Mountain West Football Championship Game: The 15 Most Important Players
Which Bulldogs and Broncos will matter most in Saturday’s Mountain West football championship?
Both division winners have relied on a lot of key players this season, but here’s who we think will play the biggest roles in Saturday’s title game.
We learned a lot about both the Boise State Broncos and the Fresno State Bulldogs in their undercard bout last Saturday. Having already clinched division titles, the two teams went toe-to-toe for three quarters before the Broncos faltered and the Bulldogs reclaimed the Milk Can.
It seemed like the kind of game that, in retrospect, could have gone either way but for a handful of critical plays, and it got us to thinking about who would become important once adjustments are made and the rivals take the field once more at Albertsons Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
So we put our heads together and came up with an answer.
Keep in mind that “most important players” does not necessarily equal “best players”, only that the MWCwire writers who voted in this exercise believe these athletes will play the largest role in how the rematch plays out. If you have a different opinion, feel free to let us know on Twitter or Facebook.
#15 – Avery Williams, CB/KR/PR, Boise State
Last week: 1 tackle (1 solo), one kickoff return for 18 yards
The freshman has had his electric moments in conference play, but November has been fairly quiet in that regard. He’s returned just two punts for one yard in the last four games and was a non-factor as a special teams contributor in Boise State’s loss last Saturday.
As a corner, he’s stepped up and had some ups and downs the first time around against the Bulldogs — Derrion Grim, for instance, got the angle he needed on a post route late in the first quarter but dropped the pass, and Keesean Johnson beat him for the game-sealing touchdown — and considering Tyler Horton’s performance last week, Fresno State may choose to attack him more and he’ll need to be ready.
#14 – Ezra Cleveland, LT, Boise State
Brett Rypien only got sacked twice last week, but Cleveland may not have done enough to take Nate Madsen out of the play on his third-quarter sack and was straight up beaten on an inside move by Malik Forrester on the safety he collected late in the fourth quarter. Those miscues will have to be cleaned up if the offense has to lean on its passing once again.
#13 – Mason Hampton, C, Boise State
The Broncos had a very difficult time running between the tackles, so while Hampton had a solid game in pass protection, figuring out how to get more push against Fresno State’s interior will be a key part of Boise State’s hopes.
#12 – Juju Hughes, SS, Fresno State
Two times last week, the sophomore standout was *this close* to coming up with a critical turnover. Two times, however, the bounces simply didn’t go his way. If either of Boise State’s quarterbacks forces a bad throw, however, don’t be surprised if Hughes comes down with it the next time around.
#11 – Tobenna Okeke, DE, Fresno State
Last week: 3 tackles (2 solo), 1 quarterback hurry
Fresno State’s pass rush hasn’t been dominated by one person this fall, but Okeke, who finished the regular season as the Bulldogs’ leader with five sacks, might have another big game in him if the Broncos aren’t careful.
#10 – Jamire Jordan, WR, Fresno State
Last week: 8 targets, 4 catches, 91 yards
The junior’s ability to get deep with his top-end speed has never been in doubt but, before last Saturday, he came up just short of coming down with very difficult catches on several different occasions. Last week, though? No such problems.
#9 – DeAndre Pierce, CB, Boise State
Last week: 8 tackles (4 solo)
Pierce did a good job of keeping everything in front of him last Saturday, limiting the big play damage with sure tackling on a couple of occasions. Against an offense not known for creating many big plays, doing so again would be a subtle but significant performance.
#8 – Jaron Bryant, CB, Fresno State
Last week: 7 tackles (5 solo)
Fresno State’s top cornerback had a solid afternoon against Boise State’s host of receivers, but if anyone is likely to exploit any Bad Brett Rypien appearance, it’s the sophomore who finished the regular season with a team-high three interceptions.
#7 – Cedrick Wilson, WR, Boise State
Last week: 13 targets, 7 catches, 134 yards; 1 carry, 9 yards
Boise State’s top receiver certainly played like it in the season finale, but can that performance be duplicated? Fresno State will surely have some answers for cracking down on #1 the second time around.
#6 – Jabril Frazier, STUD, Boise State
Last week: 2 tackles (2 solo), 1 quarterback hurry
It’s been a little while since the junior had a truly impactful game, as he has just one sack in the last five games. Creating more pressure on Marcus McMaryion will surely be one of the defense’s top priorities, however, and Frazier should be counted upon to lead the charge.
#5 – Keesean Johnson, WR, Fresno State
Last week: 8 targets, 6 catches, 119 yards, 2 touchdowns
You might remember this play from last week, which tells you everything you need to know about the confidence Fresno State has in his ability to make the big play when the chips are down. Like Wilson, he’s Fresno State’s unquestioned number one receiver, but he didn’t have quite the same workload thrust upon him last Saturday. Nonetheless, slowing him down will be important.
#4 – Alexander Mattison, RB, Boise State
Last week: 15 carries, 63 yards; 3 catches, 37 yards
Boise State’s star running back might have had his worst performance in conference play to date last week, but it is worth noting that he made up for his lack of running production, in part, by catching three passes for the third time in the last five games. If the ground game is slow to develop again, they may find ways to give him more opportunities to create plays in space with screens.
#3 – Malik Forrester, DT, Fresno State
Last week: 5 tackles (4 solo), 1 sack, 2 tackles for loss, 1 quarterback hurry
The safety is what people will remember, but the senior lineman might have played his best overall game when the Bulldogs needed him most. With Madsen likely to miss the rematch with an injury, Fresno State will need another elite performance to keep the Broncos on their heels.
#2 – Marcus McMaryion, QB, Fresno State
Last week: 23-of-36, 332 passing yards, 2 touchdowns; 4 carries, 27 rushing yards
Fresno State’s quarterback has been silencing doubters all season, but there’s no question he picked a good time to have his best performance of the season. His numbers in passing down situations were especially good, considering his season-long struggles, so proving that’s not a fluke would be a huge advantage for the Bulldogs.
#1 – Brett Rypien, QB, Boise State
Last week: 22-of-31, 278 passing yards
Brett Rypien created five pass plays of more than 20 yards, completed over 70% of his passes for the fifth time in six games, and averaged at least nine yards per attempt for the fourth time in that same span. It wasn’t enough.
There’s no doubt that he’s been the best quarterback in the Mountain West for at least the last month, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that as he goes, the Broncos are likely to go as they pursue their second outright conference title.