I’ll usually take the more motivated team in a bowl game because there are so many distractions in December that it’s easy to lose focus.
It’s not that easy for the Las Vegas Bowl featuring No. 25 Boise State (10-3) and Oregon (7-5).
The Ducks’ motivation level is difficult to gauge. They’re going through a coaching transition, which is usually an ominous sign. But co-offensive coordinator Mario Cristobal was promoted to head coach — and he was the players’ choice to get the job. Does that nullify the turmoil caused by coach Willie Taggart’s departure for Florida State?
“Coaching changes are always kind of a tough transition, but coach Cristobal has done a great job keeping us focused,” Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert said. “... We’ll go to battle for him any day.”
One of the Ducks’ star players, running back Royce Freeman, opted not to play in the bowl game to focus on his NFL Draft preparation. That’s a loss on the field for sure. Is it a sign of larger issues or just one guy making a decision based on his best interest?
On Boise State’s side, the motivation is clear. The Broncos are 0-2 against Power Five schools this year, they’ve lost their past three such games — including a blowout loss to Baylor in the Cactus Bowl last year — and this is a rare shot at one of college football’s glamour programs. They’ll be ready to go.
But injuries are a major question mark on their sideline. Running back Alexander Mattison and tight end Jake Roh — the Broncos’ top two touchdown scorers this season — are questionable at best with lower-leg injuries. Even if they play, their effectiveness is in doubt.
So let’s call all of those factors a wash.
At that point, you have to consider Oregon a sizable favorite — as the oddsmakers have. The Ducks, who have the advantage in speed and talent, are favored by seven points. They’re 6-1 when quarterback Justin Herbert plays, including a 117-38 scoring margin against Arizona and Oregon State to close the regular season.
“They’re a very dynamic offense,” Boise State linebacker Leighton Vander Esch said. “... They can do anything they want to do because they’ve got the players for it.”
The Broncos are underdogs for the third time this season. They led Washington State — a 10-point favorite — by 21 points in the fourth quarter in September before losing in triple overtime, and they smoked 6-point favorite San Diego State 31-14 in October. In both games, the Broncos started fast, used turnovers and special teams to create scores, and got a gritty effort from the offense.
That’s the recipe again in Las Vegas. If the Broncos don’t force at least one turnover, they’re not going to win. They probably need to force two. If they don’t make a key play or two on special teams, they’re not going to win. Punt returner Avery Williams, punters Quinn Skillin and Joel Velazquez, and kicker Haden Hoggarth need to cap their breakout seasons with strong performances in the bowl game.
And junior quarterback Brett Rypien must continue to play with smarts and efficiency, as he did for most of the Broncos’ 8-1 finish to the regular season.
“It’s something Boise’s always done — nobody believed in us when we played against Oklahoma, TCU, Arizona (in the Fiesta Bowls) — none of those teams,” Boise State safety DeAndre Pierce said. “It all comes down to us.”
This feels like the type of game where the Broncos tend to surprise, like Washington State earlier this year. But the Broncos — who have scored 17 points in each of their past two games — don’t have the firepower to keep up.
Oregon 37, Boise State 27