Boise State at San Diego State: Game breakdown

The matchups, players and keys to Saturday night’s game.

ccripe@idahostatesman.comNovember 23, 2013 

San Diego State's Adam Muema averages 123 yards per game against Boise State.

EUGENE TANNER — The Associated Press

Broncos with the ball

Ugly starts: Quarterback Grant Hedrick has committed a turnover on the first drive in three of the past four games, continuing the Broncos’ trend of poor starts. The opponent has scored first in four straight games ‚ including three 10-0 leads.

Awkward D: San Diego State coach Rocky Long’s defense can be difficult to figure because there are so many moving parts. That usually causes the most trouble in the run game. The Broncos rushed for 112 yards last year. “We just know we’re going to have to come with a very physical run game,” tailback Jay Ajayi said.

Making plays: The Broncos’ wide receivers have stepped up in the past two games with 43 catches for 572 yards (13.3 per catch) and eight touchdowns. “It’s a really good thing to see,” senior WR Geraldo Boldewijn said.

Aztecs with the ball

Quite a turnaround: The Aztecs were not competitive in their first two games, losses to Eastern Illinois and Ohio State. But since installing junior college walk-on Quinn Kaehler as the starting QB they are 6-2— and the losses were to Oregon State and Fresno State in games they probably should have won. “They’re just playing better football,” Boise State linebackers coach Bob Gregory said.

Breakthrough or just one game? Boise State’s defense allowed a season-low 265 yards and forced four turnovers last week against Wyoming. It was vintage defense from a group that has not looked Bronco-like most of the year. “It was the energy,” senior defensive tackle Ricky Tjong-A-Tjoe said. “Every time we do that and we’re on top of our assignments, we’re going to do good as a defense.”

Special teams

How ‘bout those kickers? Boise State kicker Dan Goodale leads the Mountain West in field-goal percentage (92.3) and has made 12 in a row. Punter Trevor Harman would rank third in punting average if he had enough attempts to qualify (44.2-yard average on 20 punts), and Sean Wale would be first (50.2 on 12).

On the other hand … San Diego State has had a rough year with its kickers. The Aztecs are 8-for-15 on field goals, including a blocked attempt that would have beaten Fresno State, and 27-of-32 on PATs. Punter Joel Alesi ranks 10th in the MW with a 39.6-yard average.

Dynamic returners: Boise State’s Shane Williams-Rhodes leads the MW in punt returns (15.6-yard average) and San Diego State’s Colin Lockett is second in kickoff returns (25.3).

Key matchup: BSU's front seven vs. SDSU's rushing attack

The Aztecs use a huddle — a rare tactic in today’s college football. Boise State coach Chris Petersen said his defensive players will appreciate that.

“(They’ll) probably cheer. Applaud,” he said.

The Broncos also like the style of San Diego State’s offense — a power-run, play-action-passing attack.

“This is the one game I knew I wanted to be back and be healthy for,” said junior middle linebacker Blake Renaud, who returned last week after missing three games.

But all that excitement should be tempered by what San Diego State does with its old-school approach. The Aztecs have rushed for 1,508 yards and 21 touchdowns at a rate of 5.2 yards per carry over the past seven games — six of them wins.

Junior tailback Adam Muema (5.0 yards per carry) runs with a burst of power that makes him difficult to tackle, and true freshman Donnel Pumphrey (6.5) adds dynamic quickness.

The Broncos stuffed the run last week against Wyoming. They rank fifth in the Mountain West in rushing yards allowed, but they’re second in rushing yards allowed per attempt — just 3.6. San Diego State won last year’s game with 43 carries for 164 yards (3.8 per carry) and just 105 passing yards.

“Over the last four or five weeks, we’ve run the ball well,” San Diego State coach Rocky Long said. “We’ve got to continue to do that. Saturday is going to be a big test, because it’s a typical Boise State defense. They’re very physical and they play hard, so we’ll have our hands full with them."

Boise State players to watch

JAY AJAYI, RB

The Broncos keep looking, but they have yet to find a reliable alternative to Ajayi in the run game — at least since the injury to backup tailback Aaron Baltazar. Ajayi averages 18.2 carries per game and has rushed for 1,078 yards — half of the team’s rushing total. No one else has rushed for 300 yards.

“I like to believe I can carry that weight and carry that pressure,” Ajayi said. “I come out each game and try to do whatever I can to help the team win. Still, I’ve got a good ways to go.”

Ajayi already ranks 15th in school history for single-season rushing yards. If he hits his average for three more games, he’ll be among the top four. He also has 15 rushing touchdowns, and needs just two to move into third behind Brock Forsey (26, 2002) and Ian Johnson (25, 2006). Ajayi’s weakness has been fumbles, but he says he has addressed that issue by working on ball security in traffic.

“I haven’t changed my running style,” he said. “It was second-effort ball security. A lot of times when I was breaking the first tackle and trying to break the second tackle the ball was coming away from my body.”

SHANE WILLIAMS-RHODES AND MATT MILLER, WRs

Williams-Rhodes, a sophomore, and Miller, a junior, might both break the school record for receptions in a season. Williams-Rhodes has 71 catches — many of them screen passes — and is just 11 short of the record Jeremy Childs set in 2007. Miller has 60 — his third straight season with at least that many — and is on a tear. In the past two games, he has 13 catches for 239 yards and five touchdowns. Miller ranks fourth in school history with 188 career catches and needs 41 to match the record held by Austin Pettis.

“Matt’s a playmaker,” coach Chris Petersen said. “Just get the ball around him and he makes a lot of people right.”

DEMARCUS LAWRENCE, DE

Lawrence is making a strong push for the Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year award. He leads the Mountain West and is tied for second nationally with 10.5 sacks (most by a Bronco in the FBS era), and leads the Mountain West and is fourth nationally with 15 tackles for loss. He also is second in the Mountain West with three forced fumbles. He has 20 career sacks in just 20 career games. The school record in the FBS era is 21.5, set by Ryan Winterswyk (2007-10).

San Diego State players to watch

ADAM MUEMA, RB

Muema, a junior, has rushed for at least 100 yards in four straight games. He has 99 carries for 620 yards (6.3 per carry) and eight touchdowns in that stretch. He was limited by a sprained ankle early in the season, but has hit his stride since. He has averaged 140 rushing yards per game in conference games — second-most in the league. Muema needs 42 yards to record his second 1,000-yard season. He accumulated 1,458 yards and 16 touchdowns last season.

The Broncos are fully aware of Muema’s prowess. The 5-foot-10, 205-pounder made his first career start in 2011 against Boise State when Ronnie Hillman was injured. Muema rushed 13 times for 119 yards and two touchdowns and caught a TD pass. Last year in Boise, he carried 25 times for 127 yards and a touchdown to help the Aztecs pull off an upset on the blue.

Muema has proved exceptionally difficult to tackle.

“He’s not a big, tall guy, but he’s a compact, well-built guy,” Boise State linebackers coach Bob Gregory said. “He’s really powerful, but he’s also quick. He’s made everybody miss.”

EZELL RUFFIN, WR

The Aztecs’ rushing attack gets the attention, but Ruffin has put some bite in the passing game.

He has four 100-yard performances in the past seven games — including a four-game hot streak of 24 catches, 470 yards and two touchdowns. He leads the team with 54 catches and ranks fourth in the Mountain West with 947 yards.

He has a career average of 17.8 yards per catch.

NAT BERHE, S

Boise State offensive coordinator Robert Prince called Berhe a Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year candidate.

The senior has started 35 straight games. He made 94 tackles last season, the most by any returning player in the Mountain West and the most by an Aztec in coach Rocky Long’s first four years running the defense.

Berhe likely will do even more damage this year. He already has 82 tackles, five pass breakups (tying his career high) and two fumble recoveries (career high). The only thing missing is an interception, but he has five in his career.

“He is a very active run defender,” Prince said. “He is always around the ball.”

Chadd Cripe: 377-6398, Twitter: @IDS_BroncoBeat

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