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Washington's offense will have its hands full against Boise State's defense.
With Boise State and Washington returning most of its starting core for 2013, the Las Vegas Bowl is a chance for both teams to establish momentum and use the postseason as a springboard for an improvement in the win column next year.
The Broncos have played in the Las Vegas Bowl in each of the last two seasons, beating Utah and Arizona State by a combined score of 82-27. By reaching 10 victories in 2012, Boise State has achieved seven consecutive seasons of double-digit victories. The Broncos had to replace a plethora of talent on both sides of the ball and its only two losses were by a combined six points.
Washington is making slow progress under coach Steve Sarkisian but most expected the Huskies to finish better than 7-5. Fixing the defense was a top priority for Sarkisian in the offseason, and the hire of coordinator Justin Wilcox has paid big dividends. The Huskies are making back-to-back trips to a bowl game for the first time since 2001-02. Washington played a tough schedule in 2012, losing to two top-10 teams in LSU and Oregon. However, the Huskies lost to Washington State in the season finale and was blown out 52-17 by Arizona in mid-October.
These two teams have met only one time (2007), with Washington beating Boise State 24-10 in Seattle.
Las Vegas Bowl – Boise State (10-2) vs. Washington (7-5)
Date/Time: Dec. 22 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Location: Las Vegas
When the Boise State Broncos have the ball:
The departure of six starters is a lot for any offense to overcome. But try replacing one of college football’s top quarterbacks of the BCS era, a 1,000-yard rusher and a stalwart left tackle. That’s the obstacle Boise State had to overcome this season, and the offense certainly had its share of ups and downs. The Broncos finished 54th nationally in scoring offense and 76th in total offense.
Quarterback Joe Southwick had big shoes to fill in replacing Kellen Moore, and he finished with 2,466 passing yards and 17 touchdowns. The junior completed 66.7 percent of his throws and did not toss a pick in the final three games of the season. Southwick’s favorite target is Matt Miller (60 catches), but five players have at least 20 receptions in 2012.
Helping Southwick along this year has been the steady performance of running back D.J. Harper. The senior has battled knee injuries in his career but stayed healthy for all 12 games and finished with 1,065 yards and 15 scores. When Harper needs a rest, promising redshirt freshman Jay Ajayi is averaging 6.9 yards per carry and has four touchdowns this year.
Thanks to the arrival of Justin Wilcox, Washington has emerged as one of the nation’s most-improved defenses. Wilcox came to Seattle after spending two years as Tennessee’s defensive coordinator. The Huskies allowed 35.9 points a game last season but cut that total to just 23.8 in 2012. Washington also ranks 30th nationally in yards allowed and finished the regular season second in the Pac-12 in pass defense.
While the secondary ranks near the top of the Pac-12, the rush defense has been a bigger issue. The Huskies are allowing 164.3 yards per game on the ground, which should work into Boise State’s favor. Expect Harper and Ajayi to see plenty of carries, as the Broncos use the run to setup the pass.
When the Washington Huskies have the ball:
Although the Huskies took a step forward on defense this year, the offense regressed after averaging 409.9 yards and 33.4 points a game last season. Despite the return of quarterback Keith Price, the Huskies were unable to match last season’s totals, largely due to the offensive line. Injuries and inexperience hindered this unit in 2012, as Washington allowed 2.8 sacks per game. Protecting Price was an issue for most of the year, which was a big reason why the junior quarterback watched his passing yards drop from 3,063 (2011) to 2,486.
When Price has time to throw, he has two of the Pac-12’s rising stars to target. Tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins is one of the nation’s best, catching 63 passes for 791 yards and six scores. Kasen Williams had a breakout year as he emerged as the No. 1 wide receiver and led the team with 71 receptions. Outside of Seferian-Jenkins and Williams, Washington needs more from its receiving corps. Jaydon Mickens is a promising freshman but ranked second among wide receivers with 18 receptions.
The battle between Washington’s passing game and Boise State’s secondary could be the defining matchup on Saturday. The Broncos are generating 2.8 sacks a game and rank fourth nationally against the pass. Senior cornerbacks Jamar Taylor and Jerrell Gavins were both All-Mountain West selections, and safety Jeremy Ioane ranked second on the team with 65 stops. Even if Price has time to throw, the secondary won’t allow for the Huskies to have many chances for big plays.
While the passing attack has struggled, the running game has thrived under first-year starter Bishop Sankey. The sophomore quietly rushed for 1,234 yards and 15 scores and caught 27 passes for 175 yards. Sankey figures to test a Boise State defense that ranks 39th nationally against the run and lost tackle Mike Atkinson for the season with a torn ACL in early November.
Boise State’s defense had to replace 10 starters from last year’s team, so it’s a credit to the work of coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski to keep this unit among the best in the nation. Despite the heavy losses from last season’s defense, the Broncos ranked ninth in total defense and allowed just 14.9 points a game.
Both teams could start next year in the top 25, so this is a key opportunity to seize momentum. Interestingly enough, Boise State and Washington will meet in the season opener in 2013, so this is a chance to get some early scouting done for next year. Although both teams are capable of putting points on the scoreboard, expect a low-scoring defensive game. Washington’s defense is one of the nation’s most-improved units, but Boise State should be to find some running room with senior back D.J. Harper. This game should go deep into the fourth quarter, but a slight edge goes to the Broncos over the Huskies.
Prediction: Boise State 24, Washington 20
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