TEAMS: Boise State Broncos (10-2, 7-1 Mountain West Conference) vs. Washington Huskies (7-5, 5-4 Pacific 12 Conference)
TIME: Saturday Dec. 22, 3:30 p.m. ET
LAS VEGAS LINES: Boise State 51/2; Over/Under 44 points
Boise State has replaced BYU as the MAACO Bowl Las Vegas annual participant. This season is BSU’s third straight spending the holidays in Sin City, after five straight years of the Cougars. Washington is making its debut appearance in the Las Vegas Bowl and third consecutive postseason under Steve Sarkisian.
Some of the luster came off this match-up in the final week of the Pac-12 regular season. Had UW beaten rival Washington State in the Apple Cup, the Huskies would be 8-4 and likely ranked in the top 25, facing another nationally ranked team in Boise State. The overtime loss to a bad Wazzu might have thwarted the bowl season’s first top 25 vs. top 25 pairing, but the Broncos and Huskies should still make for a quality game.
Ironically, these are two teams that have won with their defenses. Now, Boise State has traditionally had stout defenses. This season’s version ranks No. 6 in points allowed, the fifth consecutive seasons the Broncos have been 14th or better. However, those stellar defenses of the past played in the shadow of explosive offenses, with quarterback Kellen Moore at the controls, pro wide receivers Titus Young and Austin Pettis catching and breakout NFL star Doug Martin carrying.
That’s not the case this season. Boise State may have made its reputation under Chris Petersen with garish scores and trick plays, but this team plays a most smash-mouth style.
Meanwhile, Washington’s defense has experienced a resurgence.
When the Huskies defeated nine-win Oregon State, they forced four turnovers. UW allowed no offensive touchdowns in its 17-13 win over Pac-12 champion Stanford. Obviously, there’s D in these Dawgs. Sarkisian’s replacement of several assistants is paying dividends. He brought on Justin Wilcox (former Boise State assistant) from Tennessee as defensive coordinator, and former Cal staffer Tosh Lupoi as line coach, among others.
UW is night-and-day on that side of the ball in wins and losses. Opponents scored a total of 76 points in Husky wins — less than 11 points per game. Losses were a completely different story, where UW surrendered a combined 174 points.
A low score benefits the Huskies both in that regard, and in that BSU is 1-2 this season when held under 20 points.
Sarkisian has led Washington to seven wins in each of the Huskies’ three bowl-bound campaigns. However, a loss to the 10-2 Broncos would leave the Dawgs 7-6 for a third straight season. Aside from the all-important bowl game win and the implications of momentum for the following season, defeating Boise State would be a symbolic measure for the Sarkisian era.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
In its last postseason foray, Washington’s defense became the butt of jokes. A 67-56 loss to Robert Griffin III’s Baylor team in the Alamo Bowl became motivation for the returning players, who have improved from No. 108 in points allowed a year ago, to No. 37 this season.
The duo of Desmond Trufant and Sean Parker are two such returners who have elevated their game. Washington’s leaders in the secondary contribute to a pass defense ranked No. 16 in the nation — no small feat in the pass-happy Pac-12.
Parker patrols the field, doing just about everything. He’s forced five turnovers with a pair of picks and three fumbles, and his 70 tackles are second most among UW defenders.
Trufant has an interception and eight broken up passes, but the cornerback’s presence isn’t necessarily measured in statistics. Trufant is a true lock-down corner. Quarterbacks don’t often throw his way, even if it means going away from their top targets. To wit, standout USC wide receiver Marqise Lee was held to two receptions for 32 yards when covered by Trufant.
The senior is likely to be paired with Matt Miller, the primary target of BSU quarterback Joe Southwick. Miller’s 60 receptions are 24 more than the next most active Bronco pass catcher.
Southwick has been effective enough, completing two-thirds of his attempts and throwing 17 touchdowns to seven interceptions. But Petersen and first-year offensive coordinator Robert Prince altered the scheme with Moore gone. The Broncos rushed the ball 442 times, nearly 100 more than BSU passed.
D.J. Harper flourished out of Martin’s spotlight. He scored 15 touchdowns and exceeded 1000 yards, with freshman Jay Ajayi bringing over 500 yards of support. Ajayi’s NFL size could come into play for a Bronco offense that has its best chance to move the ball via the ground. Washington is more prone to giving up yards via the rush than the pass, and the multifaceted Bronco backfield will test the linebackers corps.
Turnovers are Washington’s best friends. Freshman Shaq Thompson, Justin Glenn and Marcus Peters have three interceptions a piece. The trio may need to create opportunities for its offense, because the Bronco defense is unlikely to yield opportunities.
At 14.9 points per game, BSU is statistically the best defense Washington will see this season. In terms of talent, the Broncos may not be as stacked as Rose Bowl-bound Stanford — but UW beat the Cardinal, creating openings with its own defense.
Boise State must shut off the Huskies early, then capitalize on the other end. BSU defenders have scored four touchdowns off the 33 turnovers they created. Jeremy Ioane is one of them, having scored on one of his two interceptions. Ioane is also Boise State’s second leading tackler with 65 and has forced a fumble.
He’s an active presence in the secondary, complementing the work the rushers up front do. Leading the Bronco line is Demarcus Lawrence with 9.5 sacks. He’ll look to bring pressure on quarterback Keith Price, who has struggled through inconsistencies this season. If Price is unable to establish a rhythm, that puts more of the onus on breakout star and 1200-yard rusher Bishop Sankey.
The key match-up may be Sankey against the BSU rush defense, namely leading tackler and linebacker J.C. Percy.