PROVO — BYU faces its first ranked opponent this season when its travel to Boise State Thursday.
The Broncos (6-0) enter the game No. 14 in both polls and coming off a 28-23 win over Colorado State, while BYU (4-3) is riding a three-game winning streak, most recently a 28-21 double-overtime victory over Mississippi State.
Game time is set for 8:15 p.m. at Albertsons Stadium (ESPN).
Here’s a look at three keys to the game from the Cougars’ perspective:
1. Battle of the backs
Thursday’s game features one of the nation’s best running back matchups this season, let alone the Cougars’ top RB matchup so far in 2016.
BYU’s Jamaal Williams has more rushing yards than his opponent, going for 942 yards and 10 touchdowns through seven games this season. Last week against the Bulldogs, he passed Harvey Unga to become the school’s all-time leading rusher. This season, Williams has rushed for more than 160 yards in four games.
Boise State’s Jeremy McNichols, meanwhile, is one of the best all-around backs in the country. He is fourth nationally in all-purpose yards at 181.67 per game and is coming off a night against Colorado State when he carried the ball a school-record 40 times for 217 yards. McNichols is also second in the nation in scoring, averaging 14 points per game with 14 touchdowns.
Whichever team has greater success being able to get its rushing attack going will have the edge offensively. BYU’s rush defense (allowing 131.1 yards per game) is a little better than Boise State’s (142.3).
“They are a good line and they are coached very well. I think their technique is a little different than some of the other lines we’ve seen,” BYU senior defensive end Sae Tautu said. “I’m glad I was able to see that on film early in the week. They are good players and we have to respect them.”
2. Strike early
BYU has not been prone to fast starts this season, scoring first in only two of its games and trailing at halftime against everyone except Arizona in the season opener.
The Cougars have countered that by nearly doubling up their opponents in fourth-quarter scoring output.
If BYU can get itself an early lead against Boise State, it could pay big dividends in a hostile environment. In their previous three meetings with the Broncos in Boise, the Cougars have trailed by double digits twice in the first quarter and lost all three games.
This season Boise State has only trailed once, and it came last week when Colorado State kicked a first-quarter field goal before the Broncos took the lead for good late in the first half with a touchdown.
Both teams are among the nation’s best at scoring once they get to the red zone, and that could play into who takes the early advantage. BYU is tied for third nationally, scoring 96.3 percent of the time it reaches the red zone, with 18 touchdowns and eight field goals on 27 red-zone attempts.
Boise State is 11th in the country, scoring 95 percent of the time it’s reached the red zone, with 16 touchdowns and three field goals on 20 red-zone attempts.
“Mitchell Juergens told me it is the loudest place he has ever played,” BYU sophomore wide receiver Moroni Laulu-Pututau said.
Laulu-Pututau scored a red-zone touchdown for the Cougars in their win over Mississippi State.
“I asked him if it was louder than Nebraska and he said, 'yes.' He said he doesn’t know how, but they have got some great fans up there and that far down on the field, you can’t hear anything. But we are preparing for that.”
3. Control possession
BYU’s power rushing attack — averaging 200.9 yards per game on the ground — has helped the Cougars own the time of possession over their opponents this season, and against Boise State, they’ll need to keep the potent Broncos offense off the field as much as possible.
Boise State’s front seven could cause troubles for BYU in that aspect of the game. The Broncos are tied for 12th in the nation in sacks per game, averaging 3.5 a contest, and they have two of the nation’s top 30 sack leaders in David Moa (5.5 sacks) and Sam McCaskill (5). If Boise State is able to get pressure on Cougar quarterback Taysom Hill and prevent BYU from maintaining drives, it would allow the Bronco offense more opportunities to strike.
The Cougar offense is gaining more confidence, though, and that’s evidenced by its 49 percent conversion rate on third down — 14th nationally — that’s improved as the season has wore on. The past two weeks, BYU has converted 57.5 percent of its third-down attempts, and a similar effort in Boise (the Broncos allow only 34.9 percent) could be key for the Cougars maintaining possession and control of the game.
“I think (BYU offensive coordinator) Ty (Detmer) is getting more comfortable and trusting us and making sure that we do take some shots or get tricky that if we don’t have something there that we don’t turn the play into a negative one. I think that trust has been developed,” Hill said.
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