs for the Mountain West crown in 2014, the Broncos won the Fiesta Bowl and have won nine, ten and nine games in the three years since.
And yet, here they are, nearly equals, slated to square off this Saturday and next for another conference title.
There’s a temptation to think that the Broncos may let up if things don’t break their way before kickoff. South Florida and Central Florida play on Friday afternoon for a spot in the American Athletic Conference title game, while lowly East Carolina travels to Memphis on Saturday morning.
Both UCF and Memphis are ranked ahead of the Broncos in the race to a New Year’s Day bowl, meaning the path to pass both is narrow, but a loss would also damage Boise’s chances of hosting the Mountain West title game (the gap between these two teams according to the computer rankings which would determine the host, at present, is substantial, but 99% certainty isn’t 100%).
Better for both sides to put their best foot forward, right? Here’s what to watch.
Three Keys for Boise State
Can Brett Rypien maintain his hot hand?
It took a whle for Good Brett Rypien to show up this season, but no one has been playing the quarterback position better than Boise State’s #4 in November. In the Broncos’ last three games, the junior has completed 64% of his passes at nearly ten yards per attempt, and he sports a 9-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio. No surprise, then, that he leads the conference with 13 plays of 20 or more yards in that same span.
This Bulldogs secondary, however, will present a much tougher test. They’ve given up just 11 plays of 20 yards or more in Mountain West play, and though Fresno State has just one interception in the last five weeks, the defensive backs have continued to play at a high level with 21 pass breakups.
If that weren’t enough, the Bulldogs can also boast the best opponents’ quarterback rating in conference play (105.44) and the best opponents’ QB rating at home (99.34). This will be strength against strength, and how well the Broncos can maintain their explosiveness will go a long way toward determining a winner.
Will Alexander Mattison get loose?
Many things went right in last week’s win over Air Force, but the sophomore running back had a fairly quiet evening with just 42 yards on 17 carries. It was a departure from his recent level of production, as he’d averaged at least 5.3 yards per carry in the five games before that, culminating with his 242-yard effort against Colorado State two weeks ago.
It might be that the Broncos choose to test the Fresno State front seven early, anyway, even though the Bulldogs have allowed just 3.4 yards per carry in conference play. Mattison has done his best work on first down runs, averaging 5.6 yards per carry, while Fresno State’s own figure jumps to 4.7 YPC. Staying on schedule, avoiding a reliance on the passing game, would make Boise State’s life a lot easier.
Can the front seven make hay against Fresno State’s offensive line?
On the surface, this would appear to be a fairly even matchup: Boise State ranks first among Mountain West teams in team sacks, while Fresno State ranks first in sacks allowed. The Broncos have given up just 3.8 yards per carry in conference action, while the Bulldogs have averaged 4.6 yards per carry on offense. A closer look, though, reveals some potential breaking points for the Boise State defense.
By Havoc Rate (percentage of plays with a TFL, forced fumble or pass defense), Boise State’s defensive line ranks just 107th nationally and its linebackers rank 130th. There’s a strong likelihood they get pushed by an unexciting but steady running attack more often than they’d like: Fresno State ranks second in Stuff Rate (runners tackled at or behind the line) and 25th in Power Success Rate (percentage of runs on third or fourth down, two yards or less to go, that achieved a first down or touchdown).
This will be a big moment for the Broncos’ interior duo, David Moa and Sonatane Lui. Moa, who has struggled with injury throughout 2017, and Lui, who keyed Boise State’s early surge last week with a fumble recovery, will have to disrupt the Bulldogs’ running game between the tackles and force Fresno State into obvious passing situations when they can.
Three Keys for Fresno State
Can the Bulldogs create turnovers?
No team in the country has fewer turnovers in its conference play than Boise State (and just one, LSU, has as few). Through seven Mountain West games, the Broncos have lost the ball just two times.
This could make the vagaries of fumble luck more important than usual for Fresno State. In conference play, the Bulldogs have recovered 7 of the 12 fumbles they’ve created and its the latter figure, the breaks they’ve made for themselves, that might need to come through one more time on Saturday.
Linebackers Jeffrey Allison and George Helmuth, the team’s top two tacklers, have combined for ten tackles for loss and four sacks and shown a propensity for being in the middle of the action quite often. If one big hit jars the ball loose, that could be all the Bulldogs need to keep the Broncos at arm’s length.
Can the Bulldogs win the field position battle enough to have more scoring opportunities?
Both Boise State and Fresno State have had roughly similar production when they’ve crossed the opponents’ 40-yard line — the Broncos score 4.68 points per trip, the Bulldogs score 4.61 — but if the Bulldogs can’t finish drives (Boise State allows 5.02 points per trip, which ranks 102nd in the FBS), they have to hope they can maximize their special teams advantage.
Senior kicker Jimmy Camacho has been an unheralded asset this fall, converting 19-of-23 field goal attempts. More importantly, however, Camacho is 5-of-7 on attempts of 40 yards or more, with a long of 50 yards. His Boise counterpart, Haden Hoggarth, is just 2-of-3 with a long of 41 yards. If the Bulldogs can’t exploit the Broncos’ shaky red zone defense (opponents have scored a touchdown 70% of the time, next-to-last in the Mountain West), Camacho’s range will become crucial.
Will Marcus McMaryion finally solve his third-down issues?
On the surface, the fact that Fresno State ranks 8th nationally in Standard Down Success Rate (first downs, second-and-7 or fewer, third-and-4 or fewer, and fourth-and-4 or fewer) would seem to be an unmitigated success for Kalen DeBoer’s offense, but it’s easy to imagine just how much better the numbers would be if the Bulldogs quarterback was better about moving the chains on later downs.
On third-and-short, especially, it may be worth letting him win with his legs on the zone read. McMaryion has just two first downs in twelve attempts at third-and-3-or-less, but he’s averaged 7.3 yards per carry (after adjusting for sacks) on 32 rushes. Leaning on the running game is almost a given, so long as the Bulldogs can stay out of more obvious passing situations, where McMaryion has just five first downs on 41 attempts from third-and-7-or-more.