The Boise State Broncos waited 15 days before they had an opportunity to atone for a season-opening loss to Michigan State. The Broncos have only four days between their Saturday win against Miami (OH) and a matchup with BYU on Thursday at Bronco Stadium.
The Broncos are coming off of a 39-12 win in which they piled up 599 yards of offense and held Miami’s offense in check as they won their 11th straight home opener. Boise State also vaulted back into the Associated Press top 25 poll after a one-week hiatus, checking in at 24th, three spots behind the position BYU found itself in prior to last week’s loss to Utah.
BYU fought back against rival Utah but ultimately fell 24-21 as two 4th quarter touchdowns were not enough to overcome a 17-point deficit. After an impressive season-opening win against Washington State and an easy 45-13 win over Weber State, the Cougars were sloppy on the road at Utah, fumbling the ball five times and committing a season-high 12 penalties. They will need to clean up their play considerably if they want to become just the third team in 12 seasons to beat Boise State on the blue turf.
The Broncos won both previous matchups between the two schools but that series is about to get much more engaging as the teams embark on a 12-game set that will see the two play every season between now and 2023. The last time the teams met, Boise State eked out a 28-27 win in 2004 on their way to an undefeated regular season.
Neither head coach was at their post when the teams last met although Chris Petersen was the offensive coordinator of the Jared Zabransky-led juggernaut and Bronco Mendenhall was the defensive coordinator that would take over the following year, 2005, for embattled coach Gary Crowton. Mendenhall has posted an outstanding 65-28 record over seven seasons at the helm yet pales in comparison to the 74-7 mark that Petersen has in his six-plus seasons with the Broncos.
While the two coaches are no strangers, in fact they are close friends, there is another familiar face in this rivalry. BYU senior quarterback was a freshman at Utah State in Boise State’s 2006 Fiesta Bowl season and was at the helm as the Broncos smashed the Aggies 45-10 in the final game of the regular season. Nelson rushed for 45 yards and completed just 6-15 passes for 40 yards and an interception. He has come a long way since, going on a mission to Spain before transferring to BYU. He played as a sophomore before missing the majority of the 2010 season with a shoulder injury. He lost his starting job to super-recruit Jake Heaps but regained the job midway through last season, forcing Heaps to transfer to Kansas.
Nelson is the unquestioned leader of the Cougars and an upset of Boise State will be riding on his left arm. He has completed 60% of his passes, averaging 245 yards per game with five touchdowns on the season. Senior James Lark has connected on 7-10 passes and a touchdown in relief while Pocatello freshman Taysom Hill has also seen action as the third quarterback, including two rushing touchdowns.
The Cougar running game has not put up big numbers this season. They are led by junior Michael Alisa who has 163 yards and a touchdown through three games. Freshman Jamaal Williams has been the primary backup and has the only other touchdown recorded by a running back this season. David Foote and Iona Pritchard have split time at the fullback spot with Foote being more of the running threat and Pritchard a more developed blocker.
BYU has a very talented pass-catcher among its deep, talented receiving corps. Cody Hoffman has piled up 18 catches over three games for 281 yards and a pair of touchdowns as he has become Nelson’s favorite target. The 6’4” junior is a difficult matchup for any cornerback and will have a distinct size advantage over Boise State’s trio of top corners. Slot receiver JD Falslev and junior walk-on Skyler Ridley each have seven catches through three games.
One disappointment thus far has been sophomore Ross Apo. The 6’3” 206lb Apo recorded 34 catches and a freshman-record nine touchdowns last season but has only four catches for 31 yards so far this season while missing the Weber State game with an injured hamstring. He will need to step up and take pressure off of Hoffman if the Cougars want to move the ball against an experienced Boise State secondary. Marcus and Mitch Mathews, brothers out of Beaverton, OR, provide big targets for the Cougars as well.
Junior tight end Kaneakua Friel has emerged as a big-time receiving threat with 15 catches and four touchdowns through three games. The Cougars have depth at tight end as well with last year’s starter Austin Holt and sophomore Devin Mahina.
Right tackle Braden Brown leads the offensive line and has 29 consecutive starts at the position. He is joined on the right side by sophomore guard Brock Stringham who saw action in eight games a year ago. At center is sophomore Blair Tushaus who is playing in place of the injured Houston Reynolds, out for the season with an achilles tendon injury. Next to Tushaus at left guard is the most experienced Cougar lineman, Braden Hansen. Hansen was at right guard last season and has started all 42 games in his BYU career. Rounding out the starting five at left tackle is huge freshman Ryker Mathews.
The Cougar defense has been especially impressive this year and currently has a nine-game streak in which they have held opponents to fewer than 300 yards of total offense. That should be severely tested by the Broncos who compiled nearly twice that number last week alone.
Mendenhall’s 3-4 defense is led by senior defensive end Eathyn Manumaleuna. The experienced Manumaleuna has started every game in his career and thus far has two sacks and four tackles for loss on the young season. At the other defensive end spot, Ian Dulan has been nursing a back injury and is unlikely to play. In his place will be Russell Tialavea with depth provided by Ezekial Ansah and Mike Muehlmann.
At nose tackle, 6’2” 321lb Romney Fuga has started all three games after starting 12 last year. He will be spelled by walk-on senior Simote Vea. Others who could see action on the defensive line are Bronson Kaufusi and Remington Peck.
The strength of the BYU defense is in a pair of standout linebackers. Outside linebacker Kyle Van Noy gets much of the hype, and deservedly so, with 4.5 sacks, 7.5 tackles for loss and a pair of forced fumbles through three games. He is an outstanding prospect who will likely play on Sundays when his BYU career is over. However, the glue of the BYU defense is inside linebacker Brandon Ogletree. He leads the team with 27 tackles and makes the defensive calls. He is joined on the inside by Uona Kaveinga who has 12 tackles to go with a fumble recovery and an interception. Also starting on the outside is junior Spencer Hadley who has been a playmaker in his first season as a starter. Hadley has 3.5 sacks and five tackles, behind only Van Noy in both categories.
Uani Unga, Alani Fua and Manoa Pikula are the primary reserve linebackers who will see action against Boise State and they will be tasked with contain a revived Bronco running game as well as neutralizing the Boise State short passing game.
A veteran secondary is led by senior cornerback Preston Hadley. Hadley was top 10 in the nation last year in pass breakups and has been utilized as a blitzing corner as well as in coverage this season. Starting across from Hadley is Jordan Johnson, who has one of only two Cougar interceptions this year to go with a team-high three pass breakups. Robbie Buckner and Micah Hannemann are the primary reserves at cornerback.
Junior Daniel Sorenson and senior Joe Sampson man the safety spots and are tied for 4th on the team with 16 tackles apiece. Both are playmakers who find themselves around the ball with great frequency. Mike H ague and Craig Bills have appeared in all three games as well and provide solid depth as well as a special teams presence.
The BYU kicking game is in a precarious position as regular kicker Justin Sorensen and primary punter Riley Stephenson both missed potential game-tying kicks in the final seconds against Utah. Sorensen has been struggling with injuries and while he has kicked off throughout the year, his only attempt of a placekick thus far was the failed 51-yard attempt that was blocked by Utah in the final seconds. Given a chance at redemption after a penalty was called when Ute fans rushed the field, Stephenson them missed a 36-yard try off the upright to preserve the Utah win.
Stephenson has become the primary kicker this season while also holding down punting duties. He is currently having an outstanding year as a punter, hitting for an average of over 47 yards per kick and has also nailed 4-6 field goal attempts.
The return game is led by Falslev on punt returns, averaging over 20 yards on five returns, and Hoffman at kick returner where he excelled a season ago. The coverage units have been fairly good as they have held opponents under 20 yards per return on kicks although Stephenson occasionally outkicks his coverage as opponents have a 13-yard average on punt returns.
Neither team is as comfortable in the kicking game as they should be and there are other similarities between the teams as well. The quarterbacks are on opposite ends of the experience spectrum but while Nelson has been harassed this year and has a troublesome back, Southwick is one of only four quarterbacks who has yet to be sacked this season. The team that protects their man the best may have the best chance to win. Both running games have potential but both are facing teams with solid run defense.
While the Cougars have not allowed a team to record 300 yards of offense since midway through last season, the Broncos are rarely held anywhere near that number. It was only two games ago, however, that Boise State failed to reach that total and the Cougars may choose to mimic the Michigan State defense and stack defenders up against the run and force Southwick to beat them with his arm. He was able to do just that to Miami (OH) last week but an experienced BYU secondary may be a different animal.
Still, the Broncos almost never lose at home and it takes a special team to come in and knock them off, especially given the momentum they created from their 2nd half performance on Saturday. At the same time, BYU was stomach-punched with their heartbreaking loss to rival Utah and it remains to be seen how they will bounce back. Both defenses are underrated and have a chance to put their mark on the game, especially if they can force a timely turnover or two.
Final Score Prediction: Boise State 31, BYU 20