The No. 19 Boise State Broncos may have fallen just short of a BCS bowl berth, but they will get a major-conference litmus test against the Washington Huskies in the 2012 MAACO Bowl in Las Vegas on Dec. 22.
Chris Petersen's Broncos fought back after early-season struggles, finishing the season with a 10-2 record and in a tie for first place in the Mountain West Conference. Nevertheless, next Saturday will mark the first time Boise State has played a major-conference opponent since a Week 1 loss to Michigan State.
At the time, it looked like the Broncos were just losing against another elite team. However, after the Spartans' struggles in 2012, one has to wonder whether Petersen's squad should actually be 5.5-point favorites (per Vegas Insider).
The answer you're looking for is "yes"—just as long as Boise State excels in a few critical areas. With that in mind, here is a look at what the Broncos must do to come away with a win in Las Vegas.
Heavy Doses of the Running Game
The rushing attack has been the calling card all season for the Broncos and that won't change in their bowl game.
Senior D.J. Harper has been a bastion of consistency, rushing for 1,065 yards and 15 touchdowns while also showing an ability to get open in the passing game. As someone who languished behind Doug Martin and suffered countless injury setbacks, it's been nice to see Harper come through with a nice final season.
However, it's Jay Ajayi who could hold all the cards next Saturday. The freshman backup has been a scintillating force in 2012, gaining 541 yards on only 78 carries and injecting life into the Boise State offense almost every time he carries the ball.
Either way, Ajayi and Harper should have plenty of opportunities against Washington. The Huskies' run defense struggled throughout the regular season, giving up 4.9 yards per carry, which ranked 11th in the Pac-12.
Broncos head coach Chris Petersen won't need Nate Silver-like algorithms to figure a best course of action offensively. Look for Boise State to pound the ball early and often to establish dominance and keep Washington's offense off the field.
Continue Sheer Brilliance in the Secondary
Boise State gave up three touchdown passes in 12 regular-season games. No, that's not typo. Three. That's easily the fewest in the nation and the least allowed by any FBS school in more than a decade.
The Broncos have also picked off 16 passes, which gives them the second-best total in 2012. Spurred by senior cornerbacks Jerrell Gavins and Jamar Taylor and freshman Darian Thompson, Boise State has been one of the more impressive pass defenses in recent memory—even considering the weak in-conference competition.
Next Saturday, the Broncos' secondary will get another opportunity to feast on an opposing quarterback. Huskies signal-caller Keith Price has been the absolute definition of inconsistent this season, vacillating between his brilliance of 2011 and an unnerving penchant for throwing the ball to the opposing team.
If the regular season is any indicator of future performance, the latter may be the most likely scenario in Las Vegas. It's possible that Price comes out in fine form. But based on the way the Broncos have played this year, it's hard to envision that scenario.
Slow Down Bishop Sankey
While Petersen's squad has shown a top-shelf ability to stop the pass, run defense has been a slight deficiency. Heading into bowl season, Boise State has given up 141.3 yards per game and 18 touchdowns on the ground, both numbers that barely rank in the top half of FBS schools.
The Broncos won't get a rushing reprieve next Saturday, as Sankey emerged this season as a scintillating backfield threat. A sophomore, Sankey rushed for 1,234 yards and 15 touchdowns, coming through with multi-score games in four of the Huskies' last five contests.
Sankey has also been an emerging underneath threat for Price in the passing game, though that's secondary to his running skills. If the Washington running back can pull a Le'Veon Bell and dominate the Broncos' front seven, it could be a closer-than-expected contest.
However, if Boise State's defense puts together a solid effort and suffocates Washington's offense, Petersen may be playing the backups in the fourth quarter.