Boise State Football

Players to watch when No. 14 Boise State hosts BYU

BYU’s Kai Nacua has 11 interceptions since the start of the 2015 season, two of which he returned for touchdowns.
BYU’s Kai Nacua has 11 interceptions since the start of the 2015 season, two of which he returned for touchdowns. Associated Press file

BOISE STATE

THOMAS SPERBECK, WIDE RECEIVER

In all likelihood, Sperbeck will break Boise State’s career receiving record Thursday. The senior’s 3,030 yards are 34 shy from breaking the record of 3,063 set by Titus Young from 2007-10. Sperbeck will be looking for a better showing than he had in last year’s meeting with the Cougars: two catches for 13 yards, the fewest in any game in which he’s had a catch since his freshman year. This season, the Cougars are allowing 271 passing yards per game.

“That guy’s a lion. ... He’s very consistent,” Boise State coach Bryan Harsin said. “We want guys like that on this team.”

DARREN LEE, LINEBACKER

Lee has saved his best for last, stepping into a much larger role on defense and thriving. The senior has started the past five games and has 36 tackles (six for loss) and a 19-yard fumble return for a touchdown this season. A returned LDS missionary, Lee has often played some of his best games against BYU, and the Broncos will need it against the Cougars (200.9 rushing yards per game).

“At the end of the day, we get a win, if what I do to contribute gets us a win, then I sleep great at night,” Lee said. “... It’s nice to go out there, playing linebacker and getting stuff done.”

DYLAN SUMNER-GARDNER, SAFETY

After being suspended the first four games of the season for academic issues and not traveling to the New Mexico game Oct. 7, Sumner-Gardner made his season debut Saturday against Colorado State and had three tackles. The former four-star recruit started the first four games last season before suffering a season-ending ankle injury.

“He did a solid job,” defensive coordinator Andy Avalos said of the sophomore. “I’ve been messing with him about those fresh legs, and he’s calling them ‘happy legs,’ happy to be out there running around, and he’s playing like that right now.”

BYU

TAYSOM HILL, QUARTERBACK

The Pocatello native will get one more shot at his home state’s top team Thursday, and the site of his very first collegiate action. Hill came in the second half of the Cougars’ 7-6 loss to the Broncos on Sept. 20, 2012. He led BYU to a touchdown but was stopped on the 2-point conversion. The next year, he led BYU to a 37-20 win over Boise State, but a broken leg (2014) and fractured foot (2015) have prevented him from playing the Broncos since.

“He’s still physical. He’s probably a little bit smarter ... how they want him to run and slide, do some of those things. He probably didn’t do that before,” Harsin said.

KAI NACUA, SAFETY

A thorn in the side of the Broncos, Nacua intercepted then-Boise State quarterback Ryan Finley three times in last season’s meeting, running the last one back 50 yards for a touchdown with 30 seconds left. The senior has again been a ballhawk, tied for No. 1 in the nation with five interceptions while adding 31 tackles and a fumble recovery.

“He’s big and physical, but he has great instincts, and that’s why he finds the ball all the time,” BYU coach Kalani Sitake said.

FRED WARNER, LINEBACKER

The latest in a line of productive BYU linebackers, Warner is tied for the team lead with 51 tackles and four pass breakups while adding an interception. He broke up Mississippi State’s final pass attempt in the second overtime Friday to seal the win. One of his first career highlights came in 2014 as a freshman, when he returned an interception 20 yards for a touchdown against Boise State.

“He is one heck of an athlete,” BYU sophomore linebacker Francis Bernard said. “We’d put him in any situation to make a play.”

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