BOISE, Idaho- Boise State and New Mexico meet under the lights tonight in Albertsons Stadium with a lot at stake--the Mountain Division lead and a chance to keep their hopes alive for a Mountain West Conference championship.
Boise State and Air Force are tied for the division lead with 4-1 records, but with three games remaining against the other contenders, New Mexico (3-2) can capture the division crown and automatic berth in the Mountain West title game with victories.
The bye last week helped Boise State heal some nagging injuries--linebacker Tanner Vallejo is listed as the starter after missing the last two games. Bronco tackle Rees Odhiambo is out for the season, and head coach Bryan Harsin said that cornerback Donte Deayon and quarterback Ryan Finley are still out.
The Broncos and Lobos played a thriller last season in Albuquerque, in which Boise State rallied from an 11-point deficit in the third quarter to pull out a 60-49 win. In the six meetings between the two schools, there has been a stark contrast to the games depending on where they were played. In Albuquerque, Boise State has won all three games by an average of 10.3 points, including a 32-29 win in 2012. The Broncos have won all three games in Boise by an average of 28 points, including wins of 45-0 and 45-17 in 2011 and 2013, respectively.
Tonight's game features the first of two Bronco opponents which run a triple option offensive, one which historically has given Boise State fits. In addition to last year's debacle in which a normally stout Bronco defense allowed New Mexico 505 rushing yards, the most given up by a Boise State team in school history, the Broncos also allowed 430 yards in 2001 to Rice (third-most all-time at Boise State) in a 45-14 loss to the Owls.
The battle tonight features a similar storyline. Once again, the Boise State defense is amongst the best in the nation against the run, ranking fourth with 83.4 rushing yards allowed. And once again, New Mexico is amongst the top rushing teams in the country, averaging 235.4 rushing yards.
The Broncos have only allowed four opponents to surpass the 100-yard mark on the ground this season. However, all four of those instances have occurred in the last five games, as Colorado State, Utah State, Wyoming and UNLV all surpassed that figure in games with Boise State.
Teriyon Gipson is averaging 73.5 yards a game (588 yards on the season) to lead New Mexico's ground attack, while quarterback Lamar Jordan has rushed for 500 and Jhurell Pressley has 469 rushing yards.
On the other side of the ball, the key question is can Boise State's Jeremy McNichols keep up with Gibson and Pressley of the Lobos? In last week's win over Utah State, the physical defense of New Mexico held the Aggies to just 13 points and allowed 37 rushes for just 78 yards.
McNichols is tied for third in the nation in touchdowns scored (17), three behind Corey Coleman of Baylor and Kenneth Dixon of Louisiana Tech. McNichols' 14 rushing touchdowns are tied for sixth, three behind national leaders Dixon and Alabama's Derrick Henry.
If New Mexico is able to shut down the Bronco ground game, and Boise State is prone to allowing tackles-for-loss, the Broncos will have to turn to quarterback Brett Rypien. Rypien threw for a career-high 469 yards in Boise State's win over UNLV two weeks ago in Las Vegas.
Wide receiver Thomas Sperbeck has surpassed last year's breakout season with 49 catches for 929 yards and seven touchdowns, leading or sharing the Mountain West lead in the latter two categories.
With a minimum of four games remaining in the season and barring injuries, Boise State is in position to record a 3,000-yard passer, a 1,000-yard rusher and a 1,000-yard receiver for the fifth time in school history, although no Broncos have met those figures yet.
McNichols has rushed for 773 yards this season in 8 games, an average of 96.6 yards per game. To reach 1,000, McNichols needs to average 56.75 yards over those four games.
With 2,036 passing yards in 7 games, Rypien is averaging 290.9 yards a game through the air. To reach 3,000, Rypien needs to average 241 yards per game. Sperbeck has the easiest path to his landmark, needing to average 17.75 receiving yards to reach 1,000. Thomas is averaging 103.2 yards per game thus far this season.
Kickoff between Boise State and New Mexico is set for 8:15 PM in Albertsons Stadium.