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Duck and (hopefully) cover: Las Vegas Bowl game preview

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Arizona v Oregon Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images

Game facts

  • Time: Saturday, December 16, 1:30pm (MT)
  • Location: Sam Boyd Stadium, Las Vegas, NV
  • Weather at kickoff: 61°, mostly sunny
  • Odds: Ducks by 7
  • TV: ABC
  • Radio: KBOI 670 AM
  • Commentators: Rece “Piece” Davis, Kirk “Herbie” Herbstreit, Molly “McButter” McGrath

Other facts

1. Just like old times

Boise State and Oregon haven’t played (at least on the football field) since the memorable (and forgettable) 2009 home opener for the Broncos. The Broncos punched the Ducks in the mouth that night and then Legarrette Blount did some punching of his own. It was a wild scene. Of course, the Broncos made sure that Chip Kelly’s first game as head Duck was also his first loss.

This Duck team is far different than the one the Broncos played those many moons ago, and for what it’s worth, so are the Broncos. The one common thread is that this will be the first game for new Duck head coach Mario Cristobal, as he shed the interim tag in record fashion...and therefore, the Broncos can ruin another Duck inauguration. Here’s to hoping.

2. Justin time

The Ducks are a different team when hometown hero Justin Herbert is under center and as luck wouldn’t have it...he’ll be in action for the Ducks on Saturday. Herbert had to sit five games this season with an injury and during the stretch the Ducks went 1-4 and were crushed on consecutive weeks by WSU, Stanford, and UCLA—managed to get past Utah and then put up a measly 3 points on Washington. The fun was over for the Pac-12 after that as Herbert returned for the last two games of the season, leading the Ducks to dominant wins over Arizona and rival Oregon State. With Herbert? Ducks were 6-1 and averaged 52 points a game. Without Herbert? Ducks were 1-4 and averaged 15 points per contest. Frankly, Herbert may be a wizard.

3. What’s happened in Vegas

The Broncos haven’t played in a Vegas Bowl since 2012, but played in naught but the Vegas Bowl from 2010 to 2012. In that stretch, they never lost in Sin City...knocking off Utah (26-3), Arizona State (56-24), and Washington (28-26). I hope we kept our Vegas Bowl mojo in a cool, dry place because after 5 years it’s dangerously close to it’s expiration date.

4. Aw...what the hell...

Streaks

Boise State - Won 1 (but it was a good 1)

Oregon - Won 2

Sleestaks

Best name on their roster

There are plenty of great names on the roster, but sophomore ILB Blake Rugraff really spoke to me

Best player picture on their roster

Sophomore WR Brenden Schooler gonna get hit hard by the NCAA when they find out he’s hawking Herbal Essence on the side.

Players to watch

Justin Herbert

I’ve already spoken to Herbert’s wizardry, but we might be underselling just how valuable Herbert is to this team. With him, they are a likely top 15 squad, without him...they are a middle of the Pac squad. You can’t spell “demonstrable” without “demon” and that’s just what Herbert was when he was in. Sure, his 13 TDs aren’t exactly video game numbers, but through the 6’6” sophomore, the Duck offense moves...and man does it ever move. Avalos will have to find a way to make Herbert uncomfortable or hope he eats some bad oysters at a Las Vegas buffet.

Royce Freeman

Freeman, a 5’11” 231-pound battering ram could give the Broncos fits if they don’t mind their manners. Of course, the senior back also might be held out of the game to protect him from Leighton Vander Esch...I mean...to protect his draft stock (which should be rather high). Freeman rushed for close to 1,500 yards this season and scored 16 TDs...most impressively, he did so while averaging 6 yards per carry. PAD LEVEL!

Jalen Jelks

The 6'6" junior is the #3 rated defensive lineman in the Pac-12 and led the Ducks with 15 tackles-for-loss. He also had a staggering 49 QB hurries this season along with his 50 tackles and 6.5 sacks. That half a sack he missed still eats him up inside.

Charles Nelson

Don’t call him “Reilly” (he hates that). No Duck wideout can come close to the output of the Broncos top man, Ced Wilson...but of the Duck wideouts (none of the top 3 have over 400 receiving yards), Nelson is marginally the best. The senior is only 5’8”, but he’s averaging 13.1 yards per reception and can really fly. Don’t let the fact that he’s me-sized lure you into a false sense of security.

Troy Dye

Dye is the Ducks answer to Leighton Vander Esch. The sophomore LB is built like LVE (6’4” 224 lbs.), has similar statlines (103 tackles, 4 sacks, 1 INT), and also has several letters in his name that Vander Esch does as well (‘e’, ‘r’, ‘o’). This kid could make things difficult for the Bronco run game...who is already a bit “dinged” to put it mildly.

Players NOT to watch

I, for one, am glad we won’t have to contend with Duck TE Pharaoh Brown—a 2016 all Pac-12 first-teamer because he graduated, you see. Also local boy (and former teammate of Kekoa Nawahine) Khalil Oliver has decided to transfer.

Keys to victory

  • Disrupt. Gotta get after Herbert somehow. The Ducks aren’t the most-balanced team in the country (they rely much more heavily on the run)...but Herbert will hurt the Broncos if he’s given time. Can’t stack the box, can’t drop everyone into coverage...just gotta force Herbert to make mistakes.
  • Turnovers. The Broncos managed just one turnover in their last two games of the season...but man, what a turnover! They’ll need to get back to their ballhawking, fumble-forcing ways on Saturday to put themselves in the best position to win.
  • Win field position battle. Giving the Ducks a short field would be very foolish. Avery Williams, Ced Wilson, and the gang need to make the most of their returns and the Broncos need to score once they get past the 40...something that looked nigh impossible the last two games of the season.
  • Score. The Ducks can score...we know that. The Broncos can also score, but their redzone efficiency needs to get to the next level for our boys to hang with the Ducks. Frankly, a good defense might be our best offense in this one.
  • Don't lose. We employed this strategy in the MWC title game and now we have a shiny trophy. If we want another trophy, the strategy seems clear.

Score prediction

I don’t like this matchup all that much, but our boys have surprised me on more than one occasion this season. We’re in Vegas, let’s gamble:

Boise State 34, Oregon 32