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Boise State (4-0) @ Utah (3-1)

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AT

Date & Time: Sept. 30th, 2006, 1:00 p.m. MST
TV: Vrs.
Radio: AM 700 The Zone
Location: Rice-Eccles Stadium, Salt Lake City
All-time series: Boise State leads 3-2
Last meeting: 1999 (Boise State 26, Utah 20)

Utah begins its most crucial stretch of the season with a game against a top-25 ranked Boise State team. The Broncos, 4-0 on the season, come to Salt Lake City for the first time since defeating the Utes in 1998. To put it bluntly, this is the biggest game of the year for Utah and one that is vital if they're going to return to the national stage. For the Broncos, a BCS bowl bid is on the line and a victory over the Utes would most likely mean an undefeated season and shot at playing in one of the big money bowl games. But most importantly, this game matches the two most successful non-BCS teams over the past 5-years.

Utah will not only look to regain the respect lost on the field against UCLA, but also to avenge two straight losses to the Broncos in the 1990s. Those wins against the Utes propelled Boise State into the national spotlight as one of the nation's best teams. Kyle Whittingham, Utah's defensive coordinator during both those losses, understands the importance of this game and a win over a top-25 Broncos team might be the signature win the second year coach has been pining for. This could be the most important game in Kyle Whittingham's short career and a victory would remove any doubt that Whittingham is more of an extention of former head coach Ron McBride than he is of Urban Meyer. But it won't be an easy task, as the Utes will face their toughest opponent to date and can't afford to play as sloppy as they did against UCLA to start the season.

Even though Dan Hawkins bolted for Colorado last year, the Broncos offense is still as potent as ever. Replacing Hawkins as the Broncos head coach was offensive coordinator -- and the brains behind the Broncos offense -- Chris Petersen. So far, the drop off from Hawkins to Petersen has been negligible and Boise State will look to continue that with a high octane performance against a solid Utah defense.

The Broncos offense, which in the past had been tailored around the passing game, is much more balanced this season. The Broncos have a solid running attack with Ian Johnson and, like always, are deadly through the air with senior quarterback Jared Zabransky. Johnson has already ran for 626-yards in four games (an average of 7 yards per carry), while Zabransky has passed for 675-yards and six touchdowns on a completion rate of 58%. The balanced offense actually may play into Utah's favor however as their run defense has been pretty exceptional all season. If the Utes can shut down Johnson and force Zabransky to the air, the Broncos might have difficulty moving the ball down field. But if Johnson dominates the Utes defensive line, the Broncos may have no trouble winning.

On defense Boise State has been uncharacteristically solid this season. However a lot of that was tainted after their close home win against an offensively explosive Hawaii team. The Broncos rank 25th in the nation in scoring defense, though Hawaii had no trouble putting up 34-points against the Broncos on the road. The Broncos have been solid when it comes to getting to the quarterback, recording 3.2 sacks per game. However the Utes offensive line has yet to give up a sack all season long.

Boise State has only faced one good offensive team and in that outing they struggled. They will need to step it up on the defensive end if they're going to contain Utah's offense and that might be difficult, especially if Utah's running game takes off. But most importantly for Utah is that they need Ratliff to be more accurate on his throws. While Ratliff was off during the Aztecs game, it didn't put Utah in a bad position, that may not be the case against the Broncos. They seem more capable of capitalizing on mistakes than the Aztecs did, so Ratliff will need a big game.

Utah's defense needs to shut the Broncos running game down and force Zabransky to the air. While he's a solid passing quarterback, a few blitzes and pressure up the middle might throw him off his game and into making some bad mistakes. If the Utes can handle their offense, forcing the Broncos into 3rd downs Boise State will be in trouble. They only average a 3rd down completion rate of 34% and if Utah can contain their offense for two downs, that would put the Broncos into a position they will not like. The Utes secondary has greatly improved since the UCLA game and kept Darren Mouge out of his passing game last week. If the defensive line can get pressure against Boise State's solid offensive line, it may fluster Zabransky to the point where the throws a pick or two.

This could be an epic battle that may not be decided until the final minutes. Both teams are nearly statistically even in every category, which means this could be a very close game on paper at least. Boise State is not nearly invincible away from home as they are at Bronco Stadium, only winning roughly 60% of their road games over the past 5-years. While that is still an impressive number, it can't sniff their winning percentage at home. They are beatable on the road and Utah is a very strong home team, winning 80% of their home games during that same stretch. Beating the Broncos a week before their match against TCU would be a huge confidence booster, and the Utes are already brimming with confidence after three straight dominate wins. Now it's up to them to get it done.

Utah wins if... They pressure Zabransky and shut down Johnson. Easier said than done, but this will be the first tough defense the Broncos have faced all season long and both their offensive stars could struggle. Zabransky can get flustered and if he struggles -- especially if the Broncos continually face 3rd and long -- the Utes could win big. But they'll also need to step it up on offense. Utah has talented receivers and Ratliff needs to find them. The Utes success over the past three games on third downs have been huge and that must continue Saturday.

Boise State wins if... Ian Johnson runs all over Utah's defensive line. Johnson is a stud who's had some great games thus far and if he gets going against the Utes, that should be enough for a Broncos victory. However that's going to be a major task, as Utah has been very solid at stopping the run. Boise State also needs to break through Utah's offensive line and pressure Ratliff. Brett Ratliff might not be perfect in his passing, but he rarely makes mistakes. The only way Boise State is going to force him into making mistakes is if they get pressure. If they don't, Ratliff should at least have a good enough game to stir the offense along.

What will happen... Utah's defense will keep Ian Johnson in check, while the Broncos defense does its job in keeping Utah out of the end zone. Instead of an explosive contest between both teams, it becomes a defensive battle and the game may not be decided until the final seconds.

Keys to the game:

  • Contain Ian Johnson. If the Utes shut him down, the Broncos will be forced to go to the air and the Utes secondary has played really well since the UCLA debacle.
  • Ratliff needs to step up. He's played good over the past three games and I think a performance like last week will be sufficient enough for the Utes. The offensive line has yet to give up a sack and that needs to continue this week.
  • Force BSU into turning the ball over. Utah had 4-interceptions against San Diego State last week and while I don't expect that kind of number this week, the Utes need to get at least a couple of turnovers. The Broncos, like Utah, are good at holding onto the ball and have minimal turnovers on the season, here's hoping that changes this week for Boise State.