|New coach Cristobal leads Ducks against Broncos in Sin City|
LAS VEGAS -- Pacific Northwest powers Boise State and Oregon meet for the first time in almost a decade on Saturday when they face off in the 26th Las Vegas Bowl at Sam Boyd Stadium.
The Mountain West champion Broncos (10-3) won each of the two previous meetings, including a 19-8 victory in Boise on Sept. 3, 2009, that is most remembered for what happened after the game.
That contest, which also marked the Oregon head-coaching debut of Chip Kelly, received national attention when Ducks running back LeGarrette Blount punched Boise State's Byron Hunt as the teams converged on the field afterward.
Blount, who carried eight times for minus-5 yards in the contest, was suspended for eight games for the incident but bounced back to earn a pair of Super Bowl rings with the New England Patriots and currently is a key member of the Philadelphia Eagles.
Blount and the Ducks came into that contest fuming by what they thought were some cheap shots by Boise State players a year earlier in a 37-32 win by the Broncos in Eugene.
Now the teams get together for Round 3 in Sin City.
The two head coaches from the last meeting, Kelly (UCLA) and Chris Petersen (Washington), moved on to other Pac-12 schools. Meanwhile, Oregon will once again have someone making his Ducks head-coaching debut against the Broncos. Co-offensive coordinator Mario Cristobal takes over for Willie Taggart, who departed for the Florida State head-coaching job two days after Oregon accepted the Las Vegas Bowl bid.
Cristobal, who signed a five-year contract worth $2.5 million per season, was a popular choice among Oregon players, many of whom took to Twitter to lobby for his promotion. The Sun Belt Conference Coach of the Year in 2010 compiled a 27-47 in six seasons at Florida International (2007-12) in his only previous head-coaching stint, when he also became the first Cuban-American head coach in Division 1-A.
At his introductory press conference, Cristobal made it clear that the trip to Las Vegas, despite all the distractions and bowl functions, will be important to set the tone for the program going forward.
"We're gonna set the identity," Cristobal said. "We're gonna solidify it in the bowl game of what is to come, by being relentless, by being physical, by being explosive."
The game could also serve as a springboard for one of the early favorites in the 2018 Heisman Trophy race, Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert.
The Ducks, who finished the regular season 7-5, were off to a 4-1 start before Herbert broke his collarbone in a 45-24 victory over Cal on Sept. 30. The 6-foot-6 sophomore returned for the final two games -- wins over Arizona (48-28) and Oregon State (69-10). He wound up completing 113 of 170 passes (66.5 percent) for 1,750 yards, 13 touchdowns and three interceptions and also rushed for 166 yards and five touchdowns.
Oregon was 6-1 and averaged 51.2 points in Herbert's starts compared to 1-4 and 15.0 points when he was sidelined.
Boise State, which started the season 2-2, rebounded to win eight of its final nine games, including a 17-14 victory over Fresno State in the Mountain West title game. Quarterback Brett Rypien, nephew of former Super Bowl-winning quarterback Mark Rypien, engineered a 90-yard scoring drive late in the fourth quarter to pull out the win over the Bulldogs.
The Saturday contest will mark the 16th consecutive bowl appearance for the Broncos, who won three straight Las Vegas Bowls from 2010-12 over Utah, Arizona State and Washington. Current head coach Bryan Harsin was the offensive coordinator for Boise State when it won the previous two meetings with Oregon, and he is 4-1 as a head coach against Pac-12 opponents.
Junior linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, the Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year, leads a stout Broncos defense that ranked 20th in the FBS against the run (125.8 yards per game) and allowed more than 200 yards on the ground just once.
Boise State will be challenged by an Oregon run game that ranked No. 8 nationally (268 yards per game) and accounted for 40 rushing touchdowns. The Ducks' attack features a pair of likely high NFL Draft picks, left tackle Tyrell Crosby, who won the Morris Award as the top offensive lineman in the Pac-12, and running back Royce Freeman, who rushed for 1,475 yards and 16 touchdowns this season.
"I think it's a great matchup," Harsin said. "Our guys are excited for this game."