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Broncos have plenty to prove in Vegas

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People descend upon Sin City for all kinds of reasons. Arizona State and Boise State might arrive for the express purpose of commiserating.

No disrespect to the MAACO Las Vegas Bowl — OK, a little bit — but neither the Sun Devils nor the Broncos counted Sam Boyd Stadium as a must-see venue on the 2011 to-do list. In fact, it wasn’t that long ago that both programs had visions of a BCS bowl berth. Since then, an awful lot has changed, especially in Tempe.

Flash back to Halloween, less than two months ago. Arizona State was still ranked, still in control of a toothless Pac-12 South and still being led by Dennis Erickson. And then the wheels came off. The Sun Devils dropped their final four games, squandering that healthy lead in the South Division and prompting the dismissal of Erickson after five seasons.

The aftermath of the collapse has been equally disturbing, with the administration getting to the altar with, but failing to sign current SMU coach June Jones and former Houston head man Kevin Sumlin before settling on Pitt's Todd Graham.

So where will the players’ heads be at the time of kickoff Thursday night? Erickson will be on the sidelines, which is going to help in the areas of stability and continuity. However, Arizona State is a senior-laden team, and it’s fair to wonder where it will reside on the motivation meter. Plus, it’s not as if the old staff is going to have any influence on the future of the holdovers. Will the Devils perform with nothing to lose, or as if they would rather be anywhere else?

Once Boise State defeated Georgia 35-21 in the opener, a perfect season and a BCS bowl game seemed like a foregone conclusion. Heck, with unbeaten contenders dropping regularly, it looked as if the Broncos might get into the mix to face LSU for a national championship. But TCU was working off a different script.

On Nov. 12, a day that will live in Boise State infamy, the Horned Frogs snapped their host’s 35-game home winning streak when Dan Goodale's 39-yard field goal attempt drifted wide right. Mountain West title, buh-bye. A coveted BCS bowl bid, gone. Or was it?

The Broncos swept their final three games to go 11-1 and finish an at-large-worthy No. 7 in the BCS standings, but no committee bit at the opportunity to bring the school to its event. In fact, a pair of lower-ranked programs, No. 11 Virginia Tech and No. 13 Michigan, will be squaring off in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 3, prompting a rare showing of public dissent toward the system from mild-mannered Boise State head coach Chris Petersen.

The Broncos, who announced on Dec. 8 that they would join the Big East in 2013, arrive in Las Vegas with a chip on their shoulders and with something to prove. The squad had hoped to raise the bar higher this fall before bumping its head on a glass ceiling.

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Players to watch: One of the primary storylines for this matchup is that it will be the final collegiate game for Boise State standout Kellen Moore, the winningest quarterback in FBS history. He has gone 49-3, while basically rewriting the university’s record book. The nation’s fourth-most efficient passer in 2011 has also thrived without last year’s top pass-catchers, Austin Pettis and Titus Young. The lefty has helped elevate the play this fall of Tyler Shoemaker, Matt Miller and tight end Kyle Efaw, who have all caught at least six touchdown passes. The sure-handed trio will enjoy an edge on an Arizona State pass defense that ranks 107th nationally.

If Moore is his typical prolific self on Thursday night, the Sun Devils believe they harbor the needed weapons to keep pace in a high-scoring contest. Their answer behind center is Brock Osweiler, the 6-foot-8, 240-pound hurler with unexpectedly good wheels outside the pocket. He has thrown for 3,641 yards and 24 touchdowns while employing a deep and speedy supporting cast. The junior should get a smattering of good looks downfield in the direction of Gerell Robinson, Aaron Pflugrad, Jamal Miles and Mike Willie. Boise State has been a beatable bunch up top this year, allowing 10 touchdown passes in a three-game November stretch vs. UNLV, TCU and San Diego State.

For Osweiler to have the time needed to check down and locate the open man, he’ll need an average front wall to keep the Boise State D-line under wraps. It will be no small request. The Broncos are underrated at the point of attack, featuring four players with All-Mountain West credentials. Ends Shea McClellin and Tyrone Crawford landed on the first team, defensive tackle Billy Winn was a second-teamer and nose tackle Chase Baker earned honorable mention. The quartet, however, has been quiet on the pass rush since getting to Aaron Murray six times in the opener with Georgia. Boise State managed only 14 sacks in the next 11 games, signaling a need for the seniors to step up in their final game with the program.

Wither Vontaze Burfict, the star-crossed Arizona State linebacker, who was a microcosm for his team’s fall from grace? He has a world of natural ability but delivered a disappointing junior year that concluded with him on the bench in the loss to Cal. Burfict began the year with four sacks in the first two games, playing as if headed toward an All-American campaign. Instead, he went down with a whimper, getting to the quarterback only one more time in the final 11 games. Burfict has a ton to prove in Las Vegas, particularly to those NFL scouts in attendance. Despite coming off the worst season of his college career, the 6-3, 250-pound enforcer is still a safe bet to leave school early for the draft.

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Arizona State will win if . . . it recaptures its early season form on defense.

Back when the Sun Devils looked as if they would coast to a spot in the Pac-12 championship game, the defense was a significant factor. Remember that this was the team that suffocated Illinois, made USC’s Matt Barkley look like a backup and ranked among the nation’s leaders in sacks and takeaways. That was then, and this is now. Arizona State wilted over the final six games, giving up at least 29 points five different times. If this beleaguered program is to have any chance of slowing down Boise State, it will need to elevate its assertiveness, from pressuring the pocket with Burfict and linemen Bo Moos and Jamaar Jarrett to getting a couple of tempo-changing plays from linebacker Colin Parker and corners Deveron Carr and Alden Darby.

Boise State will win if . . . Doug Martin is Doug Martin.

Although he gets lost in the canopied shadow of Moore, the Broncos’ two-time 1,000-yard rusher might have a better pro future than anyone on the offense except left tackle Nate Potter. Hey, Boise State will score without his production, but when he’s clicking, the team is virtually unstoppable. Petersen craves balance within his attack, keeping defenses on their heels as they contemplate whether the passing game or ground troops is the lesser of two evils. Moore is one of the premier play-action passers in America, which gets amplified when the backs are popping off big chunks of yardage between the tackles. D.J. Harper is a terrific backup, but the Broncos operate at peak performance when No. 22 gets a head of steam.

What will happen: Boise State wants to prove something in Las Vegas. Arizona State wants to get the offseason started as soon as possible.

OK, so the event is less than ideal, but the Broncos are never going to pass up an opportunity to one-up an opponent from a bigger conference. Plus, if the Sun Devils couldn’t get on track when so much was at stake in November, why should they be expected to now? While Boise State won’t exactly school Arizona State, its superiority on both sides of the ball will ensure that the outcome isn’t in doubt in the final quarter. Mixing in the darts of Moore with the running of Martin and Harper, the Broncos will ride the offense to its fourth straight season with at least 12 wins.

CFN prediction: Boise State 40, Arizona State 17
 

Tagged: Boise State, Arizona, Arizona State, USC, Georgia, Kellen Moore, Billy Winn, Doug Martin, Bo Moos, Matt Barkley, Vontaze Burfict, Matt Miller

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