|Can D.J. Harper run the Broncos to another bowl win? (US Presswire)|
Boise State Broncos (10-2)
In a complete disaster of a rebuilding season, the Broncos sustained two losses by a total of six points and had to suffer the indignity of sharing the Mountain West title with the unwashed rabble of Fresno State and San Diego State. That's one way of looking at it; the other is that piling up 10 wins as arguably the country's least-experienced team behind the FBS's ninth-ranked defense is still quite the accomplishment. Still, the pillow-soft schedule and frequent offensive woes -- in five games against bowl-bound competition, the Broncos scored a grand total of eight offensive touchdowns -- suggested a return to Boise's BCS salad days may be more than a year away.
At Their Best. Not only did Fresno State finish an impressive 9-3 in Tim DeRuyter's first year as head coach, it went a stunning 11-1 against the spread. The one ATS defeat? In Boise, on Oct. 13, when the Broncos defense posted three sacks (two by Demarcus Lawrence), forced two turnovers (one a fumble forced by Lawrence), and held Fresno 30 points and 166 yards below its season averages in a 20-10 Broncos victory -- one that would eventually give Boise that third of the MWC crown.
At Their Worst. As for the loss that would snatch away the other two thirds of that crown, the Broncos hosted San Diego State on Nov. 3 and got their usual defensive effort, holding the Aztecs to 14 offensive points. But the Broncos special teams were shaky as ever -- SDSU took the opening kickoff back for a score and blocked a punt for another short TD drive -- and against a defense that yielded 38 points or more four different times, Joe Southwick and the BSU offense totaled just 276 yards and 19 points. Final: 21-19 Aztecs.
Headliner. What relatively little offensive success the Broncos enjoyed was thanks in large part to the efforts of D.J. Harper, the battle-hardened sixth-year senior running back whose 1,065 rushing yards accounted for more than half of the team's total and whose 16 touchdowns represented more than a third of the team's scores.
Washington Huskies (7-5)
Steve Sarkisian's fourth year in charge was one in which the Huskies split into two teams: the one in the friendly confines of the Seahawks' CenturyLink Field that went 5-1 with wins over Stanford and Oregon State, and the one that played anywhere else, that went 2-4 with a 52-17 loss to Arizona and 31-28 come-from-ahead loss to Washington State. With an offense that plunged from 24th to 104th in yards-per-play, it was only the arrival of defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox -- and a defense that allowed just 15.7 points per home game -- that even got the Huskies to bowl eligiblity.
At Their Best. Trailing 13-3 to Stanford thanks to an unfortunate pick-six, the Huskies defense -- most notably a secondary led by corner Desmond Trufant -- turned up the pressure in the second half and made Josh Nunes look as lost as he would look all season, which is saying something. Pair that with long-yardage touchdowns from Bishop Sankey and Kasen Williams and you get a 17-13 upset, Washington's first over a top-10 opponent since 2009.
At Their Worst. The no-show at Arizona was bad. Miraculously blowing a 28-10 fourth-quarter lead to a 2-9 Washington State team that had spent its first 11 3/4 games somewhere between "mediocre" and "criminally incompetent" ranked among the single worst 15 minutes played by any team in the FBS this season. The final result wasn't a fluke, though. A mere 269 yards against the nation's 83rd-ranked defense left the Huskies outgained by a clear 100 yards.
Headliner. It's not often a tight end leads his team in both receiving yards and touchdowns caught -- especially when battling a talent like Williams for catches -- but one look at mountainous 6-foot-6, 266-pound Austin Seferian-Jenkins explains how he managed it, collecting 63 receptions for 791 yards and six scores. In what promises to be a low-scoring, rock-'em-sock-'em affair, "throw it high to that giant dude" could be Washington's best offensive play.
What: MAACO Bowl Las Vegas (technically speaking)
When: Saturday Dec. 22, 3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Where: Sam Boyd Stadium, Las Vegas
Weird: Give the participating teams credit for not exactly keeping their players shielded from the temptations of Vegas: The bowl's official homepage trumpets the Hard Rock Casino as "The official host hotel of the Mountain West," where the Broncos will be staying, with Mandalay Bay doing the same for the Pac-12 and the Huskies.
Line: Boise -5.5. (Official for-entertainment-purposes-only recommendation: the under of 43.5)
Prediction: On paper, this shapes up as an old-fashioned first-team-to-14-wins slugfest in which the more-talented Huskies have an edge. But when it comes to motivation, the Broncos -- always game for "playing up" to Pac-12 competition -- have the advantage, and Boise State coach Chris Petersen has won his last six games (bowls and season openers) with two-plus weeks to prepare.
Boise State 17, Washington 16