Cactus Bowl Preview: Baylor vs Boise State

After capping off two very different regular seasons, Baylor and Boise State are set to face off for the first time ever when they meet tonight in the Cactus Bowl. The Broncos were a combined 9 points away from an undefeated season, but they fell short on the road at Wyoming (30-28) before dropping their last game at Air Force (27-20). The Bears won six straight before losing by a point at Texas, which was the start of a freefall in the standings. Baylor finished out the regular season with a promising outing in Morgantown, where they gave West Virginia a fight before ultimately losing 24-21.

What to watch for:

Boise State run offense vs Baylor front seven

The Broncos love to execute a balanced attack on offense, as they have a 3,000 yard passer, a 1,600 yard rusher, and two 1,000 yard receivers. Usually, those numbers belong to Baylor, but Boise State has found success on offense this season by balancing out their playcalling. If the Broncos want to exploit Baylor’s pass-oriented defense, they need to run, run, and run some more. Boise State RB Jeremy McNichols ranks 5th in the nation with 1,663 rushing yards and 2,185 all-purpose yards. Throw in his 27 total touchdowns (23 rushing, 4 receiving), and Boise has a lethal weapon on paper. McNichols just declared for the NFL Draft yesterday, so there will be no shortage of effort from the 5’9″ do-it-all running back. The Bears’ defense is better suited to defend the pass, as their strength is in the secondary. Look for Boise State to establish the running game in order to set up the passing game.

Baylor’s KD Cannon and Ishmael Zamora vs Boise State defensive backs

Cannon is a threat to opposing defenses every time he steps on the field. His blazing speed and aggressiveness makes him a prime target for freshman QB Zach Smith. Even with injuries and off-the-field distractions, Cannon has managed to reach career highs in receptions (73) and touchdowns (11). The junior wideout is 11 yards away from his second 1,000 yard season, and it is likely that he breaks 1,100 today. On the other side of the formation, Ish Zamora acts as a security blanket, working his routes as a possession receiver. Zamora, a sophomore, is second on the team (behind Cannon) in receptions, yards, and touchdowns – 58, 786, and 7. Despite missing the first three games due to suspension, Zamora has put up impressive numbers. Both Cannon and Zamora are deep ball threats, and they are not afraid to go up and fight for a catch at any given time. Cannon has not given any hints as to whether he will forego his senior year and make the jump to the NFL, but the surprising news in Waco is that Zamora is giving the draft a hard look. Both are great athletes, but Zamora is not ready, and Cannon would likely benefit from another year in college. With that said, the deadly receiving duo will be ready to do damage in their last game of 2016. Look for Smith to gain confidence as he connects with his top two targets.

The turnover battle

Boise State and Baylor are terrible at keeping their turnover margin up, as both teams are ranked 107th in the category (They share a margin of -7). The Broncos have done a great job of protecting the football, turning it over only 15 times – good for 23rd nationally. However, they have forced just 8 turnovers on defense, which is tied for fewest in the county. Baylor, on the other hand, has taken the ball away 19 times, but coughed it up an FBS-worst 26 times. The team that wins the turnover battle tonight will likely come away with a win.

Final Thoughts:

Baylor has had nothing to play for after the entire football program came crashing down in May. A valiant 6-0 start gave way to injuries and ineptitude, as the Bears lost their last six. Now, they have a future. Matt Rhule will officially become the new head coach following the Cactus Bowl, and his newly-formed staff in Waco has generated hope among players and fans alike. Can the change of scenery give Baylor enough momentum to overcome their spiraling plummet? Boise State, overall, considers this season a disappointment. Of course, most teams would love a 10-2 record, but it definitely has turned into a “what if” type of year for the Broncos. A few minor changes in the two losses could have propelled them into a major bowl game. Ultimately, the game will likely come down to who is more disciplined, and Boise State has definitely been more stable than Baylor.

Prediction: Boise State 37, Baylor 28

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