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Boise State vs. Washington, 2012 Las Vegas Bowl preview: Big plays at a premium

Boise State has been flying under the radar a bit in 2012, but still managed to go 10-2 in a rebuilding season. The Vegas Bowl gives BSU a chance to build toward 2013 with new stars, and it gives Washington quarterback Keith Price a chance to salvage a frustrating fall.

Otto Kitsinger III

5 Players To Watch

Demarcus Lawrence (DE, Boise State, So.) and Ricky Tjong-A-Tjoe (NT, Boise State, Jr.). After losing quarterback Kellen Moore, running back Doug Martin, four offensive linemen with at least 10 career starts and yet another offensive coordinator, the Boise State offense predictably took a step backwards in 2012. But the Broncos' defense is still outstanding, thanks mostly to the combination of an active defensive line and an experienced, deep secondary. The Broncos' pass defense was their biggest strength, but as always, their line was fun and salty, even when star tackle Mike Atkinson went down with an ACL injury in early-November. The primary reasons for that were Lawrence (36.0 tackles, 13.5 for loss, 9.5 sacks, four forced fumbles), Tjong-A-Tjoe (Atkinson's replacement, long considered a future star pre-2012) and skinny strongside end Sam Ukwuachu (7.0 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, three fumble recoveries), a redshirt freshman and, yes, future star. Whatever Washington intends to accomplish on offense, the Huskies will fail if they cannot control the line of scrimmage. That is always incredibly difficult against Boise State.

D.J. Harper (RB, Boise State, 19th-year Sr.). In D.J. Harper's first game, he rushed for 42 yards and a touchdown in eight carries against Weber State. The date: August 30, 2007. No, he is not a 19th-year senior -- that would be, like, a record -- but thanks to injuries, Harper has been around a long, long time. His on-field career began before Kellen Moore's and will end after it. And while he hasn't been as spectacular as Martin was last year, he has been wonderfully reliable, rushing for 1,065 yards (5.0 per carry), catching 20 passes, scoring 16 touchdowns and averaging 26.9 yards per kickoff return. Boise State's offense is less than explosive (to put it kindly), but Harper makes the Broncos efficient. (To be fair, so does quarterback Joe Southwick's arm, which is completing 67 percent of its passes, albeit at only 11.1 yards per completion.)

Bishop Sankey (RB, Washington, So.). The four-star sophomore took a little while to get rolling in 2012. Yes, he rushed for a lovely 144 yards in a September upset of Stanford, but in his other six pre-November games versus FBS competition, he averaged just 70 yards per game and 3.7 yards per carry. But in November, both he and the blockers in front of him began to figure things out. Sankey rushed for 189 yards against California, 156 against Utah and 139 against Colorado, giving the Huskies a level of explosiveness that, frankly, the passing game cannot match. Without Sankey, it is possible that Washington loses to both Stanford and Oregon State and misses a bowl; in those impressive wins, quarterback Keith Price completed just 37 of 67 passes (55 percent) for 374 yards, one touchdown and two picks. For the season, Washington ranks 57th in Rushing S&P+ (and rising) but only 80th in Passing S&P+. Price still has potential (and is only a junior) and has two rather efficient weapons in receiver Kasen Williams and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, but with minimal deep threats and iffy protection, Price has had to lean on Sankey to move the ball. Late in the season, that paid off relatively frequently.

Shaq Thompson (S, Washington, Fr.). Washington's offense had some issues, but the defense showed dramatic improvement in its first year under coordinator Justin Wilcox. Wilcox certainly had an impact, but he was aided significantly by the quick maturation of Thompson, a five-star freshman from Sacramento who flipped his commitment from California to UW when assistant Tosh Lupoi made the move to Seattle. In a nutshell, Thompson is everything you would want in a senior safety. And he is very much not a senior. His stat line is one of a pretty good linebacker (53.0 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, three interceptions, three passes broken up, a fumble recovery and a blocked kick), but you don't need to know his stats, or even his position. Watch Washington's defense for one possession, and your eyes will pretty quickly point out the leader of this improved defense.

What a bowl win means for 2012 Boise State || Bowl season schedule || What Washington should watch for

4 Reasons To Watch

1. To check in on Boise State. Since falling in a tight battle versus Michigan State and winning a defensive slugfest versus BYU in September, the Broncos have been flying mostly under the radar. A surprising home loss to San Diego State prevented a possible BCS bowl bid (you're welcome, Northern Illinois), and this is our best opportunity to say goodbye to some familiar names (Harper, corners Jamar Taylor and Jerrell Gavins) and get to know the next round of future (or already) stars: receiver Matt Miller (sophomore), running back Jay Ajayi (redshirt freshman), Lawrence (sophomore), Ukwuachu (redshirt freshman), safety Darian Thompson (ditto), et cetera. We don't really know much about Boise State's future from a conference perspective, but as long as Chris Petersen is on the sideline, we have to assume the Broncos will be stout. And these players will be some of the standouts of those future teams.

2. To watch Shaq Thompson. Seriously, this guy cannot possibly be a freshman.

3. To figure out Keith Price. Price was the Next Big Thing heading into the offseason after his brilliant Alamo Bowl performance last December. But offensive coordinator Jim McElwain left for Alabama and was replaced by former Colorado and Cal assistant Eric Kiesau, and despite an offense that was seemingly custom-built for Price -- rollouts, quick passing, lots of run -- the quarterback just looked lost at the beginning of the season. Granted, a lot of Washington's early struggles came against great competition, and granted, the Huskies' offense has improved (thanks mostly to Sankey); but even opponent-adjusted measures are not particularly kind to Washington. Price will get another offseason to figure everything out, but a nice finish against another good D would be a solid boost.

4. Bonus football. Bonus football!

3 Key Factors

1. Can Boise State pass? Kellen Moore's successor, Joe Southwick, has completed 67 percent of his passes with 17 touchdowns to just seven interceptions. Like Washington, the Broncos have quite a few efficient, easy-pitch-and-catch options like Matt Miller (679 yards, 7.6 per catch, 67 percent catch rate), Kirby Moore (368, 7.8, 77 percent) and Chris Potter (292, 7.9, 68 percent). But none of Boise's five leading receivers average better than 11.7 yards per catch, and only two of them have caught even one pass for more than 35 yards. If you cannot stretch the field, then Thompson and a pair of excellent corners (Marcus Peters, Desmond Trufant) will eat you alive. Boise State ranks an efficiency-heavy 27th in Passing S&P+, but Washington's defense ranks a solid 20th.

2. Can Washington even pretend to pass? You know how I said Washington's offense ranks 80th in Passing S&P+? Well Boise State's defense ranks eighth. An active line and an experienced secondary have been a lovely combination for the Broncos, and while Kasen Williams (783 yards, 7.8 per target, 70 percent catch rate) is good and Austin Seferian-Jenkins (791, 9.1, 72 percent) is fantastic, they are pretty much all Washington has. Sankey is the only other Husky with more than 18 catches in 2012. Boise State will likely get pressure on Price and force him to throw either on the run (something he doesn't really do very accurately) or under duress. Will he have any open targets?

3. Big plays: Who gets 'em? If you haven't figured out, the defenses hold most of the advantages in this battle. That is made obvious, too, by the current over/under of just 45 points. Points will be at a premium, and a single big play on offense might make a huge difference. Who will make it? Sankey? Harper? Other?

2 Predictions

F/+ Pick: Boise State by 15.9.
Bill's Pick: Boise State by 8. The numbers are not Washington fans at all, but I don't trust the Bronco offense to pull away.

1 Shutdown Fullback

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