Bishop Sankey will be a key to success for the Huskies - William Mancebo
After a bit of a break, it's time for the final prediction for the season for the Huskies as they take on Boise State in the Maaco Las Vegas Bowl tomorrow. While the Broncos have taken a step back with the graduation of QB Kellen Moore, they remain an extremely well-coached team under Chris Petersen and have already notched their 7th straight 10-win season under his watch. Can the Huskies prove Pac-12 superiority, or will the Broncos take down another BCS program?
First, a recap of our previews this week:
Any fan of the Boise State Broncos that has read my comments here probably knows that I've considered them over rated in recent years. Despite the terrific record they racked up under QB Kellen Moore (50-3), including a perfect 14-0 in 2009, I've never felt they deserved to be in consideration for the BCS Championship Game - I just don't think their schedules have been vigorous enough. It probably traces back to 1984 when an undefeated BYU team finished #1 over an 11-1 Husky team, despite a wide gap between the difficulty of their respective schedules.
However, don't mistake that stance with me thinking that the Broncos aren't a very good football program under Chris Petersen - they are. He's done a fantastic job of mining the recruiting ranks and turning 3-star recruits into 5-star players. They currently have 18 players on NFL rosters (compared to 12 for Washington) so clearly they are doing something right. While many fans know about their offense with guys like Kellen Moore & Doug Martin leading the way and remember their trick plays vs. Oklahoma in their thrilling win over Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl, the real secret to their sustained success has been their defense. Here's how they've ranked according to the Football Outsiders FEI metric (which takes into account strength of schedule):
- 2012: 19th
- 2011: 21st
- 2010: 17th
- 2009: 11th
- 2008: 12th
- 2007: 61st
Other than the outlier of 2007, that's a remarkable run considering the recruiting talent they typically bring in. I first became aware of (and a fan of) Justin Wilcox while watching the Broncos shut down Oregon in Chip Kelly's debut as a head coach, and when I dived into the numbers, I became very impressed. Even after Wilcox moved on to Tennessee in 2010, the Broncos have continued to roll defensively.
They also consistently produce strong running games, with only one season under Petersen under 172 ypg. In fact, when you look at them closely there's a lot of big picture resemblance to the Huskies under Don James - strong defenses, consistent running games, well coached QB's, excellent records in games where the coaches have extra time to prepare. In short, there's a reason why, every time there's an opening at a BCS school with any kind of football ambition, they daydream about poaching away Chris Petersen.
So what about this game? Well, the good news is that the Broncos aren't quite as good this year as they've been in the past. They've lost 2 games this season after losing only 3 combined over the previous four seasons, and they haven't been dominating the scoreboard this year the way they did under Moore at QB. Against the one mutual opponent they share with the Huskies - San Diego State - they lost at home 19-21 while the Huskies won at home 21-12. And in the only prior match-up this season with a BCS foe, they lost on the road to a 6-6 Michigan State team.
The bad news is, they're a good team and they are strong in a number of areas where the Huskies are weak: Their pass rush ranks tied for 14th in the country, while their pass protection ranks 7th. Their pass efficiency defense also ranks 7th, and their rush offense ranks 51st in ypg, but their 4.7 ypc ranks 43rd. And while their pass defense is their strength, their rush defense isn't a pushover, ranking 40th in ypg and 22nd in ypc.
To beat them, the defense is going to have to keep the Boise State running under control and keep their passing game confused and turnover prone. The Huskies are unlikely to put up a lot of points, so the defense is going to be under a lot of pressure to keep the Broncos out of the end zone and get them off the field on 3rd downs. The offense is going to need to establish a run game with Bishop Sankey to take some pressure off of Keith Price, and Austin Sefarian-Jenkins & Kasen Williams are going to have to use their physical advantages to create mismatches and give KP reliable targets. The offensive line is going to have to have a strong game keeping heat off of KP long enough for play-action to work, and to open holes for Sankey.
Best-case scenario, the Huskies get off to an uncharacteristically strong start, scoring a TD on their first possession and force a couple of 3-and-outs against the Broncos and add a 2nd score early to build confidence and establish a strong mindset. The pass defense forces Joe Southwick into multiple interceptions resulting in big returns and great field position, and KP is able to take advantage with well-executed play-action and finding some daylight in front of him. With a sizable lead, the defense is able to focus on pass and pin their ears back to get after Southwick, and Josh Shirley repeats his big game in last year's Alamo Bowl. The Huskies throw down the gauntlet for next year's opening game with a surprisingly easy 31-10 win.
Worst-case scenario, all the bugaboos we've seen out of this team rear their ugly heads again - a slow start out of the gate, sloppy play with several penalties wiping out good plays and the offense getting careless with the ball. The well-coached Broncos take advantage and build off of each mistake, and the Huskies panic and see the game snowballing away from them. The defense plays well enough to prevent a laugher, but Boise State cruises 38-13.
So how do I see it going down? I think it's going to be a defensive game, with both offenses struggling to extend drives. I think turnovers and special teams will take on extra importance, and in this regard I think Washington has an edge with superior athletes and an opportunistic defense. That's not to say that KP won't be subject to turnovers too - he's going to get hit by the Bronco defensive ends, and their corners are excellent. But I do think that the Huskies will be able to get a running game going eventually and give KP some opportunities downfield. It won't be a sexy win, and it won't be by much, but it will be a good win. Huskies 20, Boise State 17