Saturday, August 31, 2013

Broncos and Huskies Set To Battle In Seattle

People are calling tonight’s game between Boise State and Washington “the rubber match”, yet Boise State has yet to see a game in Bronco Stadium in this series.  Yep, one of the games was on a neutral field in Las Vegas, and the other two?  Right in the comfy confines of Husky Stadium in Seattle.  Washington has lost games on their home turf (1 last year, 2 in 2011, 3 in 2010 and 2 in 2008); it’s just that none of their conquerors have been named Boise State.

The Broncos lost the first game of the series in Seattle in 2007, mainly because they couldn’t punch it in from red zone territory, seeing their running game bottled up near the goal line and focusing on one receiver despite that receiver drawing double and triple teams. 

On paper, position by position, Boise State is considerably better than that 2007 team, but so is Washington.  However, the key to victory for the Broncos is much the same:  they must score touchdowns in the red zone.  So how has Boise State addressed the needs exposed in 2007 and what is the outlook for red zone scoring?

Admittedly, the Boise State offensive line is young, but I believe it will be one of the best in school history—we’ll see.  Charles Leno Jr. returns for his senior year before he heads on to the NFL to become yet another star tackle from Boise State.  But before he moves on, he’ll need to be the rock the Bronco line can build on.  Leno (6-4, 295) will be joined by seniors Matt Paradise (6-3, 200) at center and Spencer Gerke (6-3, 303) at guard.  At the other two spots—this is where the youth comes in. 

Guard Marcus Henry (6-3, 285) and tackle Rees Odhiambo (6-4, 307) are both sophomores but are solid.  Keep in mind Henry was recruited by Washington after he had committed to Boise State—they tried to steal him away but nothing doing.  Henry was voted the Kingco Conference Offensive Lineman of the Year and helped Bellevue (Washington) win consecutive state titles in 2009 and 2010.  Henry beat out another promising line prospect—Mario Yakoo (6-3, 323, Fr.) to win the job at right guard.

Odhiambo is starting ahead of the tackle (Jake Broyles) who started in last year’s season opener at Michigan State.  Odhiambo, a native of Kenya, only played football for two years before landing at perennial Top 15 power Boise State.  Coaches like his flexibility and agility and above all, with just the two years of football prior to coming to Boise, the extremely talented Bronco coaches can mold him exactly how they want.  So lest anyone think these youngsters are starting because there aren’t talented challengers, think again.  Great things are expected from these two in the next three years.

Joe Southwick (6-1, 202) returns for his senior season as the starter at quarterback, after completing 70% of his passes over the last seven games last fall.  The word out of training camp is that the game has slowed down for Joe, and his play in August has his teammates raving about the progress he has made.

Jay Ajayi (6-0, 220) compiled one of the most impressive campaigns ever for a Boise State freshman running back last season, smashing a school record for yards per carry with 6.7.  He didn’t get a huge load (82 carries for 548 yards), but made the most of his touches, and he has Bronco fans as excited as, well, the last Bronco back to make the NFL—Doug Martin.  Jack Fields (5-9, 195, So.), Aaron Baltazar (5-10, 215, Fr.) and transfer Derrick Thomas (6-0, 208, Jr.) give amazing depth at the running back spot.  Boise State will not officially have a fullback position, even though they like that formation.  Bronco coach Chris Petersen and his staff believe they can utilize their tight ends in that spot without missing a beat.

Speaking of tight ends, Boise State is thrilled to have Gabe Linehan (6-4, 238, Sr.) back this season after missing most of last season.  He’s one guy the Huskies have yet to see, and Linehan gives Southwick a great target, plus another receiver who can collect yards after the catch.  But sophomore Holden Huff (6-5, 236) filled in superbly for Linehan last year (17 catches for 250 yards and 4 touchdowns), and he should play plenty this fall.

At the outset, I said that one of the main reasons Boise State lost to Washington in 2007 was the focus on one receiver.  While that was the result of one of the most talented receiving trios in school history on the 2006 Fiesta Bowl team all graduating (Legedu Naanee, Drisan James and Jerard Rabb), that won’t be the case this time.  Sure, dependable Matt Miller (6-3, 222, Jr.) is the main receiver will probably get his 60+ catches for 800 yards, but he has plenty of help.  Seniors Geraldo Boldewijn (6-4, 220) and Aaron Burks (6-3, 205) are big, experienced, and both had spectacular camps—they will both see lots of action at the “Z” Receiver spot. 

Kirby Moore (6-3, 208) is another guy that just does his job—runs the proper route, helps out his quarterback, catches everything he touches, and doesn’t make mistakes.  He will be backed up by freshman sensation Shane Williams-Rhodes (5-6, 157, So.), who not only will see more playing time on the Bronco offense in a variety of ways, but coaches want to put the ball in his hands for both punt and kickoff returns.

As for the Boise State defense, they are the biggest difference between 2007 and 2013.  The current members of the Bronco “D” have transformed the unit from “solid” to deep and talented.  If I can offer just one criticism—the defense has yet to be dominating or consistent.  They bottled up most every team they faced, but gave up huge chunks of yards on the ground to Le’Veon Bell of Michigan State, Washington’s Bishop Sankey and unheralded New Mexico.  So while they ranked as one of the Top 10 defenses statistically, until they can be consistent for four quarters each and every game and  be able to “take over a game”, you won’t hear many football prognosticators call them “one of the Top 10 defenses in the nation”.

That said, the improvement from the 2007 Washington game is stunning.  Demarcus Lawrence (6-3, 245, Jr.) is one individual that the word “dominating” applies to.  Lawrence will be one of the better defensive ends in the country this year.  Kharyee Marshall is slated to be his running mate, and what he lacks in size (6-2, 240), Marshall more than makes up for in quickness.  It doesn’t matter how big an offensive lineman is if he can’t keep up with Marshall.  Beau Martin (6-2, 271, Jr.) and Sam McCaskill (6-3, 240, Fr.) have both coaches and fans excited about what they can do.

Ricky Tjong-A-Tjoe (6-3, 300, Sr.) fits the nose tackle position to a tee—he plugs it the hole with that wide body.  Tyler Horn (6-5, 265, Jr.) has played both defensive line positions, and he has won the job at the other DT thanks to his effort and performance.  Armand Nance (6-0, 288, So.) is another talented tackle, and Justin Taimatuia (6-0, 281, Jr.) provides depth.

Blake Renaud (6-2, 243, Jr.) has bided his time waiting to start, and 2013 is his time.  The sharp, dependable, hard-hitter from one of America’s top high school football programs (De La Salle in California) is ready to go in the middle linebacker spot.  Tyler Gray (6-4, 228, So.) beat out promising freshman Ben Weaver (6-0, 233) at the weak-side position, while Jonathan Brown (5-10, 206, Sr.) and Corey Bell (5-11, 210, Jr.) should both see playing time on the other side.

The secondary is one of the most talented, albeit untested, positions on the Boise State team.  Donte Deayon (5-9, 151, So.) is the heir apparent to Jamar Taylor, and he’ll be joined by junior Bryan Douglas (5-9, 178) at cornerback.  Jeremy Ioane (5-10, 190, Jr.), whom Washington quarterback Keith Price will remember as the guy who ended the Las Vegas Bowl with a pick of Price, is back at strong safety, while talented sophomore Darian Thompson (6-1, 200) beat out senior Ebo Makinde (5-10, 185) to start at free safety.

Placekicker Dan Goodale (5-10, 196, Jr.) is another of the guys most mentioned as having an excellent fall, while at gametime, the punting position is still undecided between senior Trevor Hartman (6-3, 211) and freshman Sean Wale (6-1, 185).

Price (6-1, 202, Sr.) struggled a bit last year after an outstanding season in 2011, and he’s eager to show he’s back in form.  Price completed 60.9% of his passes last year for 2,728 yards and 19 touchdowns, but that also came with 13 interceptions.  Most of the college football “experts” have said that the outcome of this game depends on Price.  If he plays well, they say, Washington will win.

Sankey (5-10, 203, Jr.) smoked the Broncos last bowl season to the tune of 205 yards, and he was one of the Pac-12’s top rushers with 1,439 net yards and 16 touchdowns last season.  If Boise State hasn’t figured out how to stop Sankey, they’re in for a long night.

Washington coach Steve Sarkanian announced the suspension of tight end Seferian-Jenkins, something he pretty much had to do to save face with the Washington fans, players and media.  Seferian-Jenkins plead guilty to drunken driving in July.  As of the time of this writing, Sarkanian has not announced who will start in his place.

Junior Kasen Williams (6-2, 212) had a breakout season last year with 77 catches for 878 yards, and he will be the go-to guy for Price.  Freshman John Ross (5-11, 173) won the right to start at wide receiver, and with his blazing speed, he poses a double threat as UW’s punt returner.  Another wideout who has impressed in fall camp is senior Kevin Smith.  Much as Boldewijn and Burks are finally living up to their potential at Boise State now that they are seniors, the same is true for Smith (5-11, 214).

The offensive line that Boise State will see Saturday night will be much the same that they saw last December.  Junior tackles Ben Riva (6-6, 306) and Micah Hatchie (6-5, 305), center Mike Criste (6-5, 306) and guard Colin Tanigawa (6-3, 275) have built quite a reputation in giving the Huskies a solid offensive line, and they’ll be joined by sophomore guard Dexter Charles (6-4, 289).

Like Boise State, Washington’s strength is their defense.  They were able to claw their way back into the game last year because the Husky defense simply stymied the Broncos in the second half.  Jau’oli Kikaha (6-3, 250, Jr.) and sophomore Cory Littleton (6-3, 230) will start at end, with junior Danny Shelton (6-1, 327) starting in the middle and converted tight end Evan Hudson (6-5, 277) at defensive tackle.

Princeton Fuimaona (6-1, 217) and Travis Feeney (6-4, 224, So.) have battled neck-and-neck all fall and it’s still a gametime decision as to who will start at that outside linebacker position.  John Timu (6-1, 235, Jr.) and Shaq Thompson (6-2, 225, So.) have secured their spots behind the Husky line.

While the Boise State secondary is talented but largely untested, the Husky secondary is solid and experienced.  Senior safeties Will Shamburger (6-0, 192) and Sean Parker (5-10, 195) return, along with senior Greg Ducre (5-10, 178) at one corner.  Marcus Peters (5-11, 193) will start at the other cornerback slot.

Senior Travis Coons (6-2, 199) will handle the placekicking duties while Washington’s punting duties (like Boise State) are still up for grabs.  It will be either senior Kevin Smith (5-11, 214) or freshman John Ross (5-11, 173).

Like the Oregon, Virginia Tech, Georgia and Michigan State season openers of the past four years, it should be another great contest to open the Bronco season.  Both sides appear to be confident, the fans are into it, both teams feature outstanding coaching staffs, and all of Seattle is excited to present the Huskies’ new $280-million makeover—the remodeling and expansion of Husky Stadium.

Hold on to your hats—this should be exciting!  Kickoff is set for 8 p.m. Mountain Time.

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