Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Boise State Preview

as posted on the Barkboard

It is the day Bulldog and Bronco fans, players, and coaches have been waiting for. After four straight years of defeat, Pat Hill and Fresno State hope to reverse the trend against Boise State on Thursday night November 10, 2005. In the biggest Western Athletic Conference game this decade both teams are unbeaten in conference play. ESPN will be on hand to broadcast the prime time game in High Definition for the country to witness.

Boise State considers Fresno State their biggest rival, but a rivalry would consist of two teams having equal success against each other. Will this be the year Fresno State can claim Boise State as a rival? In just over 24 hours everyone in Fresno and the nation will find out. The last four years as members of the WAC, the Broncos have had Hill’s and the Bulldogs number.

In 2001 the 8th ranked 6-0 Bulldogs were 16 point favorites over the 3-3 Broncos, but it didn’t matter. First year head coach Dan Hawkins with a first year starting quarterback, sophomore Ryan Dinwiddie, beat Hill and his BCS destined squad, 35-30, in front of an ESPN audience. It was Boise State first year in the WAC and Broncos went on finish the season 8-4 and tied for second in the conference with Fresno State.

In 2002 revenge was on the Bulldogs mind, but they didn’t come close to getting any. Despite being only 7 point underdogs, Fresno State was unable to get anything going offensively and was downright embarrassed. Ryan Dinwiddie, in his first game back from injury, had a career night passing for over 400 yards and 4tds and he did not even start the game. The 67-21 loss was a low point in Pat Hill’s coaching career, and it happened in front of an ESPN audience.

In 2003 Boise State had its best team to date under Hawkins, and probably the program’s history. The 9-1 Broncos only blemish on the year was a 26-24 loss at Oregon State. The 20th ranked Broncos entered Bulldog Stadium as an 8 point favorite and put on a clinic in front of an ESPN audience. Boise State jumped out to a 21-0 lead and was on cruise control the rest of the game. Fresno State was unable to mount any sort of a comeback in route to a 31-17 loss.

Last year the stage was set for a huge game, as both schools entered the top 25 in the month of September. The October 23 game was scheduled for an ESPN Saturday national telecast, the first for a WAC conference game since 2000. Rumors of ESPN’s Gameday doing a live remote from Boise for the game were flying around in late September. Then October came and Fresno State lost two straight WAC games. The game was just a blip on the national radar, as the 19th ranked Broncos won 33-16.

For 2005 some things are still the same from the last couple of years. One team enters the game ranked 20th in the country and an 8 point favorite. However, that team is Fresno State and not Boise State. For the first time since 2001 the Bulldogs are actually favored to beat the Broncos. Have the Broncos fallen off the wagon as the WAC favorite? In many eyes, yes, but Boise State is still the reigning three time WAC champions are in the midst of a league record 31 game winning streak in conference play.

Since the graduation of Ryan Dinwiddie in 2003, the athletic but sometimes erratic Jared Zabransky has led the Broncos to an 18-3 record, as the starting quarterback. Two of his losses were at the hands of top 13 teams, Louisville and Georgia, and the other on the road against a 2004 bowl team, Oregon State.

During the preseason Zabransky was touted for just about every major award, including the Heisman Trophy. His season started on a bad note with a 6 turnover performance in the first half against Georgia. He did not play in the second half of the Broncos 48-13 loss.

Boise State entered 2005 ranked in the preseason top 25 for the first time in the program’s history. The loss at Georgia dropped the Broncos from the national rankings and from the national spotlight. Zabransky got the brunt of the blame for the humiliating loss, but he was not totally to blame. Hawkins got out coached at Georgia, which rarely happens.

As good as Zabransky is he is no where near the passer of a Ryan Dinwiddie. Last year the Broncos were closer to an 8-3 season than many realize, but Hawkins coached teams find a way to win ball games. The following week after the Georgia debacle, the Broncos rebounded and were very close to winning at Oregon State.

“They [Boise State] came out against a very tough opposition but since then they have been on a steady climb,” Hill said.

“They are playing at a very high level right now."

Since their 0-2 start, Boise State has won seven games in a row and is back to its usual self, atop the WAC. This year they have company. For the time in the program’s history Fresno State is 5-0 in WAC play. This is the first time both schools will meet with first place in the WAC at stake.

“They [Fresno State] have been on mind since last year because I knew they were going to have a good team,” said Boise State defensive tackle Alex Guerrero.

“After you beat a team like we beat Fresno last year, they’re always going to want to come back and get you.”

After so many years of disappointment this is the year Bulldog fans have been pointing to for Fresno State to finally win an outright WAC title. Be known to the rest of the nation, Fresno State is not the giant killer when it comes to conference titles. In order for the Bulldogs to get their first WAC title since 1999 they must beat Boise State.

In a year when the Broncos are not quite the dominant force of years past and Fresno State has its best team ever, a Bulldog win just might happen.

Boise State has the best rushing offense in the WAC averaging 219 yards per game. Their offense is also tops in the conference averaging 446.2 yards per game. Zabransky has rebounded from his 4 interceptions against Georgia to average 207 yards passing per game with a 63 percent completion percentage. He has thrown 15 touchdowns and only 6 interceptions in his last eight games. Fresno State’s pass defense will be his toughest test since the opening week against Georgia.

San Jose State had some success last week against the vaunted Bulldog rush defense, gaining 211 yards. Boise State’s rush attack is brutally tough and is accomplished by committee. Running backs Ian Johnson and Lee Marks each have over 500 yards on the ground. The loss of touchdown machine Jon Helmondollar has not hurt their goal line offense. Running back Antwaun Carter and Zabransky have picked up the slack with nine and eight rushing touchdowns, respectively.

Boise State has yet to have a receiver step up and become the go to guy like T.J. Acree of a year ago. Converted quarterback Legedu Naanee could be that guy. Naanee is third on the team with 24 receptions but leads the Broncos with 352 receiving yards and 6 touchdown receptions. Drisan James has not been the breakout receiver many expected in the preseason, but still leads the team in receptions.

All everything tight end Derek Schouman and running back Jeff Carpenter each is capable of creating mismatches all over the field. Neither one is has eye popping stats, but both are veteran players in the Bronco offense. Zabransky will look their way if the team needs a key third down or as a safety valve.

Defensively the Boise State philosophy is simple. They will stack eight or nine in the box and will force their opponent to beat them with the pass. All three of the Broncos starting linebackers rank among the top four on the team in tackles. 6-1 228 lb middle linebacker Korey Hall is the leader of the defense. He is anchored on the outside by leading tackler Chris Barrios and Colt Brooks.

Cornerback Orlando Scandrick has been the biggest surprise this season in the defensive secondary. The 5-11 174 lb true freshman has assumed the starting spot opposite shut down corner Gerald Alexander. Free safety Marty Tadman has a staggering 67 tackles on the season, which ranks second on the team.

Fresno State has not faced a defense this good statistically since Virginia last year. The Broncos pride themselves on the stopping the run and that is what they did last year against the Bulldogs. Fresno State averaged just over one yard per carry last year in Boise.

Fresno State’s passing game awoke last week against San Jose State, and it must continue to do well if the Bulldogs expect to beat the Broncos. If Fresno State is unable to pass the ball to soften up the defense, the run game could suffer the same fate it has against Boise State in the past.

A not so healthy Paul Pinegar has not had great success last two years against the Broncos. The senior quarterback is having the best year of his career and a win over Boise State will along with the win at Hawaii will give him accomplishments unparalleled by any other Bulldog quarterback.

Win or lose Boise State is probably headed to the MPC Computers Bowl, and the six other bowl representatives that will be in attendance will have their eyes on the Bulldogs. Win over Boise State will not send shockwaves across the country like a win over USC would, but ask any Fresno State player or coach and they will tell you the Broncos are the game of the year, not the Trojans.

With the new found focus, home field advantage, and a healthy Pinegar all signs point to a Bulldog win. Florida State beat Miami, Texas beat Oklahoma, and Fresno State will finally beat Boise State. The only question is by how much. A one point win over Boise State will mean more to this team than a ten point win over USC. My fearless prediction is Bulldogs 38, Boise State 27.

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