Commentary

What to watch for in the Fiesta Bowl

Updated: January 3, 2010, 7:47 PM ET
By Richard Durrett | ESPNDallas.com

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Both TCU and Boise State have been complimentary of each other. They've talked about how both teams possess good offenses led by talented quarterbacks. They've chatted about the schemes of both defenses and how they've stopped opponents this season. And they've discussed last year's Poinsettia Bowl and whether it has any bearing on Monday's Fiesta Bowl.

But all the conversations are now over. It's finally time to play. And what the Fiesta Bowl has is a great matchup between two undefeated, non-automatic BCS qualifying teams. Let's look at some keys to the game. We'll start broad and then get into some details:

No. 1 defense vs. No. 1 offense

It's clearly what everyone associated with this game is looking forward to seeing. I've heard several Fiesta Bowl representatives the last few days talk about what schemes and blitzes TCU's Gary Patterson might have to get his No. 1 defense to stop Boise State, which is likely to have some trick plays and misdirection in the playbook for Monday.

This should be a fantastic matchup. TCU is No. 1 in total defense and the only team in the country ranked sixth or better in the four key categories of total, run, pass and scoring defense. It's an impressive résumé. The Frogs are allowing opponents just 233.3 yards of offense per game, with just 80.5 of that on the ground. Teams just don't score very often on TCU's defense (12.1 points per game). Only one team managed to gain over 300 yards on TCU (Clemson had 309 early in the season) and five opponents didn't even hit the 200-yard mark.

Boise State, on the other hand, boasts the No. 1 scoring offense at 44.15 points per game. They do it with a high-powered attack that isn't just about quarterback Kellen Moore and his arm. Boise State can run the ball too. The balanced offense has led to 10 games of 42 points or more, including four games of at least 51 points. And it's not just second-half points after defenses are tired, either. Boise State's most prolific quarter is the second with 217 points this season, nearly 17 per game.

The game will likely turn on which of these top-ranked units has the better night.

Andy Dalton vs. Kellen Moore

TCU quarterback Andy Dalton has had a remarkable junior season and one that has maybe been underappreciated nationally (he was not a semifinalist for the Davey O'Brien Award, something that bothered Dan Jenkins and other TCU supporters). Dalton has thrown for 2,484 yards and 22 touchdowns. He's fourth in the nation in pass efficiency (159.59).

Dalton has the added dimension of being able to run the ball. He has moved the chains on numerous occasions with the zone read and defenses have to respect his ability to move around and make plays with his feet when nothing is available downfield. Experience is a big reason Dalton is so successful. He's started for three seasons at TCU and has learned how to play in tough environments.

"I felt like I've matured a lot," Dalton said last week. "I see things a whole lot better and that just comes with experience. I know what I can and can't do. I know when I can try to make a play and when not to. I think that just comes with time."

Boise State quarterback Kellen Moore is just a sophomore. But he sure doesn't play like it. The 6-foot WAC offensive player of the year is No. 1 in the nation in pass efficiency (167.35) and has the second-most touchdowns in the country (39). He's completed 64.8 percent of his passes and has thrown for 3,325 yards. Maybe the most impressive number is that Moore has managed to throw just three interceptions in nearly 400 attempts.

Moore talked about why the Boise State offense has scored so many points.

"I think this offense just all rides around versatility," Moore said. "We have a lot of guys that at different times during the season, they come out and give us their best shot. We got guys who kind of come out of nowhere and score three touchdowns against Nevada. I think we are very versatile and bring a lot of things to the game plan and I think it works for us."

Watch the two quarterbacks in Glendale, Ariz., on Monday night. It's two who fans are likely to see mentioned for all the major awards next season. The one who can best lead his team and keep the ball moving even when things get tough will probably hoist that expensive (and heavy) Fiesta Bowl trophy at the end of the game.

Jerry Hughes vs. Boise State's offensive line

It appears that Brenel Myers will start at right tackle for Boise State in place of Garrett Pendergast, who has a broken ankle. That means Myers will have to handle defensive end Jerry Hughes, an All-American headed to the NFL as a high pick in April's draft.

Hughes, the Mountain West Conference defensive player of the year, has 11.5 sacks and 15 tackles for loss. He seems to play his best when the stage is brightest. Hughes dominated the Amon G. Carter Stadium field against Utah with eight tackles, including 2.5 for loss, 1.5 sacks and three hurries in the 55-28 win. He makes a habit of disrupting running games and bulldozing his way into the backfield.

Boise State, though, has allowed just five sacks all season. So much of that is quarterback Kellen Moore's quick release, something Hughes has talked about. He said he needed to find a way to get to the quarterback quicker after watching what Moore can do on film.

The Broncos must be on Hughes on every play in order to contain him. TCU certainly has talented players around Hughes, but if the Broncos can slow him down, that should help give Moore some time to throw the ball.

TCU running game vs. Boise State's defense

TCU's defense certainly grabs the headlines, as it should. But Boise State is ranked No. 13 in total defense and has created problems for many offenses this season.

The Broncos' pass defense leads the way, allowing just 172.77 yards per game through the air. But against the run, Boise State is No. 39 in the nation at 126.85 yards per game allowed. TCU's rushing offense averages 256.50 yards per game, good enough for fifth in the nation.

Two of the top rushing teams on Boise State's schedule -- Fresno State and Nevada -- were able to run the ball against the Broncos.

So look for TCU to try to establish the running game against Boise State. That's not just about handing it to a running back, either. Andy Dalton has rushed for 522 yards on 107 attempts this season. He had 86 rushing yards in leading the offense against Clemson in the rain earlier this season.

Dalton should get a chance to run the zone-read option in Monday's game and he'll have to see how Boise State adjusts to it. The Broncos have to do whatever they can to stop the run. If TCU can move the ball on the ground, they can shorten the game and win the time of possession battle.

If TCU is able to run the ball, it's going to be tough for Boise State to win the game.

Field position and the return game

Both teams excel in the return game, particularly on kickoffs. TCU is No. 1 in the country in average kickoff return yards at 30.62, which includes one touchdown. Boise State is fifth, at 27.27 yards, and the Broncos have two kickoff returns for touchdowns, both by junior Titus Young, who is in the top 15 in the nation in average return yards.

TCU's Jeremy Kerley, a junior, is a threat to score every time he touches a punt return. He's eighth in the nation at 14.32 yards per return and has two electrifying touchdowns. Both occurred when TCU needed a boost and helped the Frogs get jump-started to big wins (vs. SMU and Colorado State). Boise State's Kyle Wilson is 24th in the nation on punt returns at 10.45 yards per return.

Interestingly, both teams are pretty good at defending returns. Boise State is 13th on punts and 12th on kickoffs, while TCU is 17th on punts and 22nd on kickoffs.

When it comes to net punting, Boise State has a big advantage. The Broncos are 19th in the nation in that category with junior Kyle Brotzman doing a nice job of pinning the opponent when needed. TCU is 100th. For two offenses that can score points, neither team wants to give the other a short field.

The BCS stage and strength of schedule

TCU has spent the last week in Arizona experiencing a BCS bowl for the first time. It isn't new to Boise State. The Broncos beat Oklahoma in a memorable Fiesta Bowl in 2007 (and have been asked about it constantly this week). They know the Fiesta Bowl drill and what to expect from the University of Phoenix Stadium. It's all new for TCU.

But the Frogs certainly aren't rookies when it comes to facing difficult opponents on the road or at neutral sites. They beat Virginia, Clemson and BYU on the road this season and have faced Utah, Oklahoma and Texas on the road the past few seasons. They've also faced some tough opponents at home in that span, including conference foes BYU, Utah and Texas Tech.

TCU played six bowl teams this season and those teams went 6-0 in bowl games. Boise State's biggest win was against Oregon at home to start the season. The Broncos played four bowl teams, which had a record of 1-3 in the postseason.

On paper at least, it appears TCU was more tested than Boise State this season. Maybe that doesn't matter. We'll see.

2010 preseason rankings

The winner of the Fiesta Bowl gets more than just an undefeated season and a top-5 ranking to complete the 2009 campaign. They also get a high preseason ranking for 2010.

Why does that matter? Well, it's much easier to fight your way into the national championship game as a non-automatic qualifier if you start the season near the top. Both teams return a bunch of starters, so they are likely to get top-10 preseason rankings. But starting ahead of the other and in the top 5 is important for making a national title game case in 2010.

"There is a lot on the line this year," TCU linebacker Tank Carder said. "If we come and do our thing in this game, we could definitely be top 3 next year going into preseason. That would be awesome because that puts us on the stage for the national championship. That puts us on the stage for non-BCS schools doing well and a lot of talk."

It's the same feeling for Boise State. It's another storyline that makes the game interesting.

Quick hits

A few other things to keep an eye on:

Richard Durrett covers colleges for ESPN Dallas. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.

Richard Durrett joined ESPNDallas.com in September 2009. He writes about colleges, the Dallas Stars and the Texas Rangers. Richard spent nine years at The Dallas Morning News covering the Rangers, Stars, colleges, motorsports and high schools.

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