Boise State at BYU: Game breakdown

The key matchups, players and storylines for tonight’s game.

ccripe@idahostatesman.comOctober 25, 2013 

Demarcus Lawrence and the Boise State defense hope to enter BYU’s backfield when Taysom Hill drops back to pass behind a porous line.

KYLE GREEN — kgreen@idahostatesman.com

BRONCOS WITH THE BALL

A mystery for Broncos: Boise State’s offense likely won’t change much with junior quarterback Grant Hedrick at the helm. How well he can operate it — particularly the passing game — will go a long way toward determining who wins this game. “He hasn't played on the road yet,” BYU linebacker Kyle Van Noy said. “He’s going to face a big crowd on national TV and we're a very good defense. We probably will give him some things he hasn't seen.”

Missing pieces: The Broncos have played without starting slot receiver Kirby Moore for the past three games and starting right tackle Rees Odhiambo for much of the last three games. Coach Chris Petersen said he expects redshirt freshmen Steven Baggett and Travis Averill to play at right tackle this week.

COUGARS WITH THE BALL

Much-improved ‘D’: The Broncos defense has allowed a combined 40 points in the past three games and posted two second-half shutouts (Southern Miss, Nevada). Utah State’s offense scored with 20 seconds left, or it would be three straight second-half shutouts. “We're playing more as a team, we're more comfortable with each other out on the field and that makes us play better on game day,” junior cornerback Bryan Douglas said.

Sack attack: Boise State has recorded 14 sacks in the past three games, including six last week against Nevada. BYU has allowed 22 sacks, including eight last week against Houston. That’s not a good sign for Cougars quarterback Taysom Hill, who already takes a pounding as the team’s top run threat.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Special teams standouts: BYU possesses a strong set of specialists. Kickoff returner Adam Hine ranks third in the nation (32.8-yard average), punt returner JD Falslev has the fourth-most yards in the country (239), kicker Justin Sorensen has made 11 field goals and punter Scott Arellano has three games with at least two 50-yarders this season.

Where’d the returns go? Boise State produced two long kickoff returns against Fresno State but hasn’t been able to do much since. Coaches have tried switching up the returners, but that hasn’t worked .

Watch the blocks: BYU has had three punts blocked this season. Boise State has blocked three field goals.

Today's key matchup

BOISE STATE’S OFFENSIVE LINE VS. BYU’S FRONT SEVEN

Boise State is coming off the fifth-best rushing game in school history — a 407-yard effort against Nevada. The Broncos will be hard-pressed to get even half that many yards this week against a stout BYU defense, but they need some production on the ground to take pressure off first-time starting quarterback Grant Hedrick.

The Cougars allow 3.5 yards per carry and 135.4 rushing yards per game. They have allowed three rushing TDs, tied for fourth-fewest in the nation.

Last year, Boise State rushed 40 times for 116 yards (2.9 per carry) against BYU.

“They’re tough. They’re real tough. We kind of learned that last year,” Boise State tight ends coach Scott Huff said. “They’ve got good players and they’re putting them in good spots and they’re just executing really well.”

The Broncos may need to exercise patience in the run game. Last week, Ajayi gained 38 yards on his first eight carries (4.75 yards per carry) and 184 yards on his last 16 (11.5). “It doesn’t always happen on the first (carry),” Ajayi said. “That’s just the thing with running back. You’ve got to keep pounding it. One of those times, it’s going to break, and when you get that opportunity, you have to take it.”

Boise State players to watch

JAY AJAYI, tailback

Ajayi caught BYU’s attention with his 222-yard, three-touchdown performance last week against Nevada. He ranks 16th in the nation with 109.4 rushing yards per game and tied for first with 12 rushing touchdowns.

“That’s an NFL running back,” BYU senior linebacker Kyle Van Noy said.

Ajayi has rushed for 414 yards and five touchdowns in the past three games, since he was benched for fumbling against Fresno State. He has lost just 4 yards in those games.

“My game is starting to get there,” he said. “But at the same time, I know I haven’t played my best football yet. I’m constantly looking at ways I need to improve, whether it’s in pass protection or making good cuts on the second level. I just know that my best is yet to come.”

He matched his career-long run last week with a 71-yard touchdown sprint that gave the Broncos the lead for good.

“The line, they just opened a hole,” Ajayi said. “Anybody could have run through that thing. I was just grateful and I made sure I told them all thank you after that play — it was a big play and our team needed that play and I was just happy to make it for our team.”

DEMARCUS LAWRENCE, defensive end

Lawrence vaulted into contention for the Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year award with his play in the past three games. He has collected 19 tackles, six tackles for loss, 5 1/2 sacks and two blocked field goals in that time.

He leads the Mountain West with 6 1/2 sacks — putting him in position to lead the league for the second straight year.

TANNER VALLEJO, linebacker

Vallejo, a true freshman, made his first start last week at middle linebacker in place of injured junior Blake Renaud. Vallejo made seven tackles and impressed teammates when he made tackles on four of the first five snaps.

“That was great,” senior defensive tackle Ricky Tjong-A-Tjoe said. “I love to see that — a freshman just come in and hit somebody. It was a surprise. That first play he just came in and hit the quarterback.”

BYU players to watch

KYLE VAN NOY, linebacker

Van Noy, a senior, is one of the nation’s most disruptive defensive players. He has recorded 26 career sacks — second-most of any active player. He is tied for fourth in BYU history and seven behind the school record set by Brandon Flint (1980-83).

He has 44 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, four sacks, an interception and five pass breakups this season. He has scored a touchdown in all four of his college seasons.

“He’s just got ‘it,’ ” Boise State coach Chris Petersen said. “He’s got the instincts. He kind of makes it look effortless.”

Van Noy made only two tackles against the Broncos last season, but he didn’t go unnoticed.

“He’s crafty — a relentless player,” senior left tackle Charles Leno Jr. said. “You’ve just got to trust your technique. Don’t lunge and don’t try to be too aggressive. Be patient and wait for him to make his move. Once he makes his move, then strike.”

Van Noy was an Associated Press third-team All-American last season. He finished with 22 tackles for loss, 13 sacks, six forced fumbles, two interceptions and two blocked kicks.

That includes an incredible performance in the Poinsettia Bowl against San Diego State — 3 1/2 tackles for loss, 1 1/2 sacks, an interception, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, a blocked kick and two touchdowns.

TAYSOM HILL, quarterback

No player in the country has produced more runs of 10 yards or more — 37 so far. Hill has rushed for more yards (772) than Jay Ajayi, a number reduced by 22 sacks.

“He’s like a running back,” Petersen said. “Not only can he run around you, he’s going to break tackles. They run him all sorts of different ways and he doesn’t bat an eye.”

CODY HOFFMAN, wide receiver

Hoffman leads the nation’s active receivers with 30 career TD catches. He’s second in career catches (school-record 228) and yards (3,185). He has 25 catches this year with an 18.7-yard average.

“Cody’s just a spectacular football player,” Hill said. “The kid catches everything you throw to him, and he’s continued to be a security blanket, if you will, for me as a young quarterback. I’m grateful to have a guy like that.”

Chadd Cripe: 377-6398; Twitter: @IDS_BroncoBeat

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