Nevada at Boise State: Game breakdown

The players, matchups and trends to watch Saturday night.

ccripe@idahostatesman.comOctober 19, 2013 

Boise State’s Jay Ajayi could have a huge game against the nation’s third-worst rushing defense.

KYLE GREEN — kgreen@idahostatesman.com

Broncos with the ball

Ajayi worries Pack: Nevada ranks 121st in the nation in rushing defense at 267.2 yards per game. Now it gets to deal with Boise State sophomore Jay Ajayi, who averages 4.9 yards per carry and is tied for the Mountain West lead with nine rushing TDs. “If I had a back who was 6-foot and 220 (pounds) and can run like that guy runs, I’d run it a ton, too,” Nevada coach Brian Polian said. “He’s going to be hard to handle for us.”

Physical D: The Broncos consistently label the Wolf Pack’s defense as “physical.” “You’ve always got to expect whatever they are on film, they’re going to be two times, three times more physical than that (against Boise State),” sophomore tight end Holden Huff said.

Wolf Pack with the ball

Coverage tightens: One of the most alarming issues facing the Broncos’ defense earlier this season was how often receivers ran wide open. That has started to change. “When (the defensive backs) compete and contest for balls, things change in our favor quite a bit,” coach Chris Petersen said.

Shared attack: Boise State’s pistol-based run game is similar to Nevada’s, except the Wolf Pack do more with the quarterback run. That could help both defenses. “Any time you see stuff over and over, that’s going to help you,” Boise State linebackers coach Bob Gregory said.

High-scoring foes: Nevada has scored 120 points in three MW games. Boise State has scored 116 in its three MW games.

Special teams

Fierce on field goals: Boise State has blocked three field-goal attempts in the past two games — two by defensive end Demarcus Lawrence and one by left tackle Charles Leno Jr. All three came from middle pressure. “Now the opponents are going to see that and are going to be working their tail off to make sure that doesn’t happen again,” coach Chris Petersen said.

The boss is watching: Nevada coach Brian Polian built his career as a special teams coordinator. The Wolf Pack have kicked the ball well but struggled in the other areas of special teams. You’d expect he put a premium on addressing those units during the bye. “In order for us to have a chance to win this game, we have got to win the coverage units,” Polian said.

TODAY’S KEY MATCHUP

Nevada's struggling run game vs. Boise State's improving defense

The Wolf Pack have not run roughshod over opposing defenses this season like they have in the past. They’re averaging 3.6 yards per carry and 181.8 rushing yards per game — down from 5.2 and 271 last year.

The improved health of quarterback Cody Fajardo should help. So should last week’s bye.

“We know the reasons why,” coach Brian Polian said. “We’re trying to get them fixed. But some of them aren’t going to be fixed in the next couple weeks.”

Added Nevada senior offensive tackle Joel Bitonio: “We’ve got to bring the run game. … I think it’s going to be a big factor in the game, how we run the ball.”

The Broncos’ defense is on the upswing. They have allowed 307 yards per game in the past two contests. Southern Miss and Utah State combined for 230 rushing yards on 69 carries (3.3 per carry).

The Broncos had allowed 3.7 yards per carry in the first four games.

“I felt like as a defense we’d been practicing really hard,” junior defensive end Beau Martin said. “We were trying to get things right, but seeing it carry over on game day gives us a little bit of confidence.”

BSU players to watch

Bryan Douglas, CB

Douglas, the most experienced cornerback on the team, has found his groove as he approaches the one-year anniversary of his torn anterior cruciate ligament. He grabbed his team-best fourth interception last week at Utah State and broke up two passes in the end zone in the closing seconds of the first half (he also leads the team with four breakups).

“Ditty’s been awesome,” sophomore cornerback Donte Deayon said. “He’s been a good role model for us and he’s been stepping up to the plate. We’re really looking up to him.”

Added coach Chris Petersen: “He’s competing at a pretty good level. … He’s not the tallest guy, but he’s explosive and can jump.”

Holden Huff, TE

The sophomore returned last week at Utah State after missing three games with a lower-body injury. He made two catches for 17 yards.

“There are a lot of games left,” Huff said. “Missing a few, it’s frustrating, yeah. You think, ‘What could I have done during those games?’ But I paid attention to every rep and studied and got better that way, mentally.”

Huff’s return was a boon to the tight end corps that still is missing senior Gabe Linehan. The tight ends made five catches for 55 yards against Utah State — both season highs.

“Hopefully that continues,” Huff said.

Steven Baggett, RT

The redshirt freshman made his first start last week at right tackle in place of injured starter Rees Odhiambo and backup Jake Broyles. With Broyles out for the year, Baggett is the No. 3 tackle. It’s unclear whether he’ll start this week or if Odhiambo will return.

“I felt like I played pretty well,” Baggett said. “Nervous, of course, but after the first time you get out there all that goes away.”

Nevada players to watch

Cody Fajardo, QB

Fajardo, an All-Mountain West second-teamer last year, sprained a knee in the second game of the season. He missed two games and was limited for two more but, coming off a bye, he says he’s 100 percent this week despite wearing a knee brace. That will enable the Pack to reintroduce the quarterback run game.

“I feel like myself again,” he said.

Fajardo averages 296.2 passing yards per game and has not thrown an interception. He has rushed for 68.0 yards per game and accounted for 12 touchdowns (seven passing).

“When you have a quarterback like Cody, if you can contain him a little bit … ” Boise State coach Chris Petersen said. “It is hard. (Defenders) get their eyes in the wrong spot and he’s going to be around the corner. They’ve got lead blockers around the corner. They really do a good job with that quarterback run.”

Brandon Wimberly, WR

The All-Mountain West first-teamer has caught a pass in all 46 of his college games. This is his sixth year after the NCAA granted him a hardship for 2011, when he missed the season with serious injuries from a shooting.

Wimberly has the fourth-most career catches among active players with 210.

Brock Hekking, DE

The All-Mountain West second-teamer likely upgraded himself to first team in one game — six tackles, 3› tackles for loss, three sacks, two forced fumbles, two pass breakups and an interception against Hawaii, an effort that earned him a national defensive player of the week award.

He has four tackles for loss, but only one sack, against everyone else.

“He’s strong and he’s fast and he’s got some good moves,” Boise State offensive coordinator Robert Prince said, “and that’s a very deadly combination.”

Today's fan facts

Color scheme

Tri-color — Boise State fans are asked to wear orange on the east end of Bronco Stadium, white in the end zones and blue on the west end and the Stueckle Sky Center.

• Map at broncosports.com/colorschemes

Tailgating

For the first time, fans are allowed to legally drink alcohol in designated areas this season. The hours are 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. and all drinks must be in opaque cups.

Homecoming

The parade starts at 2:30 p.m., and will travel down University Drive and end near Bronco Stadium. Men’s basketball coach Leon Rice is the grand marshal.

Prohibited items

Noisemakers, large bags, outside food and weapons are not allowed in Bronco Stadium. Signs should fit in the area of your seat.

Giveaways & activities

• The first 2,000 fans at the Bronco Fan Table in the Ford Fan Zone will take home a Charles Leno Jr. schedule poster (collector series 4 of 6). The Fan Zone opens at 2:30 p.m., and also includes:

• Take a picture on the Blue and meet Bronco cheerleaders

• Get autographs and pictures with the men’s basketball team

• Take a picture with Zee the Tee Dog at the Zamzows photo booth

• Chili at the Idaho Beef Council stand

Taking donations

• Drop off a used cell phone for the Verizon HopeLine at the Verizon Wireless booth. Phones will be donated to domestic violence victims.

• Bring a canned good to donate to the Salvation Army, Idaho Food Bank and Boise Rescue Mission.

Chair rentals

Fans looking for extra comfort once inside Bronco Stadium for the game can stop by entrances D, E, M and N to rent a cushion seat with chair back for $5.

Chadd Cripe: 377-6398; Twitter: @IDS_BroncoBeat

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