Only two games remain for Kellen Moore and the 2011 Boise State Broncos football team. Both games are at home and both figure to be easy wins against outmatched competition.
Two weeks ago it looked like it may be a lost season for the Broncos after they were tripped up at home by TCU. Instead, the Broncos took care of business against San Diego State last week and saw a flurry of activity in the BCS standings as three teams ranked ahead of the Broncos went down to defeat last week.
After playing a series of non-conference games against Wyoming in the past few seasons, the Broncos welcome the Cowboys to Boise for their first Mountain West Conference matchup. The two teams met last season in Laramie where the Broncos came away with an easy victory, 51-6. Boise State out-gained the Cowboys 648-135 in the dominant performance with Moore racking up 370 yards through the air.
Wyoming has shown significant improvement in their third year under Dave Christiansen, however. True freshman quarterback Brett Smith grabbed the job when 2010 Mountain West Freshman of the Year Austyn Carta-Samuels left the team in the offseason. Smith is the ideal dual-threat quarterback to run Wyoming’s spread option offense.
Smith graduated early from West Salem HS in Salem, Oregon so he could enroll at Wyoming in January. The extra practice paid off as he won the job in the fall and hasn’t looked back. Smith has thrown for 2,226 yards with 15 touchdowns and just five interceptions. He is completing 61% of his passes with his most effective game being a 341 yard performance against San Diego State. He has added 518 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground as well and seems destined to be the second consecutive Wyoming quarterback to be named conference Freshman of the Year.
Alvester Alexander leads the running backs with 582 yards and has contributed five rushing touchdowns. Smith is the second leading rusher but the group suffered a big loss against TCU when Ghaali Muhammad went down with an injury. He was leading the team with 6.3 yards per carry before he got injured. Sophomore Brandon Miller has split time between running back and slot receiver but has shifted into the backfield full time since Muhammad went down.
The other big loss on offense was felt at wide receiver where Chris McNeill was also lost for the season with an injury, suffered last week against Air Force. McNeill had been leading the team in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. The three wideout system still has talent waiting in the wings, however.
Mazi Ogbonna, Robert Herron and Dominic Rufran are the starters and all have at least 300 receiving yards and two touchdowns. When the Cowboys go to their four receiver set, freshman Josh Doctson, a lanky freshman from Mansfield, TX, is usually their next option. Alexander and Miller out of the backfield are both threats in the passing game as well with 11 and 13 receptions, respectively.
The H-Back position at Wyoming is almost exclusively a blocking position as neither Mat Birkeness nor Riley Lange have recorded a reception or run with the ball this season. The H-Backs and tight ends are generally not a part of the game-planning, save for their abilities as blockers.
The offensive line is an experienced unit that struggled last season but has progressed this year as they have found more stability. Three seniors start along the line with tackles Clayton Kirven and John Hutchins joined by center Brandon Self. Nick Carlson started all 12 games at center last season before moving to right guard this year. Tyler Strong is a converted defensive tackle that has slotted into the left guard spot. There is experience behind them in juniors Josh Leonard and Kyle Magnuson and a pair of exciting youngsters in Travis Bogard and Daniel Fleischman.
Defensively, Wyoming has really struggled against the run but has made up for it with an opportunistic, turnover-forcing unit. The Cowboys have given up 230 yards per game on the ground but have forced 26 turnovers, including 17 forced fumbles. That could prove costly to a Bronco offense that has recently had trouble holding on to the ball.
Along the defensive line, the Cowboys are relatively small but have a lot of experience. All of the starters played extensively last season, led by defensive ends Josh Biezuns and Gabe Knapton. The senior duo has combined for 10 sacks and 15 tackles for loss. Biezuns also leads the team with five forced fumbles. The defensive tackles are Mike Purcell and Ben Durbin who have struggled to control the line of scrimmage and often get pushed around by bigger, more athletic offensive lines.
The linebackers are led by senior Brian Hendricks and a pair of juniors, Korey Jones and Luke Anderson. Hendricks is second on the team in tackles while Anderson has done some of his best work in pass defense, leading the team with eight pass breakups. Jones has been a pass-rushing threat from his middle linebacker spot as he is tied for second on the team with four sacks and has 5.5 tackles for loss. Devyn Harris has split time at the middle linebacker spot and is actually sixth on the team in tackles.
Luke Ruff and Tashaun Gipson are a pair of veteran safeties that are first and third on the team in tackles. Gipson also has two interceptions. The cornerbacks are freshman Blair Burns, who leads the team with three interceptions, and sophomore Marqueston Huff. Junior Kenny Browder and senior Eric Mitchell are the most experienced reserves in the secondary.
Freshman Daniel Sullivan has been solid in his opening season as the placekicker going 7-10 on field goals with a long of 48 yards. He doesn’t have an especially strong leg for kickoffs yet and should give the Boise State returners an opportunity to bring the ball out. Austin McCoy is having a disappointing season, averaging less than 40 yards per punt and has struggled with consistency.
The kick returners are led by Rufran and freshman Trey Norman and Burns has taken over for McNeill on the punt return unit. Both coverage teams have been very good, especially the punt cover team that is allowing only four yards per return.
Key injuries over the past two weeks could begin to slow the Cowboys offense down, especially since Smith is not 100% either. He will be a tough cover as he’s shown very good agility and speed as a runner but has enough of an arm to make defenses pay through the air. The Broncos have struggled mightily on defense the past two weeks, especially against the pass. They have given up at least 35 points in consecutive games for the first time since 2007 and have allowed over 800 passing yards in the past two weeks.
Freshmen Lee Hightower and Bryan Douglas will need to do a better job in coverage to allow the rest of the defense to do what they were doing earlier this season before the injury bug hit the secondary. Sophomore Quaylon Ewing-Burton has been inconsistent but will be counted on this week when Wyoming spreads out the Broncos.
Senior safeties Cedric Febis and George Iloka have had plenty of one-on-one matchups in the passing game as well but the biggest key for the Broncos will be the pass rush. They have struggled mightily to get to the quarterback since the early weeks of the season. Smith will be tough to track down but making him get outside the pocket to find receivers has to be a priority as both TCU’s Casey Pachall and San Diego State’s Ryan Lindley had far too much time in the pocket in the last two games.
The Bronco offense should be too much for the Cowboys, especially with both Doug Martin and D.J. Harper relatively healthy this week. The duo could each run for over 100 yards if the Broncos choose to feature the run.
Moore has had amazing success in the past few weeks despite defenses being able to key more on the pass rush with Martin and Harper dinged up. Senior receiver Tyler Shoemaker has been a star, catching 14 touchdown passes to tie Austin Pettis’ school record. Freshman Matt Miller and junior Mitch Burroughs have been the other go-to receivers but Moore has spread the ball around quite a bit, finding 11 receivers last week against the Aztecs.
Boise State has new life in the BCS this week and needs to prove their worthiness as an at-large team as it appears Houston will capture the non-BCS conference automatic bid as champions of Conference USA. An impressive showing this week could help sway voters back to the Broncos as so many other teams have failed to emerge as consistent, quality teams throughout the season.
If the Broncos can make the necessary adjustments to keep the receivers in front of them this week, they should be able to handle Wyoming’s offense, even with Smith playing his best football of the year. The offense is almost certainly too much for the Cowboy defense to account for.
Chris Petersen is also set to tie Tony Knapp as the winningest head coach in Boise State history with his 71st win against just six losses. While he won’t talk about the significance of that record, he will surely be happy to have it even if it simply means he got a win this week.
Final Score Prediction: Boise State 56, Wyoming 27