Tom Smart, Deseret News
PROVO — Without much time to lick its wounds from a brutal loss to Utah, BYU travels to the hostile environs of Bronco Stadium to take on an always-tough Boise State football team. Although the Broncos lost a lot of contributors from a year ago, they still look to present a formidable challenge for the Cougars.
So how does BYU matchup with Boise State and what should happen come Thursday night? We interviewed players and coaches along with looking at what Boise State has presented so far this season.
BYU rushing attack vs. Boise State
BYU rushed for 106 yards last week against Utah with no one averaging more than four yards per carry. The running game hasn’t been all that spectacular so far this season, although both Michael Alisa and Jamaal Williams have shown some flashes.
Boise State allows 131 yards rushing per game, but that number is skewed somewhat by Michigan State’s Le’Veon Bell, who is one of the best running backs in the country, running for 210 yards against the Broncos in week 1.
The Broncos present a 4-2-5 base defense that features two experienced senior linebackers and a senior Rover back, who plays similar to the katback in coach Bronco Mendenhall’s old 3-3-5 system. Boise’s best defensive player, however, is sophomore defensive end Demarcus Lawrence (6-3, 242), who leads the team in tackles this season.
“They’re good and they’re aggressive from what I’ve seen,” said quarterback Riley Nelson. “They have some athletes, and we’re going to have to be on top of our game to compete against them and they’ll have a hostile crowd to help them out.”
Cougar question marks
The big question mark surrounds the Cougars' interior offense line and their ability to provide a consistent running attack up the middle. Even against Weber State, BYU struggled to mount much production up the middle and all but abandoned any attempt to do so last week against Utah.
Boise State presents two good interior linemen in Ricky Tjong-A-Tjoe (6-3, 296) and Mike Atkinson (6-0, 306), but both won’t present quite the challenge that Utah’s interior did last week.
“They’re very disciplined and they’re very athletic too,” said Nelson about Boise’s defense. “They don’t get too cut with their base scheme. They play a very assignment-sound defense, so it will be our execution versus theirs.”
BYU should struggle again in mounting an effective ground game against Boise State, but look for the rushing attack to be a bit more productive than it was last week against the Utes. BYU has seen good success running off-tackle with Alisa and look for that to continue along with more reps for Williams.
BYU passing attack vs. Boise State
BYU averaged just 5.9 yards per pass attempt and 206 yards last week against Utah. Both Cody Hoffman and Kaneakua Friel provided good play, but the rest of the receiving options were largely ignored — particularly Ross Apo on the outside.
Boise State allows 236.5 yards per game through the air and presents an experienced starting secondary with three seniors, including its two cornerbacks Jamar Taylor (5-11, 196) and Jerrell Gavins (5-9, 165.) Taylor is considered to be the Bronco’s best corner, while Gavins has split time with backup Bryan Douglas (5-9, 166.)
“They like to mix it up with man and zone (coverages), but in crucial situations they go man,” said Nelson. “They have a lot of confidence in their pass defenders and in their pass rush.”
Cougar question marks
The big question marks surround quarterback Riley Nelson’s health and if he’ll prove more effective this week than last. A lot of Nelson’s effectiveness depends on how well BYU’s offense provides protection, particularly against a middle pass rush. Nelson consistently wasn’t able to let patterns develop with pass rushers in his face, forcing him to leave the pocket early consistently last week. That will need to change if BYU hopes to have success through the air against the Broncos.
“They’re good and they’re more athletic than they get credit for by a lot of people,” observed Nelson about Boise’s secondary. “They have a lot of good athletes and they’re a very disciplined defense, so we’re going to have to be at our best to move the ball effectively.”
Nelson should have a bit more time in the pocket this week than he did last week, but Boise will present a stiff challenge nonetheless. Nelson’s key will be spreading the ball around more effectively and looking more on the outside for Apo, who will enjoy a considerable size advantage against some undersized corners.
BYU rush defense vs. Boise State
BYU has proven stout in defending against the run-all season. Utah wasn’t able to mount anything against them this week, but Boise should present its stiffest challenge to date.
DJ Harper (5-9, 205) leads the Bronco running attack. Harper originally beat out star Doug Martin, who is now starting for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but was sidelined with injury. He’s back and running as strong as ever — rushing for 162 yards and three touchdowns last week.
Harper is fronted by an offensive line that returns two starters from a year ago and is providing a 166-yards-per-game average and a 4.8 yards-per-rush average.
Cougar question marks
There aren’t many question marks surrounding BYU’s ability to defend the run. The Cougars have three very good run-stoppers along their defensive front with seniors Eathyn Manumaleuna, Romney Fuga and Russell Tialavea. But newcomers Bronson Kaufusi and Ezekial Ansah are largely unproven in their ability to stuff the run.
“We have to stay assignment-sound and be ready for anything, because Boise State is an offense that throws a lot of different plays at you,” said linebacker Spencer Hadley. “They have a great running back, but I think if we just stay with our assignments and stay disciplined that we’ll be all right.”
DJ Harper and the Boise State running game will present BYU with its sternest test to date. Look for the Cougar defensive front to yield more than its 53 yards allowed per game as a result and don’t be surprised if the Broncos account for 100-plus yards in the game.
BYU pass defense vs. Boise State
BYU has been consistent with its pass defense, but did show some holes on the edge last week against Utah. Overall it’s allowed just 188 yards per game through the air, which is a testament to a much-improved secondary and pass rush.
Boise State lost a lot in its passing game last season with the graduation of quarterback Kellen Moore and some standout wideouts. Joe Southwick replaces Moore and is coming off a game last week against Miami U, where he completed 24 of 31 passes for 304 yards.
The true star of Boise’s passing attack is an offensive line that has yet to yield a single sack on the year. Sophomore Matt Miller (6-3, 215) is Boise’s leading receiver on the year.
Cougar question marks
BYU has proven effective in rushing the quarterback so far this season, but will have its work cut out against Boise State. How BYU chooses to rush the quarterback and how effective it will be in pressuring Moore is certainly a big question mark heading into tonight’s game.
“We just need to come hard and believe we can get to the quarterback,” said Hadley. “We know it’s something we do well and we have to believe that, even though they haven’t given up a sack, we can provide a bigger challenge than anyone has so far this season.”
BYU will need to maintain good pressure and cornerbacks, particularly Jordan Johnson, will have to prove more effective in tackling in the open field as Boise likes to throw a lot of bubble screens out in the flat. Overall BYU should be able to limit the Broncos below their season average through the air.
Even though the team is saying all the right things, recovering from such a devastating loss a week ago to Utah isn't easy. Look for some emotional hangover in this game and for Boise State to take advantage of the Cougar’s current mental state. Boise State isn’t an easy place to play under any circumstances, and BYU will have a tough time coming out of there with a win.
Score: Boise State 24, BYU 13
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