The Boise State Broncos travel to Hawaii Saturday for a must-win Mountain West showdown. A surprise 30-28 upset loss to Wyoming was a major shot to Boise State’s Mountain West title and New Year’s Six bowl game hopes, but the Broncos responded with a 45-31 victory over San Jose State last week. The victory improved Boise State’s record to 8-1 overall and 4-1 in conference play, but Boise State trails the 5-0 Cowboys in the Mountain Division standings.
Hawaii is 4-6 overall and 3-3 in the league following last week’s 55-0 loss to San Diego State. Despite the disheartening blowout, Hawaii has already won more games than it did last season when the team was 3-10 overall and 0-8 in the Mountain West. Plus, there’s still hope Hawaii could qualify for its first bowl game since 2011 and its first winning record since ‘10.
Boise State at Hawaii
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 12 at 7 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS Sports Network
Spread: Boise State -18
Three Things to Watch
1. Boise State RB Jeremy McNichols
As a whole, Boise State is a national football brand, though the 2016 Broncos have few players that would be regarded as household names. However, if there is one player that the entire country should know, it’s McNichols.
A 5-foot-9, 212-pound junior, McNichols has been a workhorse this season. He ranks third nationally with 226 carries, which have gone for 1,216 yards (fourth in the FBS) and 16 touchdowns (third). McNichols’ 135.1 rushing yards per game places him fifth in the country and he has surpassed 100 rushing yards in seven games this season, including two 200-yard efforts. He also has caught 28 passes for 399 yards and four TDs.
2. Hawaii’s Struggling Defense
McNichols is in line to have another big game Saturday against a Hawaii defense that has struggled to stop the run. The Rainbow Warriors have surrendered 5.55 yards per carry this season, which is the worst average in the Mountain West and ranks No. 123 (out of 128 FBS teams) in the country.
Hawaii ranks 10th in the conference and No. 124 nationally in rush defense (259.2 ypg) and has surrendered at least 237 yards on the ground in each of its last four games. Opponents have run for 200-plus yards six times this season, and the Rainbow Warriors have yet to hold anyone to fewer than 164 rushing yards in a game this year.
It's true that the Hawaii defense has had success at times this season. The Rainbow Warriors have held their last three opponents to a combined 20-for-41 passing (48.8 percent) for 201 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions, and the Hawaii pass rush recorded six sacks against San Jose State and four against Nevada. Nevertheless, the Rainbow Warriors rank last in the Mountain West in total defense (453.6 ypg) and scoring defense (38.2 ppg), which also places them near the bottom in the FBS rankings (106th and 119th, respectively). Hawaii also has surrendered 6.27 yards per play (109th nationally).
3. The Road to a New Year’s Six Bowl Game
Boise State came in at No. 22 in the most recent College Football Playoff rankings, which is one spot behind Western Michigan, the top team from the Group of Five conferences. If the rankings hold, the Broncos from the MAC would earn a spot in the Cotton Bowl.
There is hope that Boise State can leapfrog Western Michigan before the season ends, but many things would need to break Boise’s way. A Western Michigan loss would help, but even that might not be enough because of the committee’s emphasis on awarding conference champions. As it stands, Boise State is in second place in the Mountain Division, and is on the wrong end of the tiebreaker with first-place Wyoming. Just to earn a spot in the conference championship game, Boise State must beat Hawaii, UNLV and Air Force to close out the regular season and also would need Wyoming to lose two of three against UNLV, San Diego State and New Mexico. That would set up a Boise State-San Diego State title game, which would be no small task for the Broncos.
Hawaii has shown promise under first-year head coach Nick Rolovich, particularly on offense. Quarterback Dru Brown has completed 61 percent of his passes for 1,551 yards, nine touchdowns and six interceptions, and has run for 196 yards and three scores. Receiver Marcus Kemp (56 receptions, 910 yards, 6 TD) leads the Mountain West in receiving yards and is a big-play threat, and Diocemy Saint Juste (691 rushing yards, 2 TD) and Steven Lakalaka (380, 10) are a solid one-two punch at running back.
The Boise State defense has been vulnerable at times this season, particularly against the run. After stuffing each of their first four opponents for fewer than 100 rushing yards, the Broncos have allowed an average of 226.6 per game since.
However, Jeremy McNichols is a great running back, and the Rainbow Warriors have not proven they are capable of stopping even mediocre rushing attacks. With conference title hopes, and a possible spot in the Cotton Bowl hanging in the balance, expect the Broncos to take care of business.
Prediction: Boise State 38, Hawaii 24
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.
(Top photo courtesy of Getty Images)