A couple of nationally-ranked programs from outside the powerful BCS take center stage at the 19th annual Las Vegas Bowl, as the 10th-ranked Boise State Broncos clash with the 20th-ranked Utah Utes from Sam Boyd Stadium in Sin City.
Once again the Broncos were a threat to the sanctity of the college football bowl system, at least as far as the BCS was concerned, but luckily for the establishment Boise State failed to complete the perfect season and that is why the squad now finds itself relegated to this event in Nevada.
Boise State ran through the regular season with 11 consecutive wins and was among the top five in both the AP poll and the BCS rankings as it possessed both one of the most aggressive offenses in the country, and a defense that few opponents could penetrate. But it all came crashing down for the Broncos on November 26th in Reno when missed field goals near the end of regulation and in overtime left the team with a 34-31 loss to nationally-ranked Nevada. The most anticipated game on the Western Athletic Conference schedule and it came down to kicker Kyle Brotzman and two make-able field goals that went astray. Not only did the miscues bring threats of harm and far-reaching resentment for Brotzman, it also gave the BCS the out they were looking for as BSU head coach Chris Petersen made it clear that there were a number of plays that could have decided the outcome in favor of his squad.
As for the Utes, they too were one of the hottest teams in the nation early on in the campaign with eight straight wins out of the box, finishing 10-2 overall and 7-1 versus the rest of the Mountain West Conference. However, Utah showed more than just a few cracks in the armor on November 6th when the team hosted TCU and was run out of the building in a 47-7 final. The devastating setback certainly raised more than a few eyebrows as people began to wonder what the true identity of this top-10 team really was.
A week later a trip to South Bend made it even more clear that Utah had been the beneficiary of some weak competition on the early part of the schedule as the Notre Dame Fighting Irish beat the Utes soundly in a 28-3 final. Seven days later the Utes were again on trial, this time at San Diego State, and again the program nearly rolled over and died before slipping by with a 38-34 victory. Add a narrow 17-16 win over a resurgent BYU group and Utah is making its eighth straight bowl appearance.
The Utes, who have a record of 12-4 in bowl games dating back to a 26-0 beating of New Mexico in the 1939 Sun Bowl, have won nine consecutive postseason dates and that's the longest active streak in the nation and tied for the second-longest of all-time. Last year, the team defeated California in the Poinsettia Bowl in San Diego by a score of 37-27 under head coach Kyle Whittingham. Prior to Whittingham's ascension to the top spot in the coaching ranks, Utah also won this same Las Vegas Bowl in 1999 and 2001 against Fresno State (17-16) and USC (10-6), respectively.
"We are very excited about our invitation to play in the MAACO Las Vegas Bowl," said coach Whittingham after the Utes accepted the invitation. "It's been a while since we have played a bowl game in Las Vegas and our players and coaches are looking forward to the opportunity. We are proud to represent the Mountain West Conference in its top bowl game and anticipate a strong turnout by our fans."
At 6-4 the Broncos don't have that much of a bowl pedigree, but when you consider that record dates back to just 1999 one has to be impressed with the program's consistency in making it to the postseason in the first place. Last season the team was pitted against another non-BCS squad in TCU and captured a hard-fought 17-10 battle in the Fiesta Bowl. A year earlier the Broncos lost to the same Horned Frogs group, 17-16, in the Poinsettia Bowl.
With respect to an all-time series between these two squads, Boise State has won four of the previous six encounters. The most recent of those meetings took place on September 30, 2006 with the Broncos generating a 36-3 win for their third straight over the Utes.
During much of the 2010 season the Utah offense was unrivaled, scoring at will against defenseless opponents who couldn't get out of the way fast enough. However, in crunch time the Utes experienced a power outage as they scored a combined 27 points in three games against TCU, Notre Dame and BYU during the final month of the regular season. Quarterback Jordan Wynn had some rough outings for the group, yet he still finished the campaign by completing better than 62 percent of his pass attempts for 233.4 ypg and 17 TDs, against 10 interceptions on 299 attempts.
Jereme Brooks and DeVonte Christopher were the big outlets for Wynn as they combined to make 89 catches for 1,288 yards and 10 touchdowns, but it was really the efforts of Eddie Wide and Matt Asiata coming out of the backfield that dictated what the passing attack was able to accomplish. Wide finished with 11 TDs and close to five yards per carry as he split time with Asiata who returned with 673 yards and eight TDs of his own.
Defensively, the Utes placed second in the conference and eighth in the nation in terms of run defense, holding opponents to just 104.2 ypg, but a lot of that had to do with the fact that opponents were having to play from behind so often and couldn't afford to waste time on the clock. In fact, against two of the toughest running teams in the nation (Air Force and TCU) the Utes gave up a combined 387 yards and four touchdowns in back-to-back games.
Boise State's offense might not run exclusively, but being ranked 24th in the nation and second in the WAC with 200.1 ypg means that the Broncos can certainly do damage in that mode and the Utes will have to prepare for such an attack. The newest in a line of tough-nosed running backs for BSU, Doug Martin ran for 1,113 yards and 11 TDs, averaging six yards per attempt. In Addition, Jeremy Avery also reprised his role as one of the most elusive runners around as he turned in 440 yards and added 11 TD runs as well.
But make no mistake, this Boise State offense rests in the capable hands of junior signal-caller Kellen Moore who was not only named the WAC Co-Offensive Player of the Year, he was also invited to New York to take part in the Heisman Trophy festivities (he finished fourth in the voting). Moore was second in the nation in passing efficiency with a 185.04 rating as he threw for 3,506 yards and 33 touchdowns with just five interceptions. As a starter, Moore is now 37-2 in three seasons and for his efforts he's been named the WAC's Freshman of the Year in 2008, and was the WAC Offensive Player of the Year last season.
But with so much attention being given to Moore and an offense that ranks second in the nation in scoring with 46.7 ppg, it is easy to forget that Boise State also has one of the stingiest defenses in all of college football, limiting foes to just 13.6 points and 259.3 total yards per game, both of which rank the team fourth in the nation. Ryan Winterswyk earned most of the attention heading into and during the season as he logged seven tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks, but because he was on the scouting report for every opponent, that opened the door for teammates like Tyrone Crawford who tallied a team-high 13 TFLs and accounted for 6.5 sacks, and Shea McClellin who made the most of his 26 overall stops by recording a team-best 8.5 sacks. Wrap it all up and Boise State was first in the nation with 3.75 sacks per game and second in TFLs with 8.3 per outing.
For Winterswyk, a senior, this last outing is bittersweet given all he has accomplished during his time in Idaho and he expressed that following the team's win over Utah State in the regular-season finale.
"At the beginning no [I couldn't envision this career]. I remember my first game watching on the blue and I remember wishing I could get in and play; something just to get in there. I'm blessed with the opportunity to play quite a bit. I've had a blast."
Winterswyk and his fellow seniors now get one last chance at glory as they settle in against Utah, an opponent that had some issues down the stretch. Expect the defense for the Broncos to ramp up the effort and try to show that they too can take down the Utes just like the Horned Frogs and Fighting Irish.
PREDICTION: Boise State has to avoid the type of hangover we've seen from teams in the past when they are playing in a bowl game they feel is beneath them. There is little doubt that the Broncos are one of the top-5 teams in the country, and a road loss to a ranked opponent should not have hurt them so badly, but that is the environment in college football today.
Having watched Utah get crushed by T.C.U. earlier in the year, and believing the Boise State is a better football team, I think the Broncos get it done.
Boise State 40 - Utah 17