Boise State takes the field in San Diego Saturday night in a very unfamiliar position. After last week’s stunning loss to TCU, the Broncos are attempting to rebound from a loss for just the 3rd time in the past four seasons and only the 2nd time after a regular season loss.
The Broncos will try to slow down San Diego State without their top three cornerbacks and with the emotional loss against TCU still fresh in their minds. With seemingly very little to play for (they no longer have a chance to play in a BCS game and a very remote possibility of winning the Mountain West Conference title) they will need to dig down deep to try to bounce back.
The injury-ravaged secondary gave up 473 yards passing and five touchdowns last week to Horned Frogs quarterback Casey Pachall and will be without last week’s starters, Jamar Taylor and Ebo Makinde, both out with injuries. The Broncos are already missing their top cornerback in Jerrell Gavins who went down with a torn ACL in September.
In addition to the injuries at cornerback, the Broncos also felt the injury bug at running back where Doug Martin was forced to miss the TCU game with a knee injury and D.J. Harper limped off the field late in the 4th quarter as the Broncos were attempting to ice the game. Both are expected to play this week which should help keep the Aztecs defense honest.
The Aztecs themselves limp into this one with some major injury concerns. Sophomore running back Ronnie Hillman, the top runner in the Mountain West and second-leading rusher in the country, has a knee injury that leaves him questionable to play. Even if he is able to take the field, it will likely be without the explosiveness he normally exhibits. His backup, junior Walter Kazee, was lost for the season last week with a knee injury. The Aztecs are also without senior defensive captain J.J. Autele, who dislocated his elbow in the 18-15 win over Colorado State last week.
San Diego State does have plenty of remaining weapons, however, led by senior quarterback Ryan Lindley. Lindley is a big, strong-armed veteran who many feel may have a solid NFL future in front of him. He broke the school and conference records for passing yards in a career last week although he has been somewhat inconsistent this season. While putting up decent yardage numbers and throwing for 16 touchdown passes, Lindley has also completed over 60% of his passes in only two games this season.
Hillman is the straw that stirs the drink for the Aztecs offense but he suffered a high ankle sprain last week and if he plays at all it will be with limited effectiveness. With Kazee also sidelined, freshman Adam Muema becomes the top tailback option and he has played in only two games this season, rushing for 82 yards on 15 carries including 45 last week against the Rams.
There are four true freshmen behind the top three running backs and only Dwayne Garrett has played this year, carrying the ball five times for 17 yards. The Aztecs are not afraid to use their wide receivers and if Hillman can’t go, they will need to get creative in the running game. Fullback Chad Young has nine carries and a touchdown this year but is not generally considered to be much of a running threat. The fact is that the Aztecs will really be hurting if Hillman can’t go.
The receivers that Lindley has to throw to have been somewhat disappointing this season, specifically due to dropped passes and poor separation on their routes. The leader is sophomore Colin Lockett, a converted cornerback who has 34 catches for 589 yards and four touchdowns. He is joined in the starting lineup by Dylan Denso with 29 catches and 406 yards. There is very little quality depth behind the starters with only Osmond Nicholas and Marcus Russell catching more than three passes this year.
The Aztecs are in much better shape at tight end and will likely feature plenty of multiple tight end sets this week. Sophomore Bryce Quigley is the primary blocker while classmate Gavin Escobar is a big receiving threat. Escobar is tied with Denso as the 2nd leading receiver with 29 catches and leads the team with five touchdowns. With a lack of receiving threats and a potentially struggling running game, expect the Aztecs to feature the tight ends extensively in this one including their 3rd-string option Alston Umuolo who has chipped in with two touchdown catches this year.
The offensive line is a strength with four returning starters from last season including senior tackles Tommie Draheim and Kurtis Gunther. Alec Johnson starts at center and Nik Embernate is a returning starter at right guard who suffered a concussion two weeks ago and is questionable this week. They are joined by Emilio Rivera at left guard who is a first-year starter but two-year letterman with lots of experience. The offensive line is surprisingly healthy this late in the season and will need to perform well in pass protection as well as open up holes for an inexperienced group of runners.
The Aztecs suffered a big loss at defensive end last week as senior captain J.J. Autele was injured and will miss this game as well as the remainder of the season. He was replaced by freshman Dontrell Onuoha who lines up opposite senior Larry Gibbs. San Diego State does have a big force in the middle of the line with defensive tackle Jerome Long who is 2nd on the team in tackles for loss with seven and sacks with five. There is very little proven depth behind the starters.
The linebackers are in better shape with star Miles Burris on the outside. Burris leads the team with six sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss as he has been a playmaking machine. The Aztecs lost fellow outside linebacker Logan Ketchum to an injury but have senior Demetrius Barksdale ready to step in.
In the middle, freshman Jake Fely has stepped in and been solid, leading the team with three forced fumbles. In Head Coach Rocky Long’s system, the linebackers and safeties are somewhat interchangeable and will shift around pre-snap to give the offense multiple looks. This has been especially difficult for teams to throw on as the coverage is often difficult to read.
Like Boise State, the Aztecs feature a nickelback-like position and it is manned by sophomore Nat Berhe who is third on the team in tackles and also has two interceptions. His fellow safeties are a pair of sophomore classmates in Gabe Lemon and Marcus Andrews. Rene Siluano has also seen a lot of time this season and is listed as Berhe’s backup but plays all over the field.
The cornerbacks are led by senior Larry Parker, one of the top players in the conference. Parker has five interceptions this season to lead the team but isn’t afraid to make the hit either as he is tied for the team lead with three forced fumbles. He is joined by junior Leon McFadden who leads the group with eight pass breakups while intercepting two passes. Romeo Horn and King Holder are the top backups.
Lockett and Brandon Davis lead the kickoff return units and each has a touchdown this season. Davis is averaging over 30 yards on seven returns. The Aztecs have not had as much success with the return game as McFadden and Parker have combined for 17 returns and just 6.7 yards per return but the punt coverage units have been outstanding, holding teams to only 10 returns for an average of 4.7 yards. Juniors Mitch Burroughs and Chris Potter will try to challenge that this week.
The punter, senior Brian Stahovich, was a 1st-team All-MWC selection last season and looks likely to repeat the honor this year. He is averaging over 43 yards per punt and has knocked 13 of his 42 kicks inside the 20-yard line. Fellow senior Abelardo Perez handles the kicking duties and has struggled this season after being a 2nd-team All-MWC pick last year. He is just 4-11 on field goal attempts although he has a big leg that has led to 22 touchbacks this season.
At the beginning of the year, this looked like one of the biggest games on Boise State’s schedule but the Aztecs have sputtered a bit lately and have been hit by injuries as hard as the Broncos. With Hillman, they are a threat to pull the upset this week as he is an outstanding back. Without him, Lindley doesn’t have the weapons to take advantage of the Bronco secondary the way Pachall was able to last week.
A motivated Boise State team should handle San Diego State easily. If they can get better pressure on the quarterback, which has been a problem in recent weeks, they can relieve the secondary and hopefully not give up the big plays that doomed them a week ago. If Hillman were healthy this would be a much tougher job but in his absence, the team should be able to really get after Lindley and the receivers will need to make a lot of plays in order to keep moving the ball down the field.
Kellen Moore is facing a very talented secondary and will have a hard time winning battles against McFadden and Parker but could find holes in the short passing game. Martin and Harper, if close to 100%, should be able to run on the smaller Aztecs. Colorado State’s Chris Nwoke piled up 232 yards on them last week.
As long as there is no emotional hangover from the TCU game, Boise State should take care of business and win this game handily. Hillman is a difference maker and if he plays at anything less than 100%, and certainly if he misses the game entirely, the Broncos will not have the same defensive struggles they had last week.
Boise State may just be playing for a return trip to San Diego in the Poinsettia Bowl next month instead of a January trip to New Orleans for the Sugar Bowl but they still have pride and a lot of talent. This will not be the week they lose consecutive regular season games for the first time since 2005.
Final Score Prediction: Boise State 42, San Diego State 21