Boise State may have looked dominant against Tennessee-Martin this past Saturday, but no one in Bronco Nation expected anything less from Chris Petersen’s squad.
However, after the debacle against Washington to begin the 2013 campaign, many can’t help but wonder if there is a lot of work left to do if the Broncos are going to legitimately compete for the Mountain West Conference crown.
Chances are, those wondering are probably correct in their assumptions. In order to even qualify to play in the inaugural Mountain West Conference Championship Game, Boise State is going to need to improve on both sides of the ball.
We’ll take a look at what exactly the Broncos need to do in order to regain the confidence of both the fanbase and the rest of the nation that this won’t be one of the more trying seasons of Chris Petersen’s head coaching career in Boise.
Spoiler alert: Beating up on an FCS opponent isn’t quite enough.
If other teams are able to do to Boise State what Bishop Sankey did on August 31, the Broncos will have trouble in several conference games this year.
As improved as the Boise State defense looked against Tennessee-Martin compared to the Washington game, the Broncos still had a bit of trouble slowing down the Skyhawks’ rushing attack. Boise State gave up 152 yards on the ground on Saturday, which would be a decent total against an FBS opponent but leaves room for improvement when the stat line comes against an FCS squad.
It was not surprising the Broncos had trouble against Bishop Sankey in the season opener, and Boise State surely will not be the last team this year that will have difficulties slowing down Washington’s bruising tailback. But after two games, the Broncos rank seventh in the conference in rushing yards given up per game, allowing 207.5 yards.
Solving the issue will not be an easy task. Heading into the season, fans were well aware the defense could be a yearlong work-in-progress for the Broncos. The loss of Sam Ukwuachu meant Demarcus Lawrence and Ricky Tjong-A-Tjoe would be the only players with significant starter’s experience on the defensive line.
Moving forward, someone will need to step up and fill the void that Ukwuachu’s presence causes. Sankey’s performance against Boise State will result in other teams with good running games trying to attack the Broncos’ front line. The secondary should improve as the new starters adjust, and it can only improve with the addition of another playmaker.
The game against Air Force this coming Saturday presents a ton of problems if the Broncos do not find a way to slow down the opposing run game. Although the Falcons did not look good this past Saturday, they have the ability to gash the Broncos’ current soft spot in the defense.
Moving forward, the Broncos will not make it to the MWC title game if the run defense doesn’t rise steadily in the overall ranking for yards allowed.
Tighter coverage from the secondary could help Boise State stop teams more frequently on third down.
If there is one area the Broncos are getting killed on the defensive end more than stopping the run game in general, it’s stopping teams on third down.
Boise State is ranked dead last in the Mountain West in prevention of third-down conversions, allowing nearly 63 percent of opponents’ third-down tries to result in a first down. By comparison, the leader in the conference, Fresno State, allows less than half of that, letting teams convert third downs just over 27 percent of the time.
Preventing third-down conversions is extremely important to a team’s success. Not only do you set yourself up to receive the football in many cases, but there is also a certain amount of mental advantage you can gain by constantly slamming the door on opposing teams on third down.
A lot of improvement in this area will go hand-in-hand with improving the run defense, which is oftentimes tasked with stuffing 3rd-and-manageable rush attempts. However, the Broncos could also benefit from tighter pass coverage in the secondary.
The Broncos haven’t been burned by many big gains against either Washington or Tennessee-Martin. However, Boise State has been letting teams nickel-and-dime it down the field to set up very manageable third-down scenarios. If the Broncos can force teams into more 3rd-and-long situations, improving the third-down conversion prevention rate will be made much easier.
Although it is a more risky option, looking at receivers farther downfield on third down may keep opposing defenses guessing, allowing for a better third-down conversion rate.
In addition to having issues stopping teams on third down, the Broncos also need to become more efficient at executing on third down themselves.
Boise State is converting slightly above 38 percent of their third-down plays into first downs, which statistically puts them in the upper half of the Mountain West Conference. But for a team that may not be nearly as dominating offensively against solid defenses as once thought leading up to the season, the Broncos could benefit from being at a level nearer a team like Utah State (the Aggies convert more than 65 percent of their third-down tries).
On one hand, the Broncos could opt to simply continue what they’ve been doing and hope the conversion rate improves. Joe Southwick has been doing a nice job through two games taking what the defense gives him and not forcing anything, which is normally the recipe for setting up a good chance to covert on third down.
However, Boise State could also experiment with less predictable play-calling on third-down opportunities. On several occasions in the Washington game, the Broncos were in manageable third-down situations and only tried to gain just enough yards to earn a first down. Perhaps looking downfield more in similar situations in the future could catch defenses off guard.
The proposed idea may work especially well in conference play, where the Boise State receivers will oftentimes have a talent and size advantage on opposing defenders. Instead of playing it safe, a more risky approach could end up working for the Broncos.
Whatever the approach ends up being, Chris Petersen’s squad needs to convert more often on third down. Keeping the offense on the field may be the answer to combating the problem of a more porous defense than the Broncos are used to having.