Former competitors in the Western Athletic Conference get together for the regular season finale on Saturday, as the 25th-ranked Boise State Broncos mix it up against the Nevada Wolf Pack in Mountain West Conference play at Mackay Stadium in Reno.
The Broncos enjoyed a bye last week, yet even with them being idle they earned enough votes to again be considered one of the Top-25 programs in the nation. Since losing for just the second time in 2012 to San Diego State (21-19) at home on Nov. 3, Boise State has picked up two more victories to move to 9-2 overall and 6-1 in Mountain West play.
On Nov. 17, the Broncos kept themselves in the race for the MWC title with a 42-14 stomping of Colorado State at home on the blue turf. While both Fresno State and SDSU already share the league title in the MWC and have finished their respective schedules, BSU could still make it a three-way tie with a win over Nevada this weekend. Should the Broncos come out victorious, it would mark the program's fifth conference title in head coach Chris Petersen's seven seasons at the helm.
As for the Wolf Pack, they picked the absolute worst time to stumble on a three-game slide, losing to both the Aztecs and Bulldogs, as well as Air Force late last month. Like Boise State, Nevada was also off last week, which gave the team time to reflect on a much-needed 31-24 win over New Mexico that they notched on Nov. 17 on the road. As luck would have it, with a record of 7-4 and 4-3 in conference, Nevada is already not only bowl eligible, but it has accepted an invitation to the New Mexico Bowl and will play a Pac-12 opponent on Dec. 15 back in Albuquerque once more.
"This is great news and we will be looking forward to it," Nevada coach Chris Ault said. "We know from experience that this is a first-class event."
With the invitation, the Pack is playing in the postseason for the eighth straight year, the longest stretch in program history. Hopefully history will not repeat itself however, as Nevada fell to New Mexico in this event five years ago, 23-0.
Boise State holds a 25-13 lead in the all-time series between the squads, capturing a 30-10 win at home in Idaho last season. With that victory, the Broncos have now taken 11 of the last 12 matchups, the only win for the Pack coming two years ago here in Reno by a final of 34-31. During this particular 12-game stretch, BSU has scored at least 30 points each time out.
Clearly this season has been one of transition for the Broncos, after losing countless key players from teams in the last few years that have given the BCS a scare on a regular basis. One of the players experiencing growing pains with his new-found responsibilities is quarterback Joe Southwick who, while completing 66.1 percent of his pass attempts for 206.1 ypg and 15 touchdowns, has been intercepted seven times and has had his confidence shaken more than once.
Matt Miller has been somewhat of a comforting teammate who has caught 53 passes for 552 yards and four touchdowns for Southwick, but this passing attack is still a far cry from the one that Kellen Moore operated the previous four seasons.
D.J. Harper has tried to lighten the burden placed on Southwick by producing 935 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns, two of those scores coming against Colorado State in the latest outing as the team celebrated senior day in Boise.
"It was emotional," Harper said of the atmosphere. "It's kind of hard to put into words. Obviously, I teared up a little bit running out the tunnel and seeing my family down there, telling me how proud of me they are. It just meant a lot to me."
Over on the other side, the defense has stood tall all season long for the Broncos, holding opponents to just 159.8 ypg passing and 293.3 ypg in total offense. Those numbers have prevented opponents from tripping up Boise State, the foes scoring only 14.4 ppg which is the fifth-best mark in college football.
Should the Wolf Pack be firing on all cylinders this weekend, they might give the BSU defense a few headaches, particularly quarterback Cody Fajardo who, in the mold of former Nevada signal-caller Colin Kaepernick, can be a dual threat when the offense is operating at peak performance.
Fajardo has completed 66.5 percent of his pass attempts for 232.7 ypg and a total of 17 touchdowns and on the ground he is second on the unit with 900 yards and 10 TDs on 153 rushing attempts. Now ranked second in the nation in rushing with 142.2 ypg, Stefphon Jefferson has had a magical season for Nevada and now just needs 169 yards to set the school's single-season rushing mark and only 148 yards to establish a new high-water mark in the MWC. Jefferson also needs one more TD to break the single-season record there as well, having run into the end zone 20 times on the ground.
With the offense for the Pack apparently in capable hands, the defense now needs to focus on shaking up Southwick and a vulnerable Boise State offense. Brock Hekking and Lenny Jones could provide that push at the line of scrimmage after combining for 12 sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss through the first 11 outings. While the secondary makes it a habit of breaking up passes, the unit has a mere four interceptions which is one of the lowest tallies in the country.