What lies ahead for Boise State today in the First Responder Bowl? Will it be a sour experience like the one in the 2016 Cactus Bowl, or an exhilarating one like last December’s Las Vegas Bowl? That brings us to followup questions. Is Boise State a better team than it was in 2016? Is Boston College better than Baylor? Yes, and yes. The reasons for concern in this one: the Broncos have not fared well of late against Power 5 schools. Their only win in the past five tries was against the Ducks in Vegas, with the loss to Oklahoma State in September still stinging. And there are missing persons today. The Boise State passing game will have to cope without John Hightower and Khalil Shakir again, and the sudden loss of Tyson Maeva at linebacker in particular leaves this team in a lurch.
Reasons for optimism: This team is different from the one in 2016. It’s more reflective of last year’s squad, which had a belief in itself going into the Oregon game. This season Boise State had that belief entering the November regular-season game against Fresno State and the finale versus Utah State, both thrilling victories. And the Broncos believed in the Mountain West championship game against what the Bulldogs are calling their best team in school history. Only that dreaded special teams blunder kept Boise State from a second straight trophy. The Broncos have jury-rigged their lineup all season due to injuries and have survived. And there’s the belief that Brett Rypien will play well in the final game of his career.
Maeva’s forced return home due to “a violation of team standards” leaves Boise State razor-thin at linebacker. Maeva was symbolic of the Broncos’ grit in November, leaving the field several times and playing through. He had 11 tackles, a sack and a forced fumble in the Mountain West championship game. But now a misstep of some sort has probably cost his team the advantage against Boston College 1,000-yard rusher AJ Dillon. With Blake Whitlock having been dismissed from the team, Boise State has few options. Maybe it’s a chance for Tony Lashley, the graduate transfer from Idaho, to go out in a blaze of glory. Or perhaps the Broncos take advantage of the new redshirt rule and activate true freshmen DJ Schramm or Brandon Hawkins. Hard to imagine them being ready for the heat of this kind of a battle, though.
RYPIEN’S BRONCO FINALE, AND SOME SIDEBARS
A Dane Brugler feature at TheAthletic.com looks at “What NFL scouts are watching: The prospects to watch in every post-Christmas bowl game.” The two he selected for Boise State were Brett Rypien and Alexander Mattison. Writes Brugler: “(Rypien) stays poised in the pocket, works through reads and delivers with touch downfield. With only average arm strength and size, it is tough to get excited about the physical traits, but he can be a valuable member of an NFL quarterback meeting room. (Mattison) has average athleticism to create as a ballcarrier, but he offers value on day three of the draft due to his versatile skill-set as a receiver (55 catches the last two years) and blocker.”
Here’s hoping Rypien isn’t feeling the pressure today. Fair or not, this is an important game in terms of his Boise State legacy. Rypien is college football’s active career passing leader with 13,581 yards and has more 300-yard games than the best quarterback in Bronco history, Kellen Moore. There’s considerable debate over who’s No. 2. Rypien is deservedly in the conversation, but it’ll be tough to place him ahead of Ryan Dinwiddie. A victory over Boston College would certainly help Rypien’s cause. Nothing that happens today will take away from what a great example Rypien is to others, nor what a fine ambassador he is for the Bronco program. He could just use one last significant victory to round things out.
Boston College’s biggest threat to Rypien might not be national co-interceptions leader Hamp Cheevers, but the Eagles’ bookends on the defensive line, projected first-round NFL Draft pick Zach Allen and Wyatt Ray. Responsibility for neutralizing Allen and Ray, who have combined for 15.5 sacks this season, falls first and foremost on Boise State left tackle Ezra Cleveland and right tackle John Ojukwu. Even though Ojukwu has started the second half of the season for the Broncos, this will be a daunting task for the Boise High grad. Should he be able to help spring Mattison for significant yards today, it’ll be a nice launching pad for Ojukwu’s next three seasons.
THE DECIDING DOWN TODAY
If there’s one statistical category to watch today, it’s third down conversions. Boise State has been good on 52.5 percent of its third down tries this season, third in the country behind Army and Alabama. Break it down, and you can see why that facet of the game will be huge. The Broncos converted 57 percent of their third downs in their 10 wins—and 42 percent in their three defeats, including a painful 6-for-19 day in the 19-13 loss to San Diego State in October. The third down focus holds true for the Boise State defense in Dallas as well, with Boston College sitting just under 34 percent on third down this season—115th in the nation.
MEANWHILE, IN THE VALLEY OF THE SUN…
The last time Justin Wilcox faced TCU was in the 2010 Fiesta Bowl. Wilcox’s Boise State defense was the centerpiece of a 17-10 victory over the Horned Frogs. He took a unit that had allowed 275 rushing yards to TCU in the 2008 Poinsettia Bowl and redesigned it, yielding just 36 yards on the ground and confusing Horned Frogs quarterback Andy Dalton with a 4-1-6 look that inserted Jerell Gavins at cornerback and moved Kyle Wilson to safety. Now the head coach at Cal, Wilcox leads the Bears into the Cheez-It Bowl (formerly the Cactus Bowl) against the Frogs today in Phoenix. TCU coach Gary Patterson certainly remembers Wilcox from that meeting almost nine years ago.
TAKING THE DUCKS’ TEMPERATURE
While Boise State men’s hoops was beating Pacific last Saturday, Oregon was absorbing a 57-47 loss to Baylor in the prelude to this Saturday’s game in Taco Bell Arena. It was the first time in more than two years the Ducks had been held under 50 points. Oregon was still playing without 7-2 true freshman phenom Bol Bol, who’s nursing a foot injury suffered in practice the week before UO’s first game against the Broncos on December 15, a 66-54 Ducks win. Another issue has arisen for Oregon, as forward Kenny Wooten tweeted Sunday that he broke his jaw in the Baylor game. Coach Dana Altman hasn’t comfirmed the injury—or if Wooten will miss the Boise State game (and more).
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December 26, 1943, 75 years ago today: At Wrigley Field, Sid Luckman is a one-man wrecking crew for the Chicago Bears. Playing against Washington for the NFL championship, Luckman ran the innovative T-formation to perfection, becoming the first player to throw five touchdown passes in a playoff game. On defense, he intercepted two passes to help dismantle Sammy Baugh and the Redskins, 41-21. It was the Bears’ third NFL title in four seasons.
(Tom Scott hosts the Scott Slant segment during the football season on KTVB’s Sunday Sports Extra and anchors five sports segments each weekday on 93.1 FM KTIK. He also served as color commentator on KTVB’s telecasts of Boise State football for 14 seasons.)