Fight Hunger Bowl Preview and Prediction: BYU vs. Washington

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Running back Bishop Sankey and the Huskies are looking for their first nine-win season since 2000

Fight Hunger Bowl Preview and Prediction: BYU vs. Washington

Washington will try and cap off the program’s most successful season since 2000 with a win over BYU in the Fight Hunger Bowl at AT&T Park in San Francisco. And if the Cougars weren’t enough of a challenge, the Huskies will play this game with an interim head coach on the sideline.

After leading Washington to eight wins and a third-place finish (5-4) in the Pac-12’s North Division, head coach Steve Sarkisian left Seattle to take over at USC. The Huskies hired Boise State’s Chris Petersen as Sarkisian’s replacement, but former quarterback and now position coach Marques Tuiasosopo will lead the team in the bowl game against BYU, which also happens to be Sarkisian’s alma mater.

The Huskies are in their fourth straight bowl game, but have dropped their last two postseason contests. Two years ago Washington was overwhelmed in the Alamo Bowl by Baylor and Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III, as the Bears beat the Huskies 67-56 in the highest-scoring regulation bowl game in college football history. Last season, Washington fell to Boise State 28-26 in the Las Vegas Bowl.

A win over BYU would be Washington’s ninth of the season and the most by the Huskies since Rick Neuheisel’s 2000 team went 11-1, with its only loss being to Purdue in the Rose Bowl.

BYU has enjoyed considerably more success over the past 14 years, as the Cougars have won at least seven games in each of their past eight campaigns. In fact, head coach Bronco Mendenhall has yet to post a losing record in his nine seasons in Provo, Utah, and has led his team to a bowl game every year.

In their third year as a FBS Independent, BYU went 8-4, including a five-game winning streak that included victories over Utah State, Georgia Tech and Boise State. The Cougars’ schedule this season also featured games against five other bowl teams – Houston, MTSU, Notre Dame, Texas and Wisconsin – and they went 6-2 in those contests.

Under Mendenhall, BYU is 6-2 in bowl games and have won its last four. Last season the Cougars defeated San Diego State 23-6 in the Poinsettia Bowl, which was played in San Diego.

Washington and BYU have split their eight all-time meetings, but the Cougars have won the last three. The last one took place in 2010 in Provo, a 23-17 BYU victory.

BYU vs. Washington

Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 27 at 9:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Washington -3

Three Things to Watch

Washington’s Coaching Transition
Huskies athletic director Scott Woodward made a terrific hire in luring Chris Petersen away from Boise State after Steve Sarkisian departed for USC. The problem is it truly won’t be Petersen’s team until after the bowl game, as Marques Tuiasosopo will serve as the interim head coach against BYU. A former star quarterback for Washington, Tuiasosopo served as the quarterbacks coach for Sarkisian, but he has added quite a bit more to his plate. The good news for the Tuiasosopo and the Huskies is that both coordinators – Eric Kiesau on offense and Justin Wilcox on defense – stayed, at least for the bowl game. What changes Petersen makes to the coaching staff after this game remains to be seen, but the coaches, as well as the players who will be back next season, know they are being evaluated by the new head coach. With so much uncertainty in the locker room and the attention already being shifted to 2014, how will this Huskies team and its skeleton coaching staff close out the ’13 campaign?

BYU’s Run Defense vs. Washington’s Ground Game
The third-ranked defense in the country last season, BYU took a few steps backwards this fall. The Cougars are still a respectable 52nd in total defense, but have seen their yards allowed per game rise from 266.1 per game in 2012 to 383.8. Against the run, BYU was No. 2 in FBS last season, giving up just 86.9 yards per game on the ground. This season the Cougars have surrendered 157.4 (56th) per contest and have given up more than that in four of their past five games. BYU will need to tighten up its run defense if it wants to slow down Washington’s potent ground game led by running back Bishop Sankey. The junior enters this game third in the nation in rushing yards per game with 147.9 and is averaging nearly six yards (5.8) per carry. Sankey has been held under 100 yards rushing just three times this season and also has gone over 200 on three different occasions. As a team, Washington is averaging 243.1 yards rushing per game and has scored 33 touchdowns on the ground. BYU’s defense is giving up fewer than four yards (3.8) per carry and has surrendered just nine rushing touchdowns, but this unit has a tough task ahead of it in trying to slow down Sankey and company.

Can the Huskies Force the Cougars to Throw?
As productive as Washington’s running game has been, BYU has posted even better numbers on the ground. The Cougars are 10th in the nation in rushing offense, averaging 274.7 yards per game. Both quarterback Taysom Hill (above, right) and running back Jamaal Williams have rushed for more than 1,200 yards and they will draw plenty of attention from Washington’s defense. The Huskies enter this game giving up about 160 yards rushing per game, but have held four of their past five opponents to 131 yards or fewer. In Washington’s four losses opponents have rushed for an average of 245 yards per game. If the Huskies can make things tough on the Cougars’ running game, it will fall to Hill to make plays through the air. Hill has thrown for 2,645 yards this season, but he’s completed just 54.1 percent of his passes for 19 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. Senior wide receiver Cody Hoffman is a legitimate playmaker, but he has just 45 catches for 727 yards and five touchdowns after posting 100 receptions for 1,248 yards and 11 scores last season. BYU is clearly comfortable running the ball, but is the offense too one-dimensional? Can Washington’s defense force Hill to rely on his arm instead of his legs? The Huskies are hoping they get a chance to find out.

Key Player: Kyle Van Noy, LB, BYU
A 6-3, 245-pound linebacker, Van Noy is the senior leader of the Cougars’ defense. His numbers have not been as impressive this season as last season, but he’s still a difference-maker who is capable of changing the direction of a game on any given play. Last season, Van Noy had 13 sacks, along with 22 tackles for a loss, six forced fumbles, two interceptions and two blocked kicks. This season, he has four sacks, two fumble recoveries and two interceptions. He also is no stranger to saving his best for last, as he was named defensive MVP following BYU’s 23-6 win over San Diego State in last season’s Poinsettia Bowl. Van Noy owned the fourth quarter against the Aztecs, scoring two touchdowns, one on a fumble return and the other on a 17-yard interception return, to bring his Cougars from behind for the win. He also had eight tackles, 1.5 sacks and blocked a punt. Many thought that Van Noy might forego his senior season and enter the NFL Draft following that performance but he returned to school and now has the opportunity to post one more impressive postseason stat line to finish out his BYU career.

Final Analysis

Washington is a team in transition with its coaching staff so it would be understandable if the Huskies didn’t bring their “A” game to San Francisco. On top of that, BYU’s offensive strength – running the ball – has been a point of weakness at times for Washington’s defense. That said, I believe the Huskies have been energized by the hiring of Boise State’s Chris Petersen and will look at this game as an opportunity to impress their new head coach. I’m also not convinced that the Cougars will be able to throw the ball consistently against Washington’s defense, which makes their offense a little too one-dimensional. In the end, the Huskies’ running game, led by Bishop Sankey, and the aerial attack orchestrated by senior quarterback Keith Price, will be just enough to outlast the Cougars as Washington ushers in the Petersen era in Seattle with a win to close out 2013.

Prediction: Washington 31, BYU 30

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