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Fight Hunger Bowl preview: Does BYU stand a chance against Washington?

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BYU enters the Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco on Friday, December 27 with more questions than answers. Like their basketball team the Cougars football team cannot beat good teams -- but has no problem defeating so-so opponents. Then again, the same can be said for Washington, who comes into the game a three-point favorite, according to Sporting News oddsmakers. On paper this is such an intriguing match-up. Ask Notre Dame and other ranked or BCS teams BYU has played -- and lost to -- the answer is the same: the Cougars defense cannot stop a power running game. Ask Stanford and Arizona State and the answer is the same: the Huskies could not stop the run.

Breakdown

BYU (8-4) vs Washington (8-4)
Fight Hunger Bowl
Friday, December 27
AT&T Park, San Francisco
7:30 p.m. MST (ESPN)

Storyline
Watching BYU and Washington then, is like watching the Hunger Games: you have two teams with identical records that mirror one another. Unfortunately for BYU, power running is the key ingredient Washington brings to the holiday table -- and it's what the Cougars are allergic to. The Huskies rely on running back Bishop Sankey to set up the passing game. Tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins and wide receiver Jaydon Minkins are good for 1,000 yards and 12 touchdowns -- so the Huskies are not just a one-dimensional offense; they're talented everywhere. BYU relies on quarterback Taysom Hill (1,211 rushing yards) to get yardage when nothing is available in the air -- which is similar to Washington's offense. The difference is Hill is a marginal passer compared to Husky QB Keith Price. Hill has become better as the season has progressed -- but it isn't wise for him to try to win games with his arm, even with sure-fire NFL Draft pick wide receiver Cody Hoffman as his main target and tight end Kaneakua Friel as a secondary go-to guy.

Players to Watch
BYU lives and dies by how its defense plays. If the Cougars D has played well -- BYU wins going away. If BYU's defense allows more than 200 yards rushing, it loses. So in this particular game the BYU defense must play at a level higher than it has against most BCS conference opposition. Here's the bad news: Linebacker Spencer Hadley will not play -- and he is arguably one of BYU's most physical players at the point of attack.

The good news is the Cougars defense still has linebacker Kyle Van Noy, now a five-team All-America selection, the only player to have been honored as often since Baltimore Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta in 1999. BYU allows just 157 yards rushing per game -- but got socked for over 200 yards in losses to Utah, Notre Dame and Wisconsin.

Washington running back Bishop Sankey may be the most physical running back the Cougars have seen all season. What a mouthful, considering who BYU's defense has faced: Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon. But Sankey was every bit as good as Gordon this year, gaining 1,775 yards and scoring 18 touchdowns on a Huskies team many expected to contend for a Rose Bowl berth.

Sankey averages 148 yards per game -- but Arizona State held him to just 22 yards on 13 carries, a season-low. The problem is, hardly anybody -- Stanford and Oregon included -- has limited Sankey below 100 yards rushing. As a point of reference, BYU's track record against good BCS conference running backs is not a good one at all.

By The Numbers
BYU offense vs. Washington defense: 31.3 points per game vs. 23.4 for NIU
Washington offense vs BYU defense: 38.3 PPG vs. 21.3 for BYU

Big Matchup
BYU quarterback Taysom Hill vs Washington run defense
Since arriving on the scene, new Washington defensive coordinator Travis Wilcox has taken a unit ranked among the worst in the nation to one in the top 30. The Huskies allow just 157 yards per game on the ground -- and 220 in the air -- a far cry from the hundreds Washington had allowed in years past.

But, the defense took a hit recently when two top assistants, a linebackers coach and defensive backs coach, followed former head coach Steve Sarkisian out of Seattle to USC -- leaving only graduate assistants to help Wilcox. Count on BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall to take advantage of this one small but significant development with quarterback Taysom Hill. The last under-prepared team to face BYU was Texas -- and the Longhorns got burned for over 500 yards rushing. So the Huskies may be reeling -- but they had best be aware of Hill's running ability.

Like BYU, the Huskies defense has been burned by good teams that run the football. Hill presents a significant challenge to Washington not just because he's a threat to run with the football at any given moment, he's also become a better passer. Against Nevada in the season finale Hill carried the ball 26 times for 159 yards in a 28-23 win. More significant was Hill going 14-for-18 passing -- because it appears he's becoming a more mature pocket passer.

Final Thought
BYU essentially got here by default, having been anointed an automatic bid to the Fight Hunger Bowl -- provided it had a winning record. To be given the bowl bid after defeating Boise State and its sixth win probably seemed like sacrilege to most BYU fans -- but Washington presents a huge challenge to a BYU team incapable of stopping any power-running, BCS-conference team this season.

What Washington team BYU gets in San Francisco will determine how this game plays out. After then-head coach Steve Sarkisian and several assistants left for USC when the opportunity arose, you have to wonder, right? The Huskies do have former Boise State coach Chris Petersen and his gaudy record in-waiting, however, this does nothing for Washington this season. The Huskies under-performed at 8-4 overall, losing to good teams like Stanford, Oregon and UCLA before it throttled Oregon State and won the Apple Cup.

Upperclassmen like Washington's Bishop Sankey, quarterback Keith Price are playing for pride and a ninth win here -- while UW underclassmen are playing for the opportunity to play for the incoming Petersen -- who amassed a 92-12 record at Boise State. For BYU, however, you have to think this game doesn't mean as much. The Cougars are here because they're obligated; the Huskies are here because they've earned it in a brutal BCS conference. BYU does have seniors Kyle Van Noy and Hoffman so you have to think they'll play at their best as well.

But, Price said it best. Just because Sarkisian and some of his staff are gone doesn't mean the Huskies don't have something to prove. They most assuredly do, and Price -- and an absurdly talented offense and improved defense -- will be the primary reason this game is over by halftime.

Prediction
Washington 45, BYU 14

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