Two very young quarterbacks are headed for a classic bash in LaVell Edwards Stadium late Saturday night.
The winner will be the one that has the best supporting cast of receivers, running backs and pass protection because QBs, even those who wear capes, throw rockets and run through walls, can’t do it alone.
The winner will be the one who can best attack defenses that will be bent on knocking their teeth out.
This is why both BYU freshman Tanner Mangum and Boise State sophomore Ryan Finley would really benefit if their respective offenses showed a semblance of a run attack to take a little pressure off their arm work.
In a low scoring win over Washington in Boise, Finley’s offense had 185 yards rushing, led by Jeremy McNichols' 89 yards on 24 carries. In Lincoln, the Cougars rushed for 132 yards but 72 of those came from QB Taysom Hill who is out for the season with an injured foot.
The run game is an interesting matrix in this game. Both teams love to pass. Both are capable of doing so. Both have stout and experienced offensive lines. But which one will push harder on the ground to gain balance and take some starch out of the defensive pass pressure?
Two weeks into BYU’s fall camp, Bronco Mendenhall told reporters after a scrimmage it was about time his team worked more on the run game and run defense. What that indicated to me is that his offensive coordinator was emphasizing chemistry and timing between Hill and his veteran receivers as well as the need to tweak pass protection.
After the Nebraska game, media observers asked BYU’s staff about what appeared to be a struggling run game in the opener sans Jamaal Williams. Mendenhall answered by saying it was not a point of emphasis against the strong Cornhusker front seven defense.
Mendenhall’s offensive coordinator Robert Anae answered a similar question a bit stronger. “All the guys who are concerned with the run game can go put on a hat and let them coach,” Anae said.
Last week BSU ran 80 plays and 27 were pass attempts (33 percent). The Cougars ran 72 plays and 46 were pass attempts (63.8 percent). BYU went pass heavy. Part of that was by design, but some was due to the comeback attempt play calls in the fourth quarter.
But generally speaking, when pass attempts go up, third down and red zone conversions go down. It is tough to be one-dimensional and win. Explosive teams like Oregon overcome this by getting big chunk yardage, a lot of TDs and pass efficiency ratings above 160.
Former BSU coach Chris Petersen, now at Washington, explained run game importance earlier this week. He started true freshman QB Jake Browning against BSU. After his team lost to the Broncos 16-13 in Boise and managed just 29 yards on the ground, Petersen explained his offense didn’t help Browning enough.
“Because it starts with the run game,” said Petersen. “And when you can’t run the ball, you’re putting a lot of pressure on your pass game. It always starts right there and if you can’t do that, then we’re not helping him like we need to. Then you’re always trying to analyze, as a coach, what you can do throw-wise to make his life a bit easier, whether we throw it down field a little bit more to loosen them up or we’re giving him easier throws, we’re always trying to figure that out.”
Note: Boise State has been among the nation’s best at creating a diversified offense regardless of turnover of talent. BYU’s Anae has produced the best runners in school history with Curtis Brown, Harvey Unga and Jamaal Williams — another proven factor that his system can do it when emphasized.
Putting Mangum and Finley in the best position to make plays — with run help or not — will prove critical for BYU and BSU in this regional showdown.
This week’s predictions:
Michigan 17, Oregon State 14: Wolverines rebound after loss to Utes.
Notre Dame 24, Virginia 21: Irish bring too much offense.
UCLA 34, UNLV 21: Freshman QB Josh Rosen continues collecting praise.
Michigan State 38, Oregon 34: This will be a tough venue for the Ducks.
Arizona 38, Nevada 17: Wildcats should roll.
Tennessee 21, Oklahoma 17: Vols win late over Sooners.
Colorado 24, UMass 14: No altitude adjustment quick enough.
BYU 24, Boise State 21: Defensive battle ends with a field goal.
Last week 9-1 (.900)
Dick Harmon, Deseret News sports columnist, can be found on Twitter as Harmonwrites and can be contacted at email@example.com.