Published October 19, 2012
BOISE, Idaho – For No. 24 Boise State, the path to Saturday's matchup with UNLV is littered with warning signs.
The Rebels are 1-6 and reeling after letting a 17-point halftime lead melt away in a loss to in-state rival Nevada last week. UNLV hasn't been able to stop the run all season, the offense is led by a freshman quarterback and the team's last win away from home occurred three seasons ago.
"We take every opponent seriously," said Broncos running back D.J. Harper. "This is a really good and dangerous team. It's going to come down to who wants it more."
If they're seeking other reasons not to overlook the Rebels, the Broncos (5-1, 2-0 Mountain West) only need to pull out the film and look at the first half of last year's game.
Billed as 41-point favorites a year ago, the Broncos came out flat and the teams traded two early touchdowns before the Broncos opened up a 21-14 lead at the half, despite being outgained. The Broncos finished the deal in the second half, however, pulling away for a 48-21 victory, a win that made Kellen Moore the winningest quarterback in college football history.
Coach Chris Petersen knows there is very little he can take from last year's game, except the lesson on keeping the Broncos focused on taking care of business.
"If anybody is paying attention to the record, they're paying attention to the wrong thing," Petersen said. "I think sometimes when you're at this point of the season and (as a coach) your record is maybe not where you want it to be, sometimes you can see guys not playing hard. But you don't see that with UNLV."
The question for the Rebels this week is whether they can rebound.
Coach Bobby Hauck acknowledged concerns about the mood of his young team and the ability of his players to get beyond the disappointment after losing a 42-37 heartbreaker at home to Nevada.
"Our guys are down," Houck said earlier this week of the team's mindset in the days after the loss. "It was a bunch of guys that were devastated by not getting that win. I'd be really concerned right now if guys were bouncing around this facility. But it's going to take us some days this week to get back to life."
The Broncos are 28-point favorites heading into UNLV's first visit to Boise since 1977. Despite the regional proximity, the Broncos and Rebels have only met seven times before, and Saturday's game is likely to be the last for a while as the Broncos get ready to bolt the Mountain West and join the Big East next season.
The Broncos come into the game on a five-game winning streak and in a tie for first place with Nevada. But it's also a much different team from the one that pulled away from the Rebels in the second half last year.
The 2012 Broncos are winning with defense and a running game that is chewing up yards and clock.
Midway through the season, the Broncos defense — hit hard by graduation and an influx of younger, inexperienced players — has developed into one of the nation's best for keeping opponents out of the end zone and against the pass. Boise State yields just 14.6 points per game and has held opponents scoreless in the first half in each of the last four games.
As a unit, the defense has forced 19 turnovers and is giving up an average of 173 yards through the air, the fewest in the conference and 13th among FBS schools.
Hauck knows the Rebel offense, featuring eight freshmen and sophomore starters, including redshirt freshman quarterback Nick Sherry, faces the toughest test of the season.
"This is the best defense we've seen to date," said Hauck, who has seen his offense increase its per-game point production from 17.3 a year ago to more than 26 points this year. "I like what's going on with the offense. Obviously, I'm not a real fan of where our record is right now. But we're improving. Now we've got to figure out how to get a win."
One area UNLV may hold an edge is in its running game.
The Broncos defense, with three starting sophomores and one freshman, has not been so effective against the run and is giving up an average of 161 yards per game. The defense tends to stiffen in the red zone, and last week Boise State held Fresno State's Robbie Rouse to 77 yards on 25 carries.
The challenge this week is clamping down on Tim Cornett, who rushed for 130 yards last week, his fifth game of the season topping the 100-yard mark. He also became the first UNLV tailback since Ickey Woods in 1987 to have 7 games with more than 100 yards over a 10-game stretch.
"They're a fairly young crew," Petersen said. "But I think that probably is part of the reason you're seeing them improving. They're still listening to their coaches. I think this could be a scary, scary opponent."