Boise State Football: 10 Things the D Must Do to Ensure an Undefeated Season

Martin SondermannAnalyst IIAugust 12, 2013

Boise State Football: 10 Things the D Must Do to Ensure an Undefeated Season

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    Boise State finished the 2012 college football season ranked No. 12 in total defense, according to the NCAA.com website.

    Last year, the once powerful offensive machine of the Broncos struggled, and it was the highly ranked defense that carried the day. In 2013, the Boise State offense looks to be much better, and it should put up numbers more resembling a Chris Petersen team.

    However, this season it is the defense that has the most question marks heading into fall. With only four starters returning and a large group of young, untested players lining the roster, there are many unknowns for Boise State on the defensive side of the ball.

    This might be a major concern for most teams, but for Boise State it seems to be business as usual.

    Defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski along with the other defensive coaches at Boise have been building elite defenses for years. So, why should 2013 be any different? Last season the Broncos had to replace even more starters than this season, and yet it had one of the best defenses in the nation.

    In 2013, even with the loss of some key players, the talent pool looks to be larger than last year. That bodes well for history to repeat itself.

    Of course, there are several factors that determine how good a defense will be, and Boise State has proven consistent in several areas. The team will need to continue those key elements as well as some team specific issues this season if it wants to continue the dominance.

    Let's dive in and take a deeper look at what the Broncos will need to do in 2013 to continue to be one of the top defenses in the land.

It All Starts with the Line

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    Boise State returns just four defensive starters this season, and only two of those players are on the line.

    It is no secret by now that the Broncos lost starting defensive end Sam Ukwuachu, who was dismissed from the team for unspecified rules violations. Ukwuachu was named to the Football Writers Association of America Freshman All-American Team in 2012. He played incredibly well at times, and he would have been an absolutely amazing addition to the 2013 squad.

    However, he must now be replaced.

    Some of the sting of Ukwuachu leaving was taken away by the emergence of an interior player this spring. Defensive tackle and JUCO transfer Tutulupeatau Mataele was looking like a starter and possibly a dominant tackle for the Broncos.

    However, Mataele is out indefinitely with an “academic issue” according to the Idaho Statesman.

    Still, the Boise State coaching staff has a knack for reaching into the roster and pulling out incredible talent. They will have to do that once again this season.

    The line is the foundation of any defense. If a team is able to control the line of scrimmage it can dictate many things. The Broncos did that last season, with only a few interruptions because of injuries and suspensions.

    One of those players who found himself on that suspended list was defensive end Demarcus Lawrence. He was suspended for two games, including the Las Vegas Bowl against Washington.

    The Broncos will have to rebuild the line to keep up its dominating ways, and Lawrence figures to be a key part of that. However, coaches, players and fans are hoping he has his rule breaking ways behind him. If not, the entire team could suffer greatly.

    Senior tackle Ricky Tjong-A-Tjoe will be another key part of the 2013 defense. His senior leadership will be much needed on a line that will certainly see some younger guys in rotation.

    Inside at tackle, Tjong-A-Tjoe starts, but rotation will be crucial. Not only that, but the other starting tackle is anyone's guess at this moment.

    JUCO transfer Justin Taimatuia will be interesting to watch, as will freshman Nick Terry. However, junior Beau Martin and sophomore Armand Nance are far ahead in the Boise State system.

    Replacing Ukwuachu at end will be a battle between several players. Junior Tyler Horn, senior Kharyee Marshall and redshirt freshman Sam McCaskill are the most likely on the list.

    Look for the coaching staff to try a variety of combinations to get the line where it needs to be. This is going to be one of the most crucial things for the Broncos defense to develop this season.

    However, the team can't afford the time. The Broncos must have it ready by the first game against the Washington Huskies. That is a tall task, but one that the Boise State coaches are certainly capable of.

Rely on the Linebackers

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    One area that looks to be very strong for Boise State is the position of linebacker. With three very good backups who will now be starters, the Broncos have proven talent at these positions.

    It starts in the middle, and the middle looks good for the Broncos. Junior Blake Renaud is a very talented player who should be a huge part of the Boise State defense in 2013.

    The weak-side linebacker is a strength for the Broncos as well. Sophomore Tyler Gray will be stepping into that starting role. He and Renaud proved themselves as backups last season, and both are strong starters who can be trusted.

    There are also very good backups on the roster for the Broncos and some very intriguing newcomers. Redshirt freshman Ben Weaver and junior Travis Saxton will be competing for time on the field, as will redshirt freshman Andrew Pint and senior Dustin Kamper.

    Also look for true freshman Darren Lee to do what he can to stand out. But, the one true freshman who may stand out more than any other is Joe Martarano. Don't be surprised if his redshirt is torched quickly.

    Tanner Vallejo is the other true freshman who should turn a lot of heads this fall. He and Martarano have the potential to great combination down the road.

    At strong-side, a position formally known as nickel, either senior Jonathan Brown or junior Corey Bell will do an outstanding job as the starter. However, look for redshirt freshman Christopher Santini and true freshman Mat Boesen to make a push.

    Overall, linebacker is a huge strength for Boise State in 2013, and the Broncos will no doubt rely on them all season long.

Keep It Under 5, 20 and 350

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    Last season the Boise State defense kept opposing teams to a remarkably low 4.62 yards-per-play. The team also only allowed a total of 15.77 points-per-game and a total average of 315.62 yards-per-game, according to the NCAA.com website statistics.

    If Boise wants to continue its defensive success in 2013, these are good benchmarks to shoot for.

    Last season 23 of the top 25 defenses in the nation kept teams under five yards-per-play and 350 total yards-per-game. The only exceptions were No. 24 San Jose State and No. 23 Louisville.

    Both of those teams kept the total yardage under 350, but they allowed 5.09 and 5.32 yards-per-play respectively.

    Also, of the top 25 defenses in 2012, 21 of the 25 kept opponents under 20 points-per-game.

    This, of course, is not something coaches use as bulletin board material. However, it is something they can track to see how their defense is playing.

    If Boise State plans to be dominant on defense again in 2013, the numbers should line up.

Keep the Sacks Coming

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    One of the biggest reasons Boise State was successful on defense last year was because of its ability to get to the quarterback.

    In 2012, the Broncos had 38 sacks total and averaged 2.92 sacks-per-game. That was good enough to be ranked No. 11 in the category.

    With the question marks on the defensive line, you have to wonder if Boise State can duplicate its 2012 success.

    However, one reason for fans of the Broncos to be optimistic is that sack leader Demarcus Lawrence will be back. Lawrence had 8.5 sacks in 2012, and that was done in spite of the fact that he was suspended two games. He should only add to his sack total in 2013.

    Also, Tyler Horn is back, and he was responsible for five sacks of his own. Ricky Tjong-A-Tjoe and Beau Martin are two other returning players and both had 2.5 sacks last season.

    If the Broncos are able to keep up the heat on the quarterback in 2013, it should mean good things for the defense and the teams' win total.

Play Great First-Down Defense

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    Some, when reading this title, might think it's a typo. After all, isn't third down defense more important than what happens on first down?

    In some ways, maybe. However, playing great first-down defense puts that defense in position to dictate what an offense can do.

    When an offense has second and long, a defensive coordinator can get more aggressive. Not only that, but often an offensive coordinator will reach outside of the game plan to come up with a play to get back what he didn't get on first down. This can interrupt and frustrate the best of them.

    First down is a huge indication of how successful an offense will be on any given drive. You can believe offensive coordinators know how important it is.

    Although it is hard to find case studies on this subject, particularly at the college level, an assistant professor at Yale School of Management named Cade Massey did research on this topic pertaining to the NFL. His data, which was quoted in the Wall Street Journal, clearly points out how valuable first down is.

    The article states that first and 10 is, “a powerful indicator of who will win.” It goes on to say that, “...certain benchmarks on each down is one of the best predictors of whether a drive will be successful.” As far as first down is concerned, the professor says that any offense that can average four yards on first down is “more likely to be successful.”

    If the Broncos defense can shut down teams on first down, it will be able to control the pace of the game, dictate strategy and control how aggressive they are able to play on defense.



Continue to Excel in the Red Zone

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    Red zone defense is another key area of the game.

    Many fans of the Broncos know that their team often bends but doesn't break. In other words, teams were able to move the ball between the 20 yard lines against Boise State, but they couldn't complete many of those drives.

    The Broncos were No. 7 in the nation in 2012 when it came to red zone defense.

    Boise State allowed only 20 total touchdowns, and only three of those were by air. The Broncos defense also kept opponents to a total of three field goals while in the red zone.

    If the defense wants to continue its success in 2013, shutting down teams in the red zone will be key.

Keep Creating Turnovers

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    This is one of those areas that usually comes by the way of extremely aggressive play.

    Coaching to create turnovers is not an exact science. In fact, it is probably more of an art form.

    It is all about the style of play.

    The Broncos play a very aggressive style of defense. The players swarm to the ball, whether in the air, in the arms of the ball carrier or bouncing around on the turf.

    It really comes down to how hungry a team is, and last season the Broncos were very hungry indeed.

    Boise State was second only to Oregon in this category in 2012. The Broncos gained 36 turnovers. That included 18 interceptions and 18 fumble recoveries.

    Of course, the offense has to cooperate to have a positive turnover margin.

    Last season the Broncos were intercepted seven times and fumbled nine times. Those are good numbers as well. In total, it created a positive 1.54 margin.

    While the defense can do little about what Joe Southwick and the offense do in 2013, it can continue to do its part by creating turnovers.

    It will certainly be a key to winning in 2013.

Find the Right Combination in the Secondary

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    Last season the Broncos finished No. 5 in pass defense. That was to do much in part to cornerbacks Jerrell Gavins and Jamar Taylor.

    However, there will be brand new starters in 2013.

    There is so much young talent in the Boise State secondary this season. Of the 17 defensive secondary players on the roster, six of them are either true or redshirt freshmen, and five of them are either true or redshirt sophomores.

    The penciled in starters at corner at this point are most likely junior Bryan Douglas at one corner and sophomore Donte Deayon at the other. However, redshirt freshman Chaz Anderson will be competing for a starting spot, as will junior Deon'tae Florence.

    Starting safeties are most likely Jeremy Ioane and Darian Thompson, but look for sophomores Dillon Lukehart and Taylor Loffler to make it into the rotation. Senior Ebo Makinde should get his time on the field, but unfortunately redshirt freshman Chanceller James is now out with an ACL injury.

    Other cornerbacks who could compete for playing time are true freshmen Dionza Blue, Cameron Hartsfield and Jonathan Moxey. It is highly unlikely that all three make the field in 2013, but at least one probably does.

    JUCO transfer Mercy Maston will no doubt get playing time. In fact, he could make a push to be more than just a backup this season. Cleshawn Page is another JUCO guy, and his experience should get him on the field at some point.

    Overall, the real issue with this big, talented group of players is what combination of players gels the best for Boise State?

    Fans of the Broncos can only hope it happens early.

Shut Down the Pass in a Big Way

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    As stated previously, the Broncos were ranked No. 5 in total pass defense in 2012. The team must once again step it up, and here's why.

    When looking at last season's passing numbers, it is amazing what is found.

    Of the 12 teams on the Broncos 2013 football schedule, five of them have quarterbacks ranked in the top 50 in the nation, and two of the possible opponents make the same list.

    Washington quarterback Keith Price will be the first test. He had a bit of down season in 2012, mostly because he was sacked 37 times.

    With an offensive line that should be much improved, Price should have more time to do what he is able to do.

    Add to that Cody Fajardo from Nevada, who is a passing machine, Brett Smith from Wyoming, Chuckie Keeton from Utah State, Derek Carr from Fresno State, who was ranked No. 8 overall last season, and it's safe to say the Broncos secondary will be busy.

    Another possible opponent in a Mountain West Conference title game, should the Broncos make it, would be Nick Sherry from UNLV, although that is highly unlikely.

    The more likely opponent is David Fales from San Jose State who finished ranked No. 11 overall in 2012.

    Not only must the Broncos find the right combination in the defensive secondary, but the team must have incredible coverage and backups able to step it up in a big way.

Watch the Hits

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    The last thing on this list is one of the first things the Broncos defense will need to concern itself with. The NCAA has instituted a new rule when it comes to “targeting” players.

    George Schroeder of USA Today Sports has an interesting article about the new rule.

    Some think the rule is going to drastically alter the way the game is played. Some think it is the safe thing to do. Knowing which one is right is probably a few years away.

    However, what is here right now is the simple fact that if a player targets another player by, “a crouch followed by an upward and forward thrust to attack with contact at the head or neck area, even though one or both feet remains on the ground,” it will be a penalty and immediate ejection of that player.

    Not only that, but the rule also states that, “leading with the helmet, forearm, fist, hand or elbow to attack with contact at the head or neck area,” is also grounds for ejection.

    The rule also goes for targeting a defenseless opponent, not just the one who has the ball or is going for the ball.

    Boise State was one of the least penalized teams last season. They were ranked No. 18 in this category having been penalized 59 times for a total of 556 yards. However, this season, players will have to be extremely careful when hitting, because yards are no longer the only punishment.

    This will no doubt affect the defensive secondary and linebackers the most. It is probably a good thing for the Broncos that they have a huge stable of both.

    Not that they want players tossed out of games, but playing the Bronco way has always meant playing lights-out aggressive.

    In an offensive approach to the new penalty, head coach Chris Petersen did bring in a local rugby team to help the Broncos develop a new tackling style. But, as any player knows, after years of playing the game a certain way, it is difficult to change it over night.

    Boise State won't be the only team affected by this new rule of course, but if the players can get a handle on it early, it might give them a bit of an advantage.