Ducks a touchdown favorite in Saturday’s battle in the desert

Saturday is the start of the bowl season, and like in many recent years, the best game of the lot is the Las Vegas Bowl. The Pac 12’s Oregon and Mountain West representative Boise State will square off at Sam Boyd Stadium that afternoon.

There are officially five bowl games involving Division I-A football teams on Saturday (with apologies to the I-AA/FCS teams of North Carolina A&T and Grambling State that will meet in the Celebration Bowl to “unofficially” kick off the bowl season). Plenty of intrigue surrounds the two sides that arrived earlier this week. While Boise is staying at the Hard Rock Hotel just off the Strip, Oregon is at the Mandalay Bay – the site of where the deadliest shooting in American history took place on Oct. 1. That fact is not lost on several players for both teams that have high school connections to the Las Vegas valley, and was brought up in a story earlier this week in the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

The Broncos ended the season ranked No. 25 in the Associated Press poll and won at least 10 games for the 15th time in the last 19 years. Boise has found a way to consistently win since the days of Dan Hawkins roaming the sideline. The Broncos won’t be intimidated by Oregon; the only game against a Pac-12 foe this season was a shocking 47-44 overtime loss at Washington State in which they led 31-10 midway through the third quarter before turnovers and fatigue did the Broncos in.

Boise again will represent the Mountain West in a bowl game as its league champion; they lost to upstart Fresno State in the season finale before coming back to win at home a week later in the league title game, a rematch against MW West division champion Bulldogs. But this game could be one that’s altogether different.

For starters, the Ducks are just 7-5 but the struggles for Oregon started as soon as quarterback Justin Herbert suffered an injury on the last day of September against Cal. The Ducks were 4-1 in those first five games and scoring 49.6 points per contest. Without Herbert, Oregon went 1-4 in the next five games, admittedly against most of the best defenses on its schedule. One bye week later and two games against Arizona and Oregon State at home to close out the regular season resulted in a combined 117-38 edge, which led to a combined point spread advantage of plus-51!

Oregon coach Willie Taggart was only in Eugene for one season, but left for Tallahassee almost immediately after Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher left that institution to take over the head coaching job at Texas A&M. While Taggart won’t be staying on, one of the assistants he brought to town will be, and that could be an integral part of how this game plays out.

Mario Cristobal steps in from role of offensive coordinator and begins immediately as the new Oregon head coach on a full-time basis, effective before the ink on Taggart’s Florida State contract was dry. Cristobal was in charge of recruiting many of the youngest Ducks on this team and became very close to many of them throughout the course of the season. Having the players on board for this hire gives Oregon a chance to get a good start on the 2018 campaign and prove the players right for campaigning for Cristobal.

There were actually 72 scholarship players that penned a letter to the Oregon athletic director pleading for the former Florida International head coach to get his second job at the top of the football program. It worked. Cristobal had good success at FIU, relatively speaking, taking that school to two bowl games in 2010 and 2011; the Panthers had never participated in one before or since – though that changes next week when they play Temple in St. Petersburg. After Cristobal was unexpectedly let go following a disappointing 2012 season at FIU, he went to Alabama and coached the offensive line there under Nick Saban for four years before joining Taggart’s staff in Eugene.

Running back Royce Freeman had 1,475 yards and 16 touchdowns this season as he helped the Ducks to the eighth-best rushing attack in the country. He could sit this one out as he prepares for the NFL Draft in a few months and won’t want to take unnecessary risks to expose himself to possible injury.

The history between these two teams is brief, but was very explosive. Boise won at Oregon 37-32 in 2008 in the first ever battle between the two. Redshirt freshman Kellen Moore won his initial road start for the Broncos en route to a 50-3 career record as a starter. The next season, Chip Kelly took over the Ducks, which had just six first downs and 152 yards of total offense on Boise’s blue turf in the 2009 season opener, a 19-8 Boise triumph on Sept. 3. Most remember that as the game where Oregon running back LeGarrette Blount lost it after the game, punching Boise linebacker Byron Hout in the jaw afterward and having to be restrained by several teammates as a near fiasco ensued. Kelly would go on, however, to win 46 of his next 52 games at Oregon before moving on to coach the Philadelphia Eagles in 2013.

In a bowl game like this where the stakes aren’t nearly as high, let’s hope that the players from both sides can entertain without crossing the line.

Boise running back Alexander Mattison and tight end Jake Roh are both dealing with lower leg injuries. Roh missed both Fresno games but still leads BSU with nine touchdowns receiving this season, while Mattison got injured in the third quarter of the conference final. He leads Boise with 1,074 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns.

Kickoff is set for 3:30 Eastern time on Saturday, with ABC to provide the national TV coverage.

The Rex Factor PREDICTION: Oregon 37, Boise State 27



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