One of the more underrated college football stadiums for its scenery will take center stage on Friday night. Sun Bowl Stadium will host the back half of a home-and-home series between Boise State (2-1) and UTEP (1-3). These two teams met last season in Boise, with the Broncos cruising to a 54-13 victory over the Miners. You can expect both teams to come out with a great sense of urgency in this must-win game.
Boise State won its second in a row last weekend, rolling past FCS UT Martin 30-7 at home. The Broncos got off to a fast start offensively, scoring on four of their first five possessions. Hank Bachmeier completed 18 of 25 passes for 204 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions. George Holani ran for 110 yards on 24 carries, recorded four receptions for 47 yards, and added 69 yards on punt returns for a total of 226 all-purpose yards. The defense locked down the Skyhawks and limited them to 152 total yards. UT Martin's lone score came late in the first quarter as Boise State's D pitched a shutout over the final 49-plus minutes.
Meanwhile, UTEP fell 27-10 on the road against New Mexico in a game that saw the Miners commit seven turnovers. Moving the ball wasn't the issue, as they outgained the Lobos 353-299, but quarterback Gavin Hardison threw three interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown, and three other Miners fumbled the ball away. Otherwise, the defense did a decent job, holding New Mexico under 300 yards of offense, forcing two turnovers, and giving up just two rushing touchdowns. Head coach Dana Dimel and his team know it has to clean up the mistakes (also penalized eight times for 93 yards), if UTEP wants to have any shot at turning things around and making a run at six wins and bowl eligibility.
Boise State at UTEP
When Boise State Has the Ball
It starts with controlling the line of scrimmage, as Boise State should have the physical advantage up front with its offensive line. Domination of the line of scrimmage will open the running game for Holani, who has been getting the carries (57) but is averaging just 3.3 yards per attempt thus far. Bachmeier, who left last week's game against UT Martin after a helmet-to-helmet hit, is expected to play. He has thrown five touchdown passes with three interceptions through the first three games and is averaging 134.7 passing yards per game. This may be an opportunity for the passing game to find more of a rhythm, but that's only if Bachmeier is healthy and on the same page as his receivers. If Bachmeier can't go or is limited, back Taylen Green (19-for-28, 155 yds., INT this season) will get the call.
Opportunities should be there for the Broncos to move the ball against a UTEP defense that is giving up 372 yards per game and 5.7 yards per play. Last week, the Miners held New Mexico to 299 total yards, with 188 of those coming on the ground. UTEP currently boasts the passing defense in Conference USA, holding teams to 172.8 yards per game through the air, and that hasn't been Boise State's strength thus far. So this game could come down to how effectively the Broncos can run the ball. Last week, linebackers Tyrice Knight (14 tackles, 2 tackles for a loss) and Cal Wallerstedt (7 tackles, 3.5 TFLs, 2 sacks), along with safety Kobe Hylton (10 tackles, 1.5 TFL, pass breakup, QB hit), each had a big game in the losing effort at New Mexico.
When UTEP Has the Ball
It's pretty clear that the Miners' priority on Friday night is taking care of the football. Hardison is third in Conference USA in passing yards per game (247.3), but he has thrown more interceptions (three, all of them last week against New Mexico) than touchdowns (two). He's also completing less than half (48.8 percent) of his passes. That combined with a running game that's averaging less than 75 yards per game (last in C-USA, 123rd nationally) means UTEP simply can't afford to fall behind early or turn the ball over many times. Running back Ronald Awatt finished with 854 rushing yards and averaged 5.4 yards per carry last season, but he's off to a slow start (56.3 ypg, 4.3 ypc). A bright spot in the early going has been wide receiver Tyrin Smith, who has replaced Jacob Cowing (transferred to Arizona) as the No. 1 target. Smith is in the top 10 nationally in both receptions (27) and receiving yards (437) after a big game (8 rec., 183 yds.) last week.
It's early, but Boise State is ranked 12th in the nation in total defense (248.3 ypg) and is giving up only 18.3 points per game (tied for 39th). The Broncos have clamped down on teams on the ground (76.3 ypg, 14th) and this will be a key on Friday night. In last year's win over UTEP, the defense held the Miners to 104 rushing yards and 2.6 yards per carry. UTEP's offense isn't very explosive to begin with, so making it one-dimensional will put more of the burden on Hardison to make plays with his arm. That could lead to some mistakes, especially if Boise State can pressure him in the pocket. The Broncos have seven sacks through three games.
This game should have a good crowd, but it won’t be like the actual Sun Bowl that's played in December and usually packs the stadium pretty well. UTEP will be excited to see Boise State, along with its fans in the El Paso community. It’s a great opportunity for the Miners to get some prime-time exposure, but it's not a great matchup. The Broncos just need to stick to their game plan and not try and force the issue on offense. Eventually, the defense will either wear down UTEP or force enough mistakes to set up the offense with some fairly easy scoring opportunities. It wouldn't be a surprise if the visitors break this one open at some point in the second half.
Prediction: Boise State 33, UTEP 14
Podcast: Week 4 Preview, Predictions and Picks Against the Spread
– Written by Scott Whittum, who is part of the Contributor Network.
*Price as of publication.