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Las Vegas Bowl Preview

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Rusty Ryan looks at the themes, players, and coaches that will be showcased this weekend.

NCAA Football: San Diego State at UNLV Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

By virtue of winning the Mountain West Conference Championship, Boise State is Oregon’s opponent in the Vegas Bowl. Obviously, the history between these two teams goes back to 2008 and was cemented in 2009. Maybe this is round 3?

Boise State nearly went undefeated for the first time in the Mountain West if not for their regular season loss to Fresno State on the road. The Broncos got revenge on the smurf turf in the conference championship game with a big second half comeback. Quarterback Brett Rypien had a big second half, leading the Broncos on a 90-yard drive at the end of the game to get the game-winning touchdown.

Brett Rypien finished the year with 2515 yards through the air, with a completion rate of 63.5%, and 14 touchdowns to go with 4 interceptions. However, most of those stats came in the latter half of the season. Rypien had only thrown two touchdowns heading into the October 28th matchup at Utah State. Boise State’s passing attack is ranked 27th by S&P+. They have a 44.5% success rate (30th nationally) but are ranked an average 65th nationally in explosiveness.

Boise State’s season, like Rypien’s, started slow before a strong finish. In a peak PAC-12 after dark game, the Broncos gave up a 21-point lead in the final 8 minutes to Washington State before losing in triple overtime in Pullman. Just two weeks later, Boise State got rocked by Virginia 42-23 at home, basically removing the Broncos from national attention.

During their time out of the mainstream sports coverage the Broncos recorded wins over 19th-ranked San Diego State on the road, 31-14, and then 25th-ranked Fresno State in the conference championship game. It’s difficult to measure performance against common opponents, because Herbert wasn’t available for the Washington State game, and we all know that Oregon with Herbert looked like a different team entirely. Boise State did beat Wyoming 24-14, which is probably the best comparison since Herbert played against Wyoming. Like Oregon, the Bronco defense would force one to question the legitimacy of predictions that say Josh Allen could go in the first round of the NFL Draft. But in the game against Wyoming it was Bronco backup quarterback Montell Cozart who got the start, robbing us once again of an apples-to-apples comparison.

Looking at the advanced statistics, Boise State’s defense has been one of the best at limiting explosive plays, ranking 11th nationally. Where Boise State’s defense has struggled is against the pass in terms of efficiency, ranking 83rd. Boise State’s offense hasn’t been explosive through the air (65th) or on the ground (89th), which is the clear weakness in Oregon’s defense. Oregon’s defense ranks 82nd and 88th in defending against explosive rushing and passing plays, respectively. The number of explosion plays Boise State is going to be able to generate could be the deciding factor in whether they can score the upset.

But what offense will Boise State defending when they face-off on Saturday? Mario Cristobal ran a spread offense at FIU and nothing too crazy will change between the regular season and the bowl game, but there are surely going to be a few wrinkles. Cristobal has already said that in an effort to make sure his players are ready to compete for roster spots in the NFL he is going to have the line and quarterback make changes to protection with Herbert under center, which means we could see a lot more downhill running. It is unlikely that Oregon will be playing that much, if at all, under center in Vegas, but it is something that Boise State must have considered when preparing for the game.

With Oregon’s offense, the advanced stats tell only half the story. In the games that Herbert started, Oregon operated below the 90th-percentile on offense in only one game. (Arizona State forced the Oregon offense to the offense at the 79th-percentile) When Herbert was out of the starting lineup, Oregon’s offense cracked the 25th-percentile only once. Against Utah, Oregon only had to throw the ball 13 times, on routes that were very high percentage (one pass was from Charles Nelson) because the offensive line chewed up the Ute defense, averaging 7.1 yards per carry, totaling 347 yards on the ground.

It is yet to be determined whether Crosby or Freeman will play in the bowl game. They have been practicing this week but they could still decide that they want to protect themselves to stay healthy for the NFL Draft. Justin Herbert has been getting on a lot of too-early Heisman predictions for 2018 so eyes will be on him of one of the first games of the bowl season. His performance could determine whether he is a top-3 pick to start the year or enters next season as a dark horse.

One of Herbert’s greatest skills is the ability to stretch the field vertically. Boise State may be set up well to stop that, by ranking 9th in defending explosive pass plays while also ranking 9th in defending explosive running plays. In contrast, the Bronco pass defense is in the bottom third of the country in defensive efficiency while the Bronco run defense is in the top quarter in run defense efficiency. I think Herbert could stay pretty clean in the pocket with two of the highest-rated tackles in pass block and also because the havoc rate for Boise State’s front seven is in the 100s.

Depending on who you listen to, the Ducks may either have their play-caller still on the staff or we have a new play-caller. It was believed that Taggart was calling plays on offense, but recently a recruit has said that QB coach and Co-OC Marcus Arroyo was calling the plays this season. Marcus Arroyo was a quarterback when he was in college, so there is a possibility we see some more passing and some more varied passing concepts. Oregon seemed to run very few passing plays across the middle of the field but maybe Arroyo could try and make things a little easier on the quarterback by running some more receivers through intermediary routes.

There is also an interesting dynamic with the coaches. Both current head coach Mario Cristobal and Boise State head coach Bryan Harsin received interviews for Oregon’s head coaching job after Taggart’s departure. Harsin had been interviewed before Taggart was hired as well. As mild-mannered as a person can be, there has to be an element of Harsin wanting to prove Oregon wrong for passing on him not once but twice.

Cristobal probably has more at stake in this game than Harsin does. So far he has made it clear what his vision for the program is and already has the respect of the locker room heading into this game. But there are others that he is going to have to impress. First, this is a huge weekend for recruits, given that the early signing period starts on Dec 20th, and there will be a big group of recruits that Oregon is hoping to sign on campus for a recruiting event that has been months in the works. Second, there is going to be nine months between Cristobal’s first game as head coach and his second game as head coach. He has a big opportunity to gain a lot of momentum heading into the early signing period, the recruiting trail that will lead to the second signing period next year, and then the months that the fans have to brave without football.