College football’s best showcase of opposing running backs in Week 9 emanates not from the SEC, Big Ten or Pac-12, but the Mountain West. The pairing of Wyoming’s Brian Hill and Boise State’s Jeremy McNichols should shape the outcome for Saturday’s match in Laramie, and set the MWC Mountain division’s course for the final month of the regular season.
The Broncos come into the pivotal, Week 9 showcase undefeated not just in league play, but overall. That’s really no surprise. Home-standing Wyoming matching Boise State’s perfect Mountain West mark, on the other hand? The Cowboys’ breakthrough in Year 3 under Craig Bohl stands as one of the 2016 campaign’s most pleasant surprises, if the cause of their success isn’t.
Hill kicked off his college career with a healthy 796 yards rushing in 2014, then emerged as one of the most effective ball-carriers in the nation a season ago. He broke off close to six yards per carry en route to 1,631 on the season, shining as a bright spot in Wyoming’s otherwise dismal, 2-10 finish.
That Wyoming’s staked a great deal of its turnaround on Hill’s play isn’t some shocking revelation. In fact, his 5.8 yards per carry are exactly on par with his 2015 output. After gashing Nevada for 289 yards and three touchdowns, Hill’s right on pace for a similar, final yardage total to last season.
Hill’s steady presence in the backfield sets the stage for the Cowboys’ entire gameplan. Bohl-coached teams at North Dakota State typically relied on proficient rushing attacks to wear down opposing defenses. Combined with dual-threat quarterback Josh Allen, Hill gives Wyoming the personnel necessary to employ such a style.
As a result, the Cowboys rank 38th nationally in time-of-possession with a 31:35 per-game average. While time-of-possession has become a sometimes meaningless stat in the age of uptempo, fast-scoring offenses, ball control plays a key role in Wyoming’s strategy. It will be particularly critical in the Cowboys’ pursuit of an upset Saturday.
Sustaining long drives takes on particular meaning at War Memorial Stadium. The slogan “Welcome to 7,220 Feet” isn’t just a catchphrase so much as a psychological ploy meant to exacerbate the physical impact playing at college football’s highest elevation can have.
The Rocky Mountain air gets thin for visitors, and time-consuming drives with physical play on the line of scrimmage can be especially taxing for defenders when they’re trying to catch their breath.
Feed Hill, give him holes and keep the Bronco defense on the field as long as possible. It’s a simple strategy, but one that will give Wyoming its best chance of taking over the MW Mountain division driver’s seat.
Boise State’s equation is just about as simple with McNichols.
Quarterback Brett Rypien tallied 442 yards passing and three touchdowns in last Thursday’s win over BYU, but the youngster also threw two interceptions. In total, the Broncos coughed up five turnovers, turning a game that should have been a blowout into a one-point affair.
And, for as effectively as Rypien threw on the Cougars, the Bronco offense stagnated for much of the second half. It was only after McNichols found a rhythm on a late drive, getting into the end zone to cap his 140-yard night, that Boise State came to life — just in time to preserve the win.
McNichols comes into Saturday’s affair ranked fifth in the nation in rushing yards per game at around 130, about 14 fewer than Hill’s output. McNichols trails by about 100 total rushing yards. He doesn’t need to surpass the Wyoming star for Boise State to win, but his production will likely determine the Broncos’ outlook.
Ball control plays as central a part in Boise State’s strategy Saturday as it does Wyoming, but on a much different front. Time of possession matters less to a Boise State offense ranked 99th nationally, but avoiding another turnover-laden game is paramount.
BYU left Thursday tied for first in the nation in interceptions after picking off Rypien twice. The Cougars have just three interceptions more than Wyoming on the season, accumulated in one more game. Cornerbacks Marcus Epps and Antonio Hall each have three picks, and will likely draw Boise State’s top receivers, Thomas Sperbeck and Cedrick Wilson.
The Cowboy defense has a proven knack for making opponents pay for getting greedy through the air. McNichols offers the solution if he can draw Wyoming into playing with seven or even eight in the box routinely.
Hill and McNichols provide a fascinating dynamic that should make for an intriguing chess match. The implications Saturday might come as a surprise, but don’t let yourself be shocked if this becomes the best running back showdown not just of the week, but the entire 2016 season.