The Boise State football team is seven spots behind No. 14 Utah State in the AP Top 25 this week — and yet the Broncos are favored to beat the Aggies on Saturday night at Albertsons Stadium.
That has less to do with the blue turf than the soft spot in the Aggies’ 10-game win streak. The best team they’ve beaten is BYU (6-5). Only two defenses they’ve faced during the streak ranked in the top 70.
That said, the Aggies are fully capable of winning on the Blue — a place where Boise State hasn’t lived up to its nearly unbeatable reputation in recent years.
Here are three keys for Boise State to win and secure the privilege of hosting the Mountain West championship game on Dec. 1 against Fresno State:
1. No special teams miscues. Advanced stats paint the Broncos (9-2) as a good team — except when the kicking units take the field. That part is a disaster.
Utah State is far better in the kicking game, and that’s one area where the Aggies could gain critical momentum and silence what should be a raucous crowd. The Broncos this season have missed six field goals (one blocked) and one PAT, averaged 36 yards per punt (6.3 fewer yards than opponents), had two punts blocked, botched a fake field goal, had trouble with snaps and allowed an 86-yard punt return for a TD. They’ve also committed countless special teams penalties that have affected field position, including one that wiped out a TD return.
Conversely, the Broncos have shown some big-play ability of their own — a kickoff return for a TD, a punt return for a TD and two blocked kicks.
Boise State can beat Utah State without a big play on special teams. But the Broncos must avoid major mistakes.
2. Rypien and Mattison. Boise State senior quarterback Brett Rypien and junior tailback Alexander Mattison have given the Broncos the balanced attack they need the past two weeks, fueling wins against Fresno State and New Mexico. Rypien was 41-for-56 for 491 yards with four touchdowns and one interception in those games. Mattison, bottled up much of the season, carried 50 times for 289 yards and three touchdowns. If they can force Utah State to defend the run and the pass equally, the Broncos offense will have a big night. The way Rypien and Mattison have played lately — and considering the Senior Night, big-game atmosphere — it’d be a surprise if they falter.
3. Force the Aggies to pass on third down. Boise State has won recently with a bend-but-don’t-break defense. Opponents frequently crack the Broncos’ 40-yard line but they’re struggling to finish drives. In the past three and a half games, dating to halftime against Air Force, Boise State has allowed five offensive touchdowns. One of the reasons the Broncos are able to make this style work: They rank seventh in the nation with 36 sacks. Get a team in predictable passing situations, and look out. That’s particularly important against a balanced attack like Utah State’s, which ranks in the top 30 nationally in rushing yards and passing yards.
This week’s predictions
Boise State is favored by 2.5 points against Utah State. The over/under is 67.5 points. The Broncos are 6-4-1 against the spread this season, including 3-2 at home. The Aggies are 9-2 against the spread (after a 6-0 start) and 3-2 on the road.
My pick (8-3 straight up, 4-7 ATS): Boise State still goes through bouts of uninspired football, without warning, on a weekly basis. But the Broncos have a dynamic passing game (particularly if John Hightower and/or Khalil Shakir rejoin the lineup) and a fiery runner in Alexander Mattison behind a much-improved offensive line. Defensively, the talent lost to injuries has been an issue but coaches are mixing and matching parts just well enough to slow opponents down until the standout pass rushers can disrupt the drive. This is a game the tested and hardened Broncos should win. Utah State is on a roll but hasn’t played a team like Boise State since the opening loss to Michigan State. Avoid the special teams errors, and the Broncos prevail in a thriller. Boise State 38, Utah State 31
Utah State perspective, from Jason Turner of The Herald Journal in Logan, Utah (opponent view is 9-2, 5-6): Utah State’s offense has been explosive and dynamic in 2018 as the Aggies broke the single-season records in points and touchdowns in their 10th game of the campaign. However, USU was a bit out of sorts in last week’s fortunate victory at Colorado State, although the Aggies did manage to score 10 points in their final two possessions. USU is banged up in the secondary as two starters, plus the guy who replaced one of those starters, are out for the season. That could spell major trouble against a veteran Boise State offense. If any Aggie team can beat the Broncos on the blue turf, it’s this one. But it’s hard to imagine BSU losing a big game at home, plus the Aggies haven’t won in Boise since 1996. I was a freshman in college at the time, so yeah, it’s been a long time. Boise State 42, Utah State 38
Betting expert Lee Sterling of Paramount Sports, who appears weekly on KTIK (8-3, 6-5): “Utah State is a really balanced team. On defense, I think they match up with Boise. ... I just think their quarterback, (Jordan) Love, is more consistent and can run and also throw the ball. Hate to say it, I think Boise’s going to play hard, but I like Utah State. ... It’s going to be a whale of a game.” Utah State 31, Boise State 30
College football spotlight
National game of the week — No. 4 Michigan (-4) at No. 10 Ohio State, 10 a.m. Saturday, FOX: The Buckeyes have been teetering for weeks. The Wolverines will finish them off. Michigan 27, Ohio State 13
Mountain West game of the week — Hawaii at San Diego State (-17), 8:30 p.m. Saturday, ESPNU: The winner finishes the regular season with eight wins, which would be a huge accomplishment for the Rainbow Warriors. This is the latest San Diego State line that makes no sense. The Aztecs are 0-8 ATS in their past eight games as favorites. San Diego State 19, Hawaii 17
Pac-12 game of the week — No. 16 Washington at No. 7 Washington State (-2.5), 6:30 p.m. Friday, FOX: Chris Petersen and Pete Kwiatkowski have vexed Mike Leach and the Cougars. It happens again. Washington 24, Washington State 23
Chadd Cripe is the Idaho Statesman’s sports columnist. Contact him at email@example.com and follow @chaddcripe on Twitter.