Ah, special teams—so important and yet, at times, so often overlooked.
Saturday night’s game on the blue turf at Bronco Stadium, between Boise State and San Diego State, was a huge reminder about the value of special teams.
The performance of special teams factored into the Aztec’s 21-19 upset of Boise State, starting from the game’s onset with a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by San Diego State’s Colin Lockett. Factor in a punt block that led to another Aztec touchdown and erratic play-calling that had Boise State go for a two-point conversion twice—failing twice.
The first two-point conversion was on the Broncos’ answering touchdown in the first quarter. Matt Miller failed to connect on a pass and it put Boise State behind by one. That forced the Broncos to try for another two-point attempt late in the fourth quarter to try to tie the game.
But Bronco quarterback Joe Southwick was flushed from the pocket and his attempted pass was picked off.
The loss will drop Boise State from the rankings and puts a damper on hopes for a solid postseason bowl game. The Broncos are now 4-1 in Mountain West play and 7-2 overall. San Diego State, winners of its last five games, are tied at the top of the Mountain West standings at 5-1 and are 7-3 overall.
Let’s break down the 10 things we learned in Boise State’s loss…
Boise State had 106 yards on the ground and 179 of offense in the first half of Saturday’s game. San Diego made some adjustments and Boise State finished the game with 112 yards on the ground and 276 yards of total offense.
The run opens up the pass for Boise State—not the other way around. Though Boise State had 164 yards through the air, quarterback Joe Southwick averaged 5.4 yards per pass.
Two times this year, Joe Southwick has been in a position of trying to lead the Broncos back when behind on the scoreboard. Twice now, he has failed to do that. He may have the arm, but he doesn’t have the accuracy to throw the ball deep downfield consistently.
And when he overthrows into double coverage, the result is not good. The redshirt junior quarterback has thrown 10 touchdown passes against seven interceptions.
One has to believe that the reason the Broncos run so many screens and short passes is to simplify the offense and avoid the downfield mistakes that seem to happen every game. The results in the red zone are sporadic and Boise State usually runs the ball more than pass it when in that area of the field.
And sometimes his decision making when pressured is lacking.
That statement sounds like a no-brainer until one realizes that for the most part, Boise State has been outscored in four of the second halves of games to date. The meltdown against New Mexico was the biggest, but Boise State had amassed enough of a first-half advantage to hold on for the win.
San Diego State had a potent offense that could grind clock. The Broncos offense is more deliberate than quick strike and when it runs into a team that can nudge out to a lead and hold the ball, the Broncos are putting themselves in a precarious situation.
The average starting field position for San Diego State was its own 43-yard line. Boise State’s average starting field position was its own 24-yard line.
Boise State averaged 27 yards on four punts. That includes Southwick’s pooch punt that didn’t have the desired effect.
Field position matters.
Quarterback Joe Southwick was under pressure several times and was sacked twice. The reason? San Diego State was stunting across the defensive front, seeming to confuse the Broncos' blocking scheme and getting through.
Not only did San Diego State put pressure on Southwick, but the Aztecs also negated Boise State’s run game in the second half. Boise State's offense was stymied and the Aztecs were in the driver's seat en route to the upset.
On Saturday night, despite D.J. Harper’s best efforts, the running game was struggling.
In comes redshirt freshman Jay Ajayi and he steamrolls a few Aztecs. Suddenly there is a rushing attack. Ajayi had four carries for 29 yards at the half. He finished with six carries for 32 yards.
Now we don’t know what goes on in the minds of the coaches or on the sidelines. Maybe Ajayi got hurt.
The Broncos have three guys that bring vastly different running styles to the game—D.J. Harper, Ajayi and Shane Williams-Rhodes. Harper is the most seasoned and it is expected that he should get the majority of the carries, but Ajayi has simply disappeared after halftime in some games.
Boise State’s defense is very good. It only allowed 269 total yards by San Diego State. The Aztecs were held under their average rushing yard per game. But the Broncos defense can’t be expected to spend more time on the field than the offense does.
The Broncos consistently lose the time of possession battle. And players who spend a lot of time pursuing tend to wear down.
San Diego State only had 96 yards of total offense at the half and finished with 269 total yards. Sure, coach Rocky Long made adjustments, but holes were there that simply weren’t in the first half.
Aztec Adam Muema had only 19 yards rushing on eight carries in the first half and finished with 127 yards on 25 carries. He’s a very good running back and was bound to get some yards, but a 100-yard second half seems like there were defensive breakdowns.
When D.J. Harper is thoroughly integrated into the offense, not only running the ball but receiving, the Broncos seems to find a rhythm that opens up a lot of possibilities. Against San Diego State, the sixth-year senior was held to 81 yards rushing and didn’t receive a pass.
The only one coming out of the offensive backfield to receive a pass was fullback Dan Paul. Paul is usually relegated to lead blocking, but he was the go-to guy on the fourth-quarter touchdown pass.
There were two key plays that ultimately decided the game. Forget the kickoff return at the start of the game. That was a huge play but the Broncos were capable of overcoming that. And Southwick tossing an interception was unfortunate, but not key.
The first key was the two-point conversion attempt on the Broncos’ opening score. That failed and forced Boise State into a must-have two-point try in the fourth. The second key play was when punter Trevor Harman rolled out to rugby punt the ball and rolled into the defensive charge, resulting in a blocked punt.
Yes, there was a missed blocking assignment in there as well but that block was converted into an Aztec touchdown. Take that away and perhaps San Diego State only scores 14 points. Kick the extra point and Boise State may have had been able to kick an extra point later and knot the game at 21-all.
The Aztecs made their first trip into Bronco Stadium and were not phased by the Broncos' home-field advantage, which stood at 78-3 since 2000. Instead the Aztecs played their brand of football and emerged with their fifth straight win on the season.
San Diego State has not posted five wins in a row since 1995. Because the Aztecs have a seven-win season, it makes them eligible to attend a postseason bowl game. An invite would be the third year in a row that coach Rocky Long's team has gone bowling.
And this won't be the last that Boise State will see of San Diego State. The Aztecs are moving to the Big East with the Broncos in 2013.
This could be a rivalry on the rise.