As is customary when these two teams meet, fans should expect a lot of physicality between the Boise State Broncos and Brigham Young Cougars at LaVell Edwards Stadium on Friday night.
When these two teams met last year, the Broncos were able to squeak out a 7-6 victory in what was a defensive struggle.
Both teams come into this year’s matchup with a considerable amount of positive momentum, as the Cougars have reeled off four straight victories while the Broncos have won their last three contests.
Last weekend, Boise State laid down the hammer in the second half, holding the Nevada Wolf Pack scoreless en route to 34-17 victory. The Broncos did, however, lose starting quarterback Joe Southwick to an ankle injury on the first play of the game.
BYU was involved in a barn-burner last Saturday afternoon, outlasting the Houston Cougars on the road to earn a close 47-46 win. Bronco Mendenhall’s team handed Houston its first loss of the season as quarterback Taysom Hill exploded for 417 yards passing and four touchdowns.
To prepare for Friday’s showdown, here is a viewer’s guide to the game.
Time: 8 PM ET
Place: LaVell Edwards Stadium, Provo, Utah
Spread: As of Wednesday night, the Cougars are favored over the Broncos by seven points according to oddsshark.com.
Betting lines subject to change.
Run, Baby, Run
If last week wasn’t enough to convince you that Boise State is most effective offensively when the running game is humming, then it’s likely that nothing will. The Broncos’ average 224 yards per game on the ground and, with the injury to Joe Southwick, have both a running back and quarterback that can punish opposing defenses with their legs.
Grant Hedrick, the man who is filling in for the injured Southwick, is by no means a liability in the passing game. In fact, his 18 for 21 performance throwing the ball last weekend suggests that he has the ability to be a threat in the short passing game right now. But he also had 115 rushing yards against Nevada and scored his only touchdown on the ground. It is clear that the coaches are more comfortable with the football tucked close to Hedrick’s armpit at this point.
Obviously, the ground game starts with running back Jay Ajayi, and he may be the most important player to the Broncos in this game. If Ajayi can find room to run against BYU’s defense, the Broncos should be able to control the tempo and perhaps even put up the kind of offensive numbers fans have gotten used to this season.
But BYU’s run defense is much better than Nevada’s. While the Wolf Pack defense gives up over 287 yards per game on the ground, BYU’s defense has much more bite. The Cougars average just over 136 yards in the same category.
Ajayi won’t be able to break BYU by himself. Hedrick will need to be able to find running room as well if the Broncos don’t want to be stifled by the Cougars on offense.
Oh what a difference a year can make.
When Boise State played BYU in 2012, Cougars quarterback Taysom Hill was held to just 42 yards passing on 10 attempts. Granted, Hill also ran for 72 yards and BYU’s only touchdown, but it was clear to anyone watching that the Cougars weren’t going to get much done through the air with Hill behind center.
This year, Hill is averaging 240 yards per game through the air to complement his 110.29 yards per game average on the ground. Last week alone, he managed to go blow-for-blow with Houston by passing for 417 yards and four touchdowns. Put simply: Taysom Hill is not just a scrambler anymore.
If the Broncos want to win this game, the linebacker corps is going to need to play its best game of the year. Hill has the ability to freeze linebackers due to his running ability, and when this happens receivers can get open. It will be up to Blake Renaud, Ben Weaver & Co. to play smart and not allow Hill to simply dump the ball over them to open receivers.
Hesitation will be Boise State’s worst enemy against Hill.
Bronco Mendenhall’s teams have always been characterized as hard-nosed, tough squads. The 2013 Cougars are no different, with senior linebacker and team leader Kyle Van Noy exemplifying that notion.
It may sound like an intangible factor, but the Broncos cannot get out-hustled and out-gutted by the Cougars. Boise State is not so much better than BYU that they can come in and win simply on talent and coaching alone.
This is one of the bigger games of the year for the Cougars, and the matchup will be on national television for the entire country to watch. BYU will come out hitting hard and playing with heart. Boise State needs to do the same to avoid the loss.
Get Out of the Gates Fast
This season BYU is 4-0 when it has scored the first points of the game.
Starting off well will be key for the Cougars in this game as well. Because Grant Hedrick will be making his first career start for the Broncos, the more pressure BYU can put on the junior quarterback, the better.
Nevada built a 17-7 first-half lead on the Broncos, but was unable to hold onto that lead in the second half when Hedrick found his groove both in the passing and running game. BYU has a much better defense than the Wolf Pack, and the Cougars are more likely to hold onto an early lead.
Allowing Boise State’s offense to be effective early will only increase its confidence in the new signal caller. The Cougars cannot allow that to happen.
Stop Jay Ajayi
Boise State’s sophomore running back has been the workhorse for the Broncos in the first half of the season and will continue to be a focal point of the offense as long as Joe Southwick is out.
If BYU wants to significantly slow down the Broncos’ offense, it all starts with containing Ajayi. The bruising back has averaged over 19 carries per game this year, and that average may rise until the Boise State coaching staff becomes more comfortable with Hedrick behind center.
Ajayi has rushed for over 100 yards in his last two games, and some of his best performances this season have been against teams with a good run defense. The Broncos have always been a run-first team under head coach Chris Petersen but are even more so now considering the fragile quarterback situation.
If BYU contains Ajayi, they probably win this game.
Don’t Leave Taysom Out to Dry
BYU has had a lot of trouble protecting Taysom Hill this season. The Cougars have given up 22 sacks this year, which puts them ahead of just seven teams in the nation.
Two things can be said about this. One is that it isn’t always easy to protect a quarterback that likes to run around. The other is that eight of those 22 sacks came in the game last weekend against Houston, who blitzed 65 percent of the time.
However, BYU’s offensive line is going to need to find an answer quickly. Boise State has been getting after the quarterback as of late, racking up 13 sacks in the last three games. Demarcus Lawrence has accounted for 5.5 of those.
If the Broncos can take advantage of BYU’s most glaring offensive weakness, chances are the Cougars will have a hard time moving the football. The play of BYU’s offensive line will be the X-factor in this football game.
Hedrick played pretty well in his first game seeing extensive field time, completing 18 of 21 passes for 150 yards and rushing for 115 yards and a touchdown.
The BYU defense will be a major step up from Nevada’s, but expect Hedrick to try a lot of the same things that he found success doing against the Wolf Pack. In just his first collegiate start, it is unlikely that the coaching staff will ask Hedrick do try to beat the Cougars through the air.
If Hedrick can be a game manager, avoid turnovers and make the defense respect his running ability to open up the short passing game, he will have done everything that could be asked of him.
Hedrick does not need to be a hero for the Broncos to win this game; he just needs to be solid.
Ajayi was essentially Superman for Boise State last weekend, rushing for 222 yards and three touchdowns, leading the Broncos to a comeback victory over Nevada.
Is it too much to ask for a similar performance this weekend?
Perhaps, as BYU’s run defense is like a brick wall compared to the Wolf Pack’s Swiss cheese defense. But Ajayi will have to be particularly effective despite the fact that the Cougars should be well-prepared for him.
It is unlikely that Coach Petersen will be naïve enough to think that a one-dimensional offense will be enough to score on the Cougars. So don’t expect something crazy like Ajayi getting twice the amount of touches that he has been seeing on a weekly basis.
But the offense may go as Ajayi goes. You won’t hear that often about a running back.
Boise State’s complete depth chart for the game can be found here.
Hill still runs the ball nearly 18 times per game, but he could have a much bigger impact against the Broncos through the air.
Boise State’s defensive secondary has been a work in progress all season, and it appears to be getting better every week. But this much is for sure: passing the ball a lot is definitely still the way to beat the Broncos in 2013.
Hill has the capability to do that, but he needs to be careful. Despite nine passing touchdowns this season, he also has eight interceptions (including three last weekend against Houston).
If Hill is to lead his team to victory, he needs to make smart decisions in the passing game. Boise State may not have a shutdown secondary, but it still has the ability to take advantage of poor reads by opposing quarterbacks.
Kyle Van Noy
BYU’s vocal leader on defense is also a menace to opposing offensive lines. The senior has 41 tackles for loss this season and, although he only has four sacks on the year, is a constant threat to disrupt things in the backfield.
Van Noy will be instrumental in BYU’s effort to slow down Ajayi, which is the most important task for the Cougars in this game. He has a knack for getting to the football and has a unique ability to cause turnovers.
It would not be surprising to see a big play by Van Noy invigorate BYU, especially if the Cougars are in need of a momentum shift.
The first-team Midseason All-American and eventual NFL draft pick will make plays for the Cougars in this one. He almost never disappoints.
BYU’s complete depth chart for the game can be found here.
According to B.J. Rains of the Idaho Press-Tribune, not only is this game important to the Broncos, but it’s also one of the toughest tests Boise State has had under Coach Petersen.
While Friday night's game is a nonconference game, it's a huge game and could go a long way in helping Boise State gain some points in the polls moving forward. The Broncos are rarely underdogs, and they enter Friday's game as a seven-point underdog to BYU. Coach Chris Petersen said it will be one of the toughest challenges they've faced since he took over as head coach in 2006.
Jay Drew of The Salt Lake Tribune pulled up an interesting statistic:
BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall is voicing the opinions of many with this comment made on Monday:
I am expecting something very different this year. Boise State is completely different offensively than they were a year ago and with an entirely different system. They are scoring a lot more points and I think they are more potent. But I think that we are better as well. I wouldn't anticipate 7-6. I don't know what the score will be but it probably won't be duplicating that one.
No word on whether or not quarterback Taysom Hill is holding anything back, but based on his comments, he is approaching this game just as he would any other.
I want to win the football game. Boise State's a good program. I've got a lot of respect for them, but I want to beat Boise State. I want to win. And it's not any different than any other game. I don't want to win it more than I wanted to win last week. That's just who I am.
Senior left tackle Charles Leno Jr. on how to deal with BYU outside linebacker Kyle Van Noy:
He’s crafty — a relentless player. You’ve just got to trust your technique. Don’t lunge and don’t try to be too aggressive. Be patient and wait for him to make his move. Once he makes his move, then strike.
Perhaps a comment from one future pro about another?
As Bronco Mendenhall noted, this game will probably not resemble the one between the same schools played last September. Both BYU and Boise State have shown the ability to explode offensively, and it is likely that the offenses will have much more of a say in the final outcome than in 2012.
However, Boise State’s defense will still play a big role in this game. If the defensive front can get pressure on Taysom Hill, it can alleviate a lot of the pressure on Grant Hedrick and Jay Ajayi to produce in the run game. If Hill can’t keep the defense honest with his running ability, chances are the Broncos’ secondary will force some turnovers.
This is an extremely difficult game to predict. BYU is favored, but the Broncos are 89-10 under Chris Petersen and routinely defy the odds.
While this could go either way, the Broncos will be in a precarious position on the road with a quarterback making his first collegiate start. As a result, I’ll take the Cougars in a nail biter, but this could go either way.
Prediction: 31-30 BYU