Chris Petersen’s final game at Washington takes place against his old team in Boise State, as the Huskies and Broncos meet in the Mitsubishi Motors Las Vegas Bowl on Saturday night. Petersen announced his retirement shortly after the regular season concluded, with defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake set to assume the head coach role on a full-time basis after this game. Petersen coached at Boise State from 2006-13 and went 92-12 with two BCS bowl victories.
Washington began the 2019 season near the top of the list of favorites to win the Pac-12. The Huskies didn't meet those expectations, as the program slipped to 7-5 and finished with a 4-5 mark in conference play. Washington’s defense was strong once again, holding teams to just 20.4 points a game this fall. However, the offense struggled mightily on third downs (34.4%), and the overall production was down just a bit, which didn’t leave much margin for error. The Huskies lost all five of their games by 10 points or less, including a defeat to Oregon by four, Utah by five and California by one. While Petersen’s swan song in Seattle didn’t end with a conference championship, Washington still went 54-26 with two Pac-12 titles and an appearance in the CFB Playoff under his watch. Lake has worked under Petersen since 2012 at Boise State and followed him to Washington in '14. Lake is regarded as a rising star in the coaching ranks, but he will inherit big shoes to fill as the full-time coach.
Bryan Harsin inherited a tough assignment replacing Petersen as Boise State’s coach, but the Broncos haven’t missed a beat. The former Boise State quarterback has guided the program to a 64-16 mark since 2014, which includes three Mountain West titles and a New Year’s Six bowl victory in 2014. The Broncos ran the table with a perfect 8-0 mark in conference play this season and finished just a few spots behind Memphis for the Group of 5 bowl spot in the New Year’s Six. En route to a 12-win regular season, Boise State knocked off Florida State in the opener, defeated Air Force on Sept. 20, beat Hawaii two times and picked up quality wins against Wyoming and Utah State.
Boise State and Washington have four previous matchups on the gridiron. The all-time series is tied at two wins apiece between these two programs. Boise State previously defeated Washington 28-26 in the 2012 Las Vegas Bowl.
Las Vegas Bowl: Washington vs. Boise State
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 21 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Washington -3.5
When Washington Has the Ball
After sitting out last year after transferring from Georgia, Jacob Eason assumed the reins under center from Jake Browning. Eason showcased his big-time arm by connecting on 63.8 percent of his throws for 2,922 yards and 22 touchdowns to eight interceptions. The junior is pondering a jump to the NFL, so this could be his final game in a Washington uniform. While Eason certainly has the arm talent and ability to play at the next level, another year in Seattle would benefit his overall stock, especially since Washington’s offense was inconsistent in 2019. The Huskies enter the bowl season ranked seventh in the Pac-12 in yards per play (5.9), eighth in plays of 40 yards or more (11) and finished eighth in scoring for Pac-12 only matchups.
Eason’s supporting cast will look a bit different from the regular season on Saturday night. The Huskies have allowed only 19 sacks this fall but won’t have standout left tackle Trey Adams or starting guard Jaxson Kirkland in the lineup. Additionally, Eason’s go-to target and tight end Hunter Bryant (52 catches for 825 yards) declared for the NFL and won’t suit up against Boise State. With Bryant out of the lineup, sophomore Cade Otton (29 catches) will become a bigger target at tight end. Eason will also have to utilize receivers Aaron Fuller (54 grabs) and Terrell Bynum (26) more on Saturday night.
Salvon Ahmed ensured Washington had a 1,000-yard rusher for the fifth year in a row thanks to an 85-yard game against Washington State on Nov. 29. That performance put Ahmed at 1,000 yards for the season, while backup Richard Newton has contributed 429 over nine contests. With two starters down up front, how much success will the Huskies have running against a Boise State front that’s limiting teams to just 112.3 rushing yards a contest?
Boise State has held each of its last five opponents under 24 points and is only giving up 20.6 overall on average for the season. The Broncos also rank second in the Mountain West in pass efficiency defense and lead the conference with 37 generated sacks. Edge rusher Curtis Weaver is one of the top defenders in college football and figures to be a handful for a revamped Washington offensive front.
When Boise State Has the Ball
Injuries took a toll on Boise State’s quarterback room this season, as three players – Hank Bachmeier, Jaylon Henderson and Chase Cord – made starts in 2019. Despite the injuries and multiple starters at quarterback, the Broncos led the Mountain West in scoring (36.8 ppg) and averaged 6.2 yards a play. Bachmeier finished with 1,760 passing yards and nine touchdowns, and is a rising star for Harsin to build around in 2020. However, with Bachmeier not quite 100 percent, Jaylon Henderson has started the last four games and passed for seven touchdowns and just one pick over the last three contests. The senior is also a factor on the ground (140 rushing yards). Henderson was expected to start on Saturday night, but the senior is reportedly dealing with an illness and couldn't practice on Wednesday or Thursday. His status for Saturday's game is uncertain. Even if Henderson is able to go, Bachmeier and Cord could both see snaps.
Regardless of which quarterback is on the field, Boise State has a plethora of talented receivers to utilize against a standout Washington secondary. John Hightower paces the passing attack with 923 receiving yards, but Khalil Shakir (60 catches), CT Thomas (499), Octavius Evans (16), Akilian Butler (28) and tight end John Bates (21) will also stress a defense that allowed only 12 passing scores in the regular season. Washington’s defense also allowed just six passing plays of 40 yards or more and ranked third in the Pac-12 in pass efficiency defense.
Boise State’s offensive line had an uneven 2019 campaign, as the offense averaged only 4.5 yards per carry and quarterbacks were sacked 27 times. Freshman George Holani (979 yards) is the leader in Harsin’s backfield, with Robert Mahone (420) and Andrew Van Buren (265) also in the mix. Overall, Washington’s defense has been stingy versus the run, as this group is holding teams to just 3.8 yards per carry. However, the Huskies showed vulnerability at times, especially in the five losses (171.4 rushing ypg allowed).
Boise State has plenty of firepower, but Washington’s defense is giving up only 20.4 points a game this year. Can the Broncos establish their ground game to keep Henderson out of obvious passing downs?
With the Las Vegas Bowl marking the final game in Chris Petersen’s tenure, it’s safe to assume Washington will be motivated to send him out a winner. But while motivation is a key factor, third downs might decide this game. The Broncos convert 48.9 percent of attempts, compared to just 34.4 for the Huskies. Whichever offense can run effectively, stay out of obvious third-and-long situations and connect on a few big plays will give their team an advantage. Both teams are solid on defense, so points could be at a premium. Washington finds a way to get a late score to send Petersen out a winner in his final game on the sideline for the Huskies.