Boise State Football

Who has the edge and players to watch as Boise State travels to ailing UNLV

WHO HAS THE EDGE?

When the Broncos run the ball

Boise State (4-0, 1-0 Mountain West) has had a strange year in the running game. The Broncos were their most productive on the ground against Florida State, arguably the best team they’ve played, and they finished close games against Marshall and Air Force by controlling the clock with the run.

But for the first three quarters against Marshall, Portland State and Air Force, the running game was largely missing. Part of that is play calling — against those defenses, which commit to stopping the run, the Broncos opted to throw more often.

But they have two productive tailbacks who likely will start to get the ball more in junior Robert Mahone (5.8 yards per carry, four TDs) and true freshman George Holani (4.7 yards per carry). Mahone finished the Air Force game with a pair of 10-yard touchdown runs in the fourth quarter.

“I’m hard on myself,” Mahone said. “Right now, I’m not where I’m supposed to be. I feel like I have a lot to improve on and I feel like I could do a lot more.”

As a team, Boise State ranks 94th nationally in yards per carry (3.7). UNLV is 112th against the run (5.1).

Edge: Boise State

When the Broncos pass the ball

True freshman quarterback Hank Bachmeier has been more efficient with each start — and if the Broncos’ bye-week work on improved protection and timing translates to games, he could extend that trend. UNLV (1-3, 0-1) ranks 79th nationally in pass-efficiency defense.

Bachmeier also has been hit progressively less each game, although the total of 65 hits in four games remains a concern. He was only hit twice in the second half of the Air Force game, and one was on a run play.

He has five receivers in double digits for catches — topped by slot receivers Khalil Shakir (19 catches, 246 yards, one TD) and CT Thomas (14, 283, 3). Deep threat John Hightower has added 13 catches, 198 yards and two TDs.

Edge: Boise State

When the Rebels run the ball

UNLV averages 201.5 rushing yards per game and 5.2 yards per carry, but the top two rushers are dealing with injuries.

Star running back Charles Williams, who set a school record with 455 yards in the first three games, took a helmet hit to a knee last week at Wyoming and left the game. He is expected to play against Boise State. He averages 8.58 yards per carry, which ranks 10th in the nation.

Quarterback Armani Rogers, who is second on the team with 204 rushing yards, won’t start and his availability is uncertain. Backup Kenyon Oblad isn’t as much of a running threat, which will make it easier for the Broncos to key on Williams.

Boise State hasn’t allowed more than 116 rushing yards to any of its three traditional opponents this season (not Air Force, in other words) but will be playing without middle linebacker Ezekiel Noa (torn ACL).

Edge: Boise State

When the Rebels pass the ball

UNLV is the sixth-worst passing team by efficiency in the country — and that’s with the starting quarterback in the game. The Rebels have completed just 54 percent of their passes and have thrown five interceptions.

Top receiver Randal Grimes, a USC transfer, has 14 catches for 175 yards and a touchdown. The Rebels have three receivers with catches of 49 yards or longer but have done little outside of those plays.

Oblad, a redshirt freshman from nearby Henderson, is more of a pocket passer, which could give the Rebels a spark in the passing game. But his inexperience also could cause issues against a Boise State defense that has 14 sacks this season and limits opponents to 25 percent third-down conversions.

Edge: Boise State

Special teams

Coach Bryan Harsin called out some of his offensive and defensive starters this week by saying they haven’t been committed enough to the program’s renewed emphasis on special teams. The Broncos haven’t been lousy outside of the punt game — they rank fifth-worst nationally in punting — but they haven’t done much to affect the outcome of the game, either.

Kicker Eric Sachse has been a bright spot, providing five field goals in the five-point win at Florida State, and Hightower returned a kickoff for a touchdown against Portland State. Otherwise, it’s been a sleepy season. And in the last game, the Broncos had a PAT blocked — an unwelcome reminder of how they lost the Mountain West championship game last year (although this block came up the middle, not from the edge).

“I don’t think we’ve been all in,” Harsin said. “And that’s something that we’ve addressed with the players. ... We’re trying to make an emphasis on our special teams improving and, so far, a couple areas we have, but I wouldn’t say we’ve made the type of strides that we want to on special teams. And the frustrating part is we actually spend a lot of time on it.”

UNLV has its own special teams issues. It hasn’t returned a punt for a touchdown in 18 years — the school says that likely is the longest streak in the nation — and punter Hayes Hicken posted the unusual combo of a 17-yard punt and a 71-yard punt against Arkansas State.

Edge: Push

Wickersham.jpg
Boise State linebacker Benton Wickersham, top, dives for the ball after Boise State safety Tyreque Jones, right, broke up a pass to Utah State wide receiver Jordan Nathan on Nov. 24, 2018, at Albertsons Stadium in Boise. Steve Conner AP

PLAYERS TO WATCH

BOISE STATE

DeAndre Pierce, S

There’s a good chance Pierce will see his first game action Saturday since he was injured in the Broncos’ season opener at Florida State. When the 5-foot-11, 180-pound junior is on the field, the Broncos are a better team. Pierce participated in practice this week and is no longer wearing a protective boot.

“That guy runs the show when he is in. ... You never want a guy like that out,” Boise State defensive coordinator Jeff Schmedding said. “... If you listen to him pre-snap, that is one smart football player. You have a guy like that back there — which is critical with all the shifts, motions, identifying things before they happen — it’s hard to put a price on that.”

John Ojukwu, RT

The Broncos thought they could lean on an experienced offensive line to start the season, but Ojukwu was injured in the opener and left tackle Ezra Cleveland also missed a game. The shuffling on the line might come to an end against UNLV, as Ojukwu (6-6, 300) participated in practice this week and coach Bryan Harsin suggested his return is imminent.

“I’ll say this about John and DeAndre: Those two guys are tough dudes. I don’t think they’re pain free by any means, but I know that they want to play,” Harsin said. “It’s our job to make sure that we’re able to let them play at the level they need to. They’re gonna push themselves, and they’ve been doing that. This week will be a big test for how far they’ve come and are they ready to play Saturday.”

Benton Wickersham, MLB

The 6-2, 230-pound junior will make his third career start in place of sophomore Ezekiel Noa, who tore an ACL and broke a wrist against Air Force. Wickersham has 11 total tackles this season, including one for loss, and 46 career tackles. He is a former walk-on.

“You can’t try to play outside of yourself. You just fall back on your coaching and what you’ve done all week,” Wickersham said. “You can’t try do anything crazy, just play the way that you’ve been coached to play.”

Williams.jpg
UNLV running back Charles Williams runs for a touchdown against Northwestern on Sept. 14, 2019, in Evanston, Ill. Kamil Krzaczynski AP

UNLV

Kenyon Oblad, QB

UNLV coach Tony Sanchez originally said the Rebels’ starting quarterback would be a game-time decision after starter Armani Rogers (6-5, 225) sprained a knee against Wyoming. But Sanchez announced Thursday that Oblad, a redshirt freshman, would see his first career start against the Broncos. Rogers is “cleared” to play but “very limited,” according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

“They both are really good quarterbacks, but bring kind of a different style,” Boise State nickel Kekaula Kaniho said. “(Rogers) is more of a running threat than the other quarterback is. But we prepared for them both equally as if we could see either one of them.”

Charles Williams, RB

Williams exited in the second quarter against Wyoming last week with a sprained knee, but he is expected to play against the Broncos. The 5-9, 190-pound junior rushed for 143, 168 and 144 yards in the Rebels’ first three games and currently ranks 10th in the FBS with an average of 118.0 rushing yards per game.

“I think for a guy that’s not real big in stature, he’s very strong and has very, very good balance,” Schmedding said. “You see him bounce off tacklers and then accelerate to the perimeter. There’s a lot of times where you see good defenses chasing him. Every single game we’ve seen, he’s had explosive plays.”

Justin Polu, RT

UNLV’s only player to make the preseason All-Mountain West team has started all 40 games of his collegiate career at right guard, but he’s switching to right tackle against the Broncos. Polu, a 6-4, 325-pound senior, helped the Rebels rank 19th in the nation last season with 224 rushing yards per game.

“You can look at records and all those things, but when I watch (UNLV), I’m looking at an offense that can run the heck out of the ball,” Schmedding said. “That sets up some things that can test you in the pass game.”

BOISE STATE DEPTH CHART

Quarterback

19 Hank Bachmeier, 6-1, 202 (Fr.)

10 Chase Cord, 6-2, 208 (RSo.)

9 Jaylon Henderson, 6-1, 210 (RSr.)

Running back

34 Robert Mahone, 5-10, 218 (RJr.)

21 Andrew Van Buren, 6-0, 223 (So.)

24 George Holani, 5-11, 192 (Fr.)

Wide receiver

16 John Hightower, 6-2, 172 (Sr.)

1 Octavius Evans, 6-1, 209 (Jr.)

Wide receiver

6 CT Thomas, 5-8, 182 (Jr.) OR

2 Khalil Shakir, 6-0, 186 (So.)

Wide receiver

7 Akilian Butler, 5-10, 182 (RSr.)

82 Stefan Cobbs, 6-0, 178 (RFr.)

18 Billy Bowens, 6-1, 187 (RFr.)

Tight end

85 John Bates, 6-6, 255 (RJr.)

5 Garrett Collingham, 6-4, 242 (RSr.)

47 Matt Pistone, 6-3, 246 (RSr.)

88 Tyneil Hopper, 6-2, 231 (RFr.)

Left tackle

76 Ezra Cleveland, 6-6, 310 (RJr.)

73 Nick Crabtree, 6-7, 295 (RJr.)

Left guard

77 John Molchon, 6-5, 318 (RSr.)

72 Dallas Holliday, 6-3, 306 (RFr.)

Center

67 Garrett Larson, 6-4, 303 (RSr.)

55 Kekaniokoa Holomalia-Gonzalez, 6-2, 293 (RFr.)

Right guard

79 Eric Quevedo, 6-4, 302 (RSr.)

68 Jake Stetz, 6-2, 294 (RSo.)

Right tackle

70 John Ojukwu, 6-6, 300 (RSo.)

69 Garrett Curran, 6-5, 292 (RFr.)

Defensive end

93 Chase Hatada, 6-3, 262 (Sr.)

54 Matt Locher, 6-2, 270 (RSr.) OR

40 Jabari Watson, 6-1, 269 (RJr.)

Nose tackle

98 Sonatane Lui, 6-1, 283 (Sr.)

57 Emmanuel Fesili, 6-2, 312 (Sr.) OR

90 Scale Igiehon, 6-2, 306 (So.)

Defensive tackle

55 David Moa, 6-3, 296 (6YSr.)

62 Scott Matlock, 6-4, 283 (RFr.)

STUD end

99 Curtis Weaver, 6-3, 265 (RJr.)

38 Demetri Washington, 6-3, 254 (RFr.)

Weak-side linebacker

44 Riley Whimpey, 6-1, 233 (Jr.)

3 Brandon Hawkins, 6-2, 217 (RFr.)

Middle linebacker

25 Benton Wickersham, 6-2, 230 (Jr.)

48 Bruno DeRose, 5-11, 223 (RJr.)

Nickel/strong-side LB

28 Kekaula Kaniho, 5-10, 182 (Jr.)

20 Roman Kafentzis, 6-1, 212 (RSo.)

Cornerback

26 Avery Williams, 5-9, 198 (RJr.)

8 Markel Reed, 6-0, 176 (Fr.)

Cornerback

15 Jalen Walker, 6-0, 179 (RJr.)

22 Tyric LeBeauf, 6-2, 180 (RFr.)

Boundary Safety

10 Kekoa Nawahine, 6-2, 207 (Sr.)

33 JL Skinner, 6-4, 213 (Fr.)

Field Safety

4 DeAndre Pierce, 5-11, 180 (RJr.)

21 Tyreque Jones, 6-2, 201 (RSo.) OR

5 Evan Tyler, 6-2, 195 (RSr.)

Kicker

36 Eric Sachse, 5-10, 198 (RSr.)

46 Joel Velazquez, 6-0, 225 (RJr.)

Kick returner

16 John Hightower, 6-2, 172 (Sr.)

26 Avery Williams, 5-9, 198 (RJr.)

Punter

46 Joel Velazquez, 6-0, 225 (RJr.)

36 Eric Sachse, 5-10, 198 (RSr.)

Punt returner

26 Avery Williams, 5-9, 198 (RJr.)

2 Khalil Shakir, 6-0, 186 (So.)

UNLV DEPTH CHART

Quarterback

7 Kenyon Oblad, 6-3, 190 (RFr.)

1 Armani Rogers, 6-5, 225 (Jr.)

Running back

8 Charles Williams, 5-9, 190 (Jr.)

34 Darran Williams, 5-11, 200 (Jr.)

Wide receiver

4 Randal Grimes, 6-4, 205 (So.)

85 Patrick Ballard, 6-3, 200 (RFr.)

Wide receiver

10 Darren Woods Jr., 6-0, 215 (Sr.)

2 Mekhi Stevenson, 6-0, 180 (So.) OR

82 Jacob Gasser, 6-0, 180 (Jr.)

Wide receiver

9 Tyleek Collins, 5-9, 170 (So.)

84 Steve Jenkins, 5-11, 165 (Fr.)

Tight end

45 Giovanni Fauolo, 6-2, 250 (Jr.)

11 Noah Bean, 6-2, 245 (So.)

88 Shelton Zeon III, 6-4, 225 (RFr.)

Left tackle

71 Justice Oluwaseun, 6-3, 325 (So.)

73 Ashton Morgan, 6-5, 305 (So.)

Left guard

72 Matt Brayton, 6-3, 310 (Jr.)

75 Jaron Caldwell, 6-4, 335 (Sr.)

Center

70 Sid Acosta, 6-1, 300 (Sr.)

67 Jackson Reynolds, 6-0, 275 (So.)

Right guard

74 Julio Garcia II, 6-3, 320 (Jr.)

61 Ryan Tantum, 6-4, 315 (Jr.)

Right tackle

78 Justin Polu, 6-4, 325 (Sr.)

75 Jaron Caldwell, 6-4, 335 (Sr.)

Defensive end

98 Nick Dedashtian, 6-1, 280 (Jr.) OR

91 Nate Neal, 6-3, 240 (Jr.)

Defensive tackle

93 Dominion Ezinwa, 6-4, 300 (Sr.)

99 Chris Manoa, 6-0, 335 (So.)

Nose tackle

94 Kolo Uasike, 6-0, 305 (Jr.)

96 Montrice Johns, 6-3, 325 (Sr.)

BUCK

25 Gabe McCoy, 6-2, 220 (Sr.)

35 Jacoby Windmon, 6-2, 215 (Fr.)

Strong-side linebacker

16 Javin White, 6-3, 205 (Sr.)

22 Demitrius Gibbs, 6-4, 205 (Sr.)

Middle linebacker

53 Farrell Hester II, 6-1, 240 (Jr.) OR

10 Vic Viramontes, 6-2, 230 (Jr.)

Weak-side linebacker

6 Rayshad Jackson, 6-0, 235 (Sr.) OR

43 Malakai Salu, 6-0, 230 (RFr.)

Cornerback

7 Jericho Flowers, 5-10, 180 (Sr.)

28 Aaron Lewis, 5-9, 185 (Jr.)

Strong safety

17 Evan Austrie, 6-0, 210 (Sr.)

24 Bryce Jackson, 5-9, 190 (So.)

Free safety

23 Greg Francis, 6-2, 195 (Jr.)

22 Demitrius Gibbs, 6-4, 205 (Sr.)

Cornerback

14 Myles Plummer, 6-1, 185 (Sr.)

31 Kyle Moses, 5-9, 185 (So.)

Kicker

32 Daniel Gutierrez, 5-10, 215 (Jr.)

Kick returner

9 Tyleek Collins, 5-9, 170 (So.)

33 Tyree Jackson, 5-8, 175 (Jr.)

Punter

19 Hayes Hicken, 5-11, 185 (Sr.)

Punt returner

82 Jacob Gasser, 6-0, 180 (Jr.)

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