December 21, 2010

Boise's special season goes up in smoke

This season's Boise State team could have been one of history's special teams.

An unbeaten record potentially would have enabled the Broncos to play for the national championship, which would have made Boise State the ultimate "BCS buster" and a team for the ages. At the very least, a perfect mark would have guaranteed Boise State a spot in the Rose Bowl, a first for a non-Big Six program.

But an overtime loss at Nevada on Nov. 26 ended the Broncos' dreams.

"I'm at a loss for words," said Boise State quarterback Kellen Moore following the loss to the Wolf Pack. "Hopefully we'll learn something from this."

MAACO BOWL LAS VEGAS

Utah (10-2) vs. Boise State (11-1)
WHEN: Dec. 22, 8 p.m.
WHERE: Sam Boyd Stadium, Las Vegas.
TV: ESPN (Brent Musburger will do play-by-play, with Kirk Herbstreit as the analyst).
THE LINE: Boise State by 17.
RECORDS VS. BOWL TEAMS: Boise State 4-1, Utah 4-2.
NCAA SCHEDULE STRENGTH: Boise State 52nd, Utah 104th.
BCS RANKINGS: Boise State 10th, Utah 19th.
OFFICIATING CREW: From the Pac-10.
COACHES: Boise State - Chris Petersen (2-2 in bowls); Utah - Kyle Whittingham (6-0 in bowls).
WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH: These are two of the three best non-Big Six programs in the nation, but motivation is a question for both. Utah has won nine bowls in a row, the nation's longest active postseason streak. That ties Utah for the second-longest bowl winning streak of all time with USC (nine straight from 1923-45). Florida State is the record-holder with 11 (1985-96).
KEY STATS: Boise State is No. 2 nationally in passing efficiency. Broncos quarterbacks have completed 70.3 percent of their attempts, for 3,833 yards and 36 TDs with just five interceptions. Utah is 81st in pass efficiency defense; the Utes have allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 60.0 of their passes, for 2,586 yards and 18 TDs with only 11 picks.
The lesson: It's a fine line between a place in history and the nondescript MAACO Bowl Las Vegas, which is the Broncos' postseason destination.

When Boise State gets there, it will play Utah (10-2). The Utes are ranked No. 19, with their losses coming to unbeaten TCU and at Notre Dame. Boise State is 11-1 and ranked No. 10.

WAC commissioner Karl Benson helped set up what is, on paper, the juiciest matchup in Vegas bowl history. The Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl had first choice of WAC teams, but Benson pushed the Broncos to Las Vegas, which was the school's preferred destination. Nevada, which ended up sharing the WAC crown with Boise State and Hawaii, will play in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl against Boston College.

"Boise State is one of the top teams in the country," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. "Not many bowls outside the BCS games will feature teams with the kind of success Boise State and Utah have experienced in recent years, which makes this an exciting matchup. We will have our work cut out for us."

While Utah may be motivated to end the season on an up note after going 2-2 in November following an 8-0 start, Boise State's mind-set is difficult to figure out. Will the Broncos be motivated to play in a lesser bowl after coming so close to a big-time BCS breakthrough? Or will there be a "who cares?" attitude.

Chris Petersen is saying all of the right things.

"Our team is looking forward to another great bowl experience and the opportunity of finishing our season against another nationally ranked opponent," the Boise State coach said. "Utah has one of the top programs in the country and has proven that again this season."

It wasn't supposed to end like this for Boise State.

Back in August, pollsters loved the Broncos, who returned 21 starters from last season's unbeaten squad. The Broncos were No. 3 in the preseason AP poll (with one first-place vote), behind only Alabama and Ohio State. The Broncos were No. 5 in the coaches' poll, behind Alabama, Ohio State, Florida and Texas. No non-Big Six program had begun the season ranked so high in the BCS era, which began in 1998.

The thinking went that if the Broncos could win a tough season-opening game against Virginia Tech in Landover, Md., they would be able to run the table against what largely was a middling schedule. And if Boise did that, it had a great chance to finish in the top two in the final BCS standings.

Through the first 13 weeks of the season, Boise State did its part. The Broncos opened with a 33-30 win over Virginia Tech. From there, the victories piled up: Wyoming, Oregon State, New Mexico State, Toledo, San Jose State, Louisiana Tech, Hawaii, Idaho, Fresno State. Boise State seemingly could pick the score, racking up victories with scores such as 51-6, 59-0, 57-14, 48-0, 52-14 and 51-0.

By late November, Boise State was 10-0 and ranked No. 4 in the BCS standings, behind No. 1 Oregon, No. 2 Auburn and No. 3 TCU. That seemingly impossible trip to the BCS title game was within the Broncos' grasp.

The Broncos had games remaining at No. 19 Nevada and against Utah State. Many felt that if Boise State won out, it would jump TCU and be poised to move into one of the top two spots in the BCS standings and subsequently play for the national title.

But that's when the needle was stuck into Boise State's season with the aforementioned overtime loss at Nevada, ending any hope the Broncos had of breaking through to the title game -- or even reaching a third BCS bowl in school history.

Boise State led 24-7 at halftime and 24-14 after three quarters. But Nevada rallied to tie the score, and the Broncos blew a chance to win in regulation when kicker Kyle Brotzman missed a 26-yard field goal with two seconds left. He then missed a 29-yarder in overtime.

"We had a chance to win it," Petersen said. "You play two evenly matched teams, it usually comes down to a couple of plays. It's tough; it probably shouldn't have come down to that."

At the least, a victory figured to send Boise State to the Rose Bowl -- a bid that TCU ended up receiving -- to play Wisconsin. Instead, it's on to Las Vegas, where Boise State and Utah each will close an era.

This will be Boise State's last game as a member of the WAC, as it will move to the Mountain West in 2011. Utah, meanwhile, will be making its final appearance as a member of the Mountain West, as it moves to the newly renamed Pac-12 next season.

Boise State is 4-2 all-time against Utah, winning the past three meetings. The most recent encounter was in 2006, a 36-3 Broncos romp at Utah. This matchup figures to be closer, even though Utah is without starting quarterback Jordan Wynn.

"The thing about our players," Petersen said, "is they want to play good teams."

Boise State will get to do that against Utah. But it could have been playing someone even better for so much more.

WHO GETS THE EDGE?

Boise State rush offense vs. Utah rush defense: Something has to give in this battle of strengths. The Broncos' ground game ranks No. 24 in the nation (200.1 ypg) and they've rushed for at least 200 yards in six games. The Utes' rushing defense ranks No. 8 in the nation (104.2 ypg); they've held seven foes to less than 100 yards and only one (Air Force) has run for more than 200. Boise State never is given enough credit for being physical. But just watch RB Doug Martin run behind T Nate Potter and C Thomas Byrd. Edge: Boise State.

Boise State pass offense vs. Utah pass defense: Broncos QB Kellen Moore (3,506 yards, 33 TDs, five picks) was a Heisman finalist who has a terrific tandem to throw to in senior WRs Titus Young and Austin Pettis; they've combined for 124 receptions for 1,955 yards and 18 TDs. Moore should feast on a Utes pass defense that allows foes to complete 60 percent of their pass attempts. Utah E Christian Cox needs to bring the heat, and CB Lamar Chapman must play tight coverage. Boise State has allowed just seven sacks, while Utah has 28. Edge: Boise State.

Utah rush offense vs. Boise State rush defense: As usual, the Utes are a physical running team led by RBs Eddie Wide and Matt Asiata and the blocking of star G Caleb Schlauderaff. But they may find it tough to run against a Broncos defense that ranks No. 6 in the nation against the run (103.5 ypg) and has yielded just 2.9 yards per carry and 12 rushing touchdowns. T Billy Winn and LB Winston Venable are rugged defenders. One thing to watch: Boise had allowed more than 128 rushing yards in a game just once until the last two games of the regular season, when it allowed 269 to Nevada and a surprising 250 to Utah State. Edge: Boise State.

Utah pass offense vs. Boise State pass defense: The Utes will be without QB Jordan Wynn, who is out with an injury to his throwing shoulder; he also is likely to miss spring drills. But they have a competent backup in senior Terrance Cain, who is 9-1 as a starter. He started two games this season and won both. Cain has good targets in Jereme Brooks and DeVonte Christopher. Asiata and Wide are excellent receivers out of the backfield. Boise State's secondary is led by CB Brandyn Thompson and SS Jeron Johnson. Boise State leads the nation in sacks per game with 3.75, but Utah has allowed just eight sacks this season. Edge: Boise State.

Boise State special teams vs. Utah special teams: Utah's Shaky Smithson is the nation's No. 1 punt returner (19.7 yards per attempt), and K Joe Phillips was a Groza semifinalist who hit 12-of-14 field-goal attempts with a long of 48 yards. Utah's kickoff coverage has been excellent, but the punt coverage is weak and a big reason the Utes are just 103rd nationally in net punting. Boise State K Kyle Brotzman missed those two short field goals in the devastating loss at Nevada, but he's still a good weapon as a kicker and punter. Chris Potter (punts) and Young (kickoffs) are dangerous return men. Boise's punt coverage has been solid, but its kick coverage has been mediocre. Edge: Utah.

Boise State coaches vs. Utah coaches: Each staff is excellent. Chris Petersen is an annul object of affection for other schools, while Kyle Whittingham has taken what Urban Meyer started and made it even better over the past six seasons. Broncos offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin is a hot commodity, and Utah defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake is one of the sport's rising stars. Edge: Even.

X-factor: What's the mind-set of the Boise State players? This team flirted with greatness all season, looking poised to possibly break through to the BCS title game. But the devastating overtime loss to Nevada in late November caused the Broncos to tumble all the way down to the MAACO Bowl Las Vegas. Do they even want to be here?

Utah will win if: Winning the special teams battle is a must. Phillips could steal some points for the Utes. At one point this season, he had a streak of 18 in a row that began in 2009. Smithson is a big play waiting to happen on punt returns, running back two for touchdowns this season.

Boise State will win if: The key is stifling Utah's ground game. Yes, Cain is a veteran quarterback, but he isn't a polished passer. And he won't be effective in second- and third-and-long situations, which is why the Broncos must win first down and stuff the run. If Boise State gets a lead, it will be able to put even more pressure on Cain.

EXPERT PICKS

Olin Buchanan: Boise State 41, Utah 31
Tom Dienhart: Boise State 40, Utah 28
David Fox: Boise State 38, Utah 21
Mike Huguenin: Boise State 41, Utah 20
Steve Megargee: Boise State 31, Utah 21

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.



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