When the Boise State Broncos football team (5-3 overall, 3-1 MWC) travels to Sonny Lubick Field at Hughes Stadium in Fort Collins, Colo., to take on the Colorado State Rams (4-4 overall, 2-1 MWC) Saturday night, there will be an amount of uncertainty surrounding the game that many in Bronco Nation are not used to experiencing.
Which Boise State team will show up to play?
Will it be the team that was soundly beaten by BYU 37-20 last Friday night, in a game that was marked by four turnovers by the Broncos? Or will it be the team that, led by now-starting quarterback Grant Hedrick, beat the Nevada Wolf Pack two weekends ago by shutting them out in the second half en route to a 34-17 victory?
Colorado State comes into this matchup on the heels of a close 35-28 victory at home over Hawaii last Saturday night. The Rams rushed for 231 yards in the game, 218 of which were gained by running backs Kapri Bibbs and Donnell Alexander. Colorado State has won three of its last four contests.
This game will have a significant effect on the Mountain West Conference Mountain Division race, as both teams currently sit in the top half of the division standings.
To prepare for Saturday night’s matchup, here is a viewer’s guide to the game.
Time: 8 p.m. ET
Place: Hughes Stadium, Fort Collins, Colo.
TV: CBS Sports Network
Spread: As of Wednesday afternoon, the Broncos are favored over the Rams by seven points, according to Odds Shark.
Betting lines are subject to change.
Hold on to the Ball
Without a doubt, one can make the argument that the Broncos never really had a chance against BYU thanks to the four turnovers the team committed in the game.
The turnover affair was a complete team effort, with four different players (Grant Hedrick, Geraldo Boldewijn, Shane Williams-Rhodes, Jay Ajayi) responsible for losing the football against the Cougars. With 15 on the year, Boise State now ranks near the bottom of the conference in total turnovers.
Colorado State isn’t one of the top teams in the conference in turnover margin, but its defense is still fairly optimistic. The Rams rank right below conference leader Utah State for total takeaways this season, and after watching the film of last week’s game, they may be a bit more aggressive in trying to strip the ball from the Broncos.
Evident in the fact that Boise State had scored just 13 points heading into the fourth quarter of the BYU game, the Broncos cannot just give the ball away several times and expect to beat the Rams. Ball security will be important if Chris Petersen’s team is to avoid beginning a losing streak.
Don’t Get Pierced by the Horns
Figuratively, Colorado State’s horns are its two-pronged rushing attack led by running backs Kapri Bibbs and Donnell Alexander.
Four times this season the Rams have rushed for at least 200 yards in a single game, and each of those four games Colorado State has emerged victorious. The correlation is unmistakable: When the Rams gain yards on the ground, they usually win.
Boise State’s run defense has been better overall than its pass defense this season, but the Broncos were hurt equally by the pass and run last Friday night, surrendering over 200 yards on the ground and 300 yards through the air to BYU.
The Rams don’t pass much, and they certainly don’t have a dual threat at quarterback like Taysom Hill. So expect Colorado State to try to beat the Broncos at their own game. If Boise State’s defensive line isn’t up to the task of stopping Bibbs and Alexander (and sometimes a third running back, Chris Nwoke), it just might work.
Focus on the Present
Boise State has not suffered three losses in a season since 2007. In other words, no player on the current squad has previously experienced what almost anyone in Boise, Idaho, will describe as a mediocre season.
Despite the fact that Coach Petersen is one of the best at getting the most out of his players, mental toughness oftentimes is something that you cannot artificially create. This is a fairly young, inexperienced squad. Hopefully the players have the wherewithal to put last week’s ugly performance out of their minds and can focus on this week’s battle.
Not all is lost. If the Broncos can continue to win games, there is a good chance that the team will still end up in the inaugural Mountain West Conference Championship Game, where it may get the chance to play underdog to a currently undefeated Fresno State team.
The Broncos need to take everything one game at a time. With a learning quarterback, young defense and humbling loss last week, anything but that attitude puts Boise State in a position to drop another game.
And from here on out, it makes a difference with regard to conference position.
Control the Clock
In the only two meetings between these two teams, Colorado State has been pummeled by the Broncos 42-14 and 63-13. While the teams in 2013 are obviously different than the ones who played in those two matchups, the lopsided scores present a very important lesson that is still applicable to this year’s Rams.
Colorado State will not fare well in a shootout with the Broncos.
Grant Hedrick has shown in consecutive weeks that he is a capable replacement to the injured Joe Southwick. Hedrick can, and will, lead the Broncos down the field quickly with his arm and legs if he is given enough opportunities to do so.
The Rams would be much better off keeping the ball away from the Broncos and keeping Boise State’s defense on the field. If Colorado State can find a way to grind yards out on the ground and limit the Broncos’ offensive touches, it can keep the score close.
The Broncos turned the ball over four times and still managed to score 20 points against BYU. That should scare the Rams into trying to hang on to the football for as long as possible.
Play Until the Final Whistle Blows
In all but three of its games this season, Colorado State has been outscored by its opponent in the fourth quarter. In fact, in five games this season, the Rams have been held to less than a touchdown in the final quarter of regulation.
To beat Boise State, it will take a complete 60-minute effort by the Rams on both sides of the football. Since the Rams have clearly struggled on the offensive end in the final 15 minutes, we’ll focus on that.
Despite the recommendation to keep Boise State’s offense off of the field by controlling the clock, it may be in Colorado State’s best interest to take some chances offensively in the fourth quarter, especially if the game is close. With all of the issues the team has had near the finish line, going deep and hoping for the best once or twice in the fourth quarter might be the best option for the Rams, albeit the most risky as well.
At any rate, it is unlikely that the Rams will build a substantial lead and simply hang on versus the Broncos. They’ll have to put together a complete game to earn a victory.
Play Like Bullies
Colorado State’s strongest asset is its defensive line, which is made up of four seniors and a junior.
Not surprisingly, the Rams don’t allow quarterback Garrett Grayson to get sacked very much, and it’s easy to understand why the running game has been such a productive part of the offense this season.
The line will have its hands full against Boise State, however, as the Broncos have emerged as one of the better pass-rushing defenses in the conference, racking up 19 sacks already this year.
If Colorado State can establish itself in the trenches and the Broncos’ defensive front can’t gain any leverage, then the Rams will be able to do almost anything they want on offense. The running game will obviously be the first option, but if Grayson is protected, he should be able to find open receivers against Boise State’s struggling defensive secondary.
The big boys and true students of the game will love this one: For Colorado State, it all starts with the offensive line.
Shane Williams-Rhodes was emerging as a playmaker even before Grant Hedrick took over at quarterback, but with the redshirt junior more comfortable operating in the short passing game, the speedy sophomore may well become the focal point of the receiving game for the Broncos.
Williams-Rhodes hauled in 10 passes for 95 yards against BYU last week, five more than the next closest Bronco, Matt Miller.
Since the Rams have the worst pass defense in the MWC, expect Hedrick to continue to make strides in the passing game this weekend. As long as Williams-Rhodes proves he can hang on to the football (he was one of the four players who coughed it up last Friday), passes should come his way early and often.
The sophomore will also be a threat on special teams, where he has proven to be a capable punt returner this season.
The most talented player on Boise State’s defense leads the team in both sacks and tackles for loss this season. Luckily for the Broncos, Demarcus Lawrence has the ability to limit what Colorado State does best.
If Lawrence can get into the backfield, he will not only disrupt the running game but will make it difficult for Garrett Grayson to take advantage of Boise State’s defensive secondary.
However, this will be a difficult task for the junior defensive end. As mentioned earlier, Colorado State’s offensive line is one of the best at preventing the opposition from getting by it. Lawrence will need to create chaos if the Broncos want to have success stopping the Rams offense, though.
Creating defensive pressure will be the mantra for Boise State on Saturday night.
Boise State’s complete depth chart for the game can be found here.
Bibbs has locked down the No. 1 spot in what was perceived to be a crowded Colorado State backfield to begin the season.
The redshirt sophomore has gained 767 yards and rushed for 12 touchdowns, which puts him atop the conference alongside the Broncos’ Jay Ajayi in the latter category. What’s more impressive is that Bibbs is one of two players in the conference averaging over six yards per carry with at least 100 rushing attempts on the season.
It won’t be easy, but it would help the Rams immensely if Bibbs can keep up his high yards-per-carry average against Boise State. Chances are the running back will see plenty of action and will have a good chance to make it three straight games with at least 100 yards rushing.
Without Bibbs, Colorado State is not the same team offensively. He will be a major factor in determining how much success the team has on Saturday night.
The junior tight end, who was named to the Mackey Award Midseason Watch List, presents some matchup problems for Boise State’s defense.
At 6’4”, 245 pounds, Cartwright isn’t your typical target at receiver. But along with senior Crockett Gillmore, Colorado State’s tight ends have combined to make 38 catches for 552 yards, which accounts for an impressive 25.5 percent of the Rams’ total receptions this year.
If Colorado State opts to try to beat the Broncos through the air, expect Cartwright to be right in the thick of the action. His size makes him difficult to cover, and he has been particularly elusive in the end zone. His six touchdown catches leads the team.
Colorado State’s complete depth chart for the game can be found here.
Chris Petersen on Boise State’s fumbling woes, per Chadd Cripe of the Idaho Statesman:
I don’t think they should be fighting for extra yards. They (should) hit creases and go forward and try to fall forward. I don’t think guys should be dancing and pulling and spinning because bad things are going to happen. You watch Shane, who is a heck of a playmaker. He’s starting and stopping and looking great, but he gets very few extra yards.
Colorado State head coach Jim McElwain had an interesting way of pumping some motivation into his team with this comment, per Tom Kensler of The Denver Post:
I think Boise State beat us the last two years 638-4 or something. Do we show up Saturday? Because based on history, we don’t belong on the field with these guys. We might as well not even play the game.
Sophomore safety Darian Thompson, voicing the collective attitude in the Boise State locker room, per Cripe:
(Morale) is kind of down but we’re trying to pick it up. It’s not going to be easy. We don’t lose very often. When we do, we take it to the heart.
KTVB reporter Jay Tust brings up an interesting stat highlighting the Broncos’ slow starts this season:
Colorado State tight end Kivon Cartwright, echoing the sentiment that the Rams cannot falter late, per Dave Southorn of the Statesman:
We want to play a complete game, start to finish. We structure practice to go hard all four quarters, and we can’t have any letdowns. We know we can’t do that again this week.
Coach McElwain knows the crowd could be an advantage for the Rams:
Let's get this going: #FillHughes We need YOU at Hughes this Saturday night. Bring your friends, bring your costume, & bring some noise!!— Jim McElwain (@CoachMcElwain) October 30, 2013
Chris Petersen was not able to get his 100th win against BYU last week, but the odds suggested that it would have been surprising if he did.
This week, Boise State is back to being the favorite. Fans of the Broncos would be shocked to see the team drop two in a row, especially against a fellow Mountain West Conference opponent. Statistically, the Broncos are the superior team in almost every category.
However, what is already on paper cannot predict how a young team will react after a humbling defeat. If Boise State is to win this game, it will have had to shake off the effects of last week’s loss. Learn from the mistakes, but not dwell on them.
The Broncos will win this game. And it will be a testament of the growth of the team as a whole.
Prediction: 35-24 Boise State