BOISE — There was noticeable excitement inside the room during Boise State’s team banquet last Sunday when coach Bryan Harsin announced the Broncos’ opponent in the Las Vegas Bowl.
Take the Chris Petersen angle out of it since all but two players have connections to him. For Boise State’s players, playing a team coming off three straight New Year’s Six bowl appearances in the Washington Huskies meant a big-time opportunity — and a big-time challenge.
“Obviously, just the name of that university speaks for itself,” Boise State wide receiver Khalil Shakir said. “Hearing that, I was like ‘that’s a pretty big school’.”
After a few days off to rest and focus on school while coaches were out recruiting, the Broncos got back to work Friday to start preparations for the Dec. 21 matchup with the Huskies in Las Vegas. They practiced for the first time since winning the Mountain West title and dove into film on the Huskies, who went 7-5 during the regular season but had close losses to ranked teams Oregon and Utah.
Washington is loaded with four- and five-star prospects and will have the one thing that often determines bowl games: motivation. The Huskies will surely want to send Petersen off with a win in his final game before stepping down as head coach.
“Obviously, their record isn’t what they want it to be, but they are for sure still a dangerous team,” Shakir said. “We’re going to play them like we play everybody else, with that 1-0 mentality. We’ll execute and prepare like we do every other week and hopefully we can go out there and get the win.”
Washington’s offense is led by quarterback Jacob Eason, a five-star transfer from Georgia that was the National Gatorade Player of the Year in 2015 as a senior in high school. He was the No. 1 prospect in the country from Rivals.com, and started 12 games as a true freshman for the Bulldogs in 2016.
But he suffered a knee injury to start 2017 and elected to transfer to Washington after the year. He sat out last season due to NCAA transfer rules, but has started all 12 games for the Huskies this season. He’s passed for 2,922 passing yards and 22 touchdowns while completing 63.8 percent of his passes.
The 6-foot-6, 227-pound Eason has NFL scouts intrigued, but he’s yet to announce whether he will return for his senior season at Washington in 2020.
Eason will be without one of his top receivers in the Las Vegas Bowl, as tight end Hunter Bryant recently announced he’ll skip the game to start preparing for the NFL Draft. Bryant leads the Huskies with 825 receiving yards and is second with 52 receptions and three touchdowns.
Aaron Fuller will still be quite the challenge for the Broncos. He leads Washington with 54 receptions and six touchdowns and is second with 673 receiving yards.
Washington also has a strong running game. Junior Salvon Ahmed has rushed for exactly 1,000 yards on 182 carries and has nine touchdowns. He’s averaging an impressive 5.5 yards per carry. Richard Newton also has nine rushing touchdowns and 429 yards in 102 attempts and is a solid complimentary back.
Two-time first-team All-Pac 12 left tackle Trey Adams, a 6-8, 314-pound senior, won’t play against the Broncos. He, also, will focus on the upcoming NFL Draft.
Four of Washington’s five assistant coaches on offense either played or coached at Boise State, and the offense reflects that. Offensive coordinator Bush Hamden was a former quarterback for the Broncos (2005-2008).
“I think it will be similar to the same things we see here,” Boise State safety Kekoa Nawahine said. “The coaching staff, a lot of them came from here, so we’ll see a lot of similar looks and motions and things like that.
“We’ll dive into it more to find out more tendencies and stuff, but generally we’ll probably see a lot of similar things we see here.”
Washington lost nine starters on defense after the 2018 season but have another solid defense this year. They rank No. 23 nationally in scoring defense, allowing just 20.4 points per game.
First-team All-Pac 12 defensive back Elijah Molden leads the Huskies with 70 tackles and 13 pass break-ups and is tied for the team lead with Cameron Williams with three interceptions. Safety Myles Bryant, one of just two returning starters, has 66 tackles and two interceptions.
The Huskies rank No. 2 in the Pac-12 with just 225.1 passing yards allowed per game.
Outside linebacker Joe Tryon leads Washington with eight sacks and 12.5 tackles-for-loss and was a second-team All-Pac 12 honoree. Defensive end Ryan Bowman was also named to the second team after finishing with 5.5 sacks and 8.5 tackles-for-loss during the regular season.
Defensive tackle Levi Onwuzurike was named to the All-Pac 12 first team. The 6-3, 293-pounder has 41 tackles and two sacks despite playing on the interior of Washington’s defensive line.
Washington’s defense has allowed just 40 total points in the past three games, including 13 to Washington State’s high-powered offense in the regular season finale on Nov. 29.
“I feel like it’s a great opportunity for us as a team to always play a Power 5 school,” Boise State wide receiver John Hightower said. “We’ll just go out there with the same mindset we usually do.”
Washington lost 20-19 to California early in the season in a crazy game that didn’t start until 10:30 p.m. in Seattle due to a weather delay. The Huskies also lost 23-13 at Stanford and nearly pulled off a pair of big upsets before falling to No. 12 Oregon 35-31 and to No. 9 Utah 33-28. Their fifth loss was a head-scratching 20-14 finish at Colorado in late November.
The Huskies beat No. 21 USC, 28-14, and also hold impressive wins over a pair of teams Boise State played this season in Hawaii (52-20) and at BYU (45-19).
Add it all up and it figures to be a challenging game for the Broncos, who are looking to win a 13th game for the first time since 2009.
“They are a big school and their season probably didn’t go the way they want it to, but they are still a very dangerous and good team,” Shakir said. “So we’re going to watch film and prepare and go from there.”