At college football’s midpoint of the year, the Boise State Broncos have already had a tumultuous season to say the least.
The Broncos, who are 4-2 overall and 2-1 in Mountain West Conference play, currently sit in second place in the Mountain Division of the conference.
The good news is that Chris Petersen’s squad controls its own destiny with the Wyoming Cowboys, the Mountain Division’s current leader, meeting the Broncos at home on November 16. Based on the relative unpredictability of the conference thus far in 2013, the aforementioned matchup could be very important in deciding who goes to the inaugural Mountain West Conference title game.
In this post, we’ll evaluate every facet of the Boise State football team based on its performance up to this point. Each position group will be individually covered and given an overall grade.
Let’s take a look at the midseason grades for the Boise State Broncos football squad.
Fans of the Broncos know that it has been a trying season in Boise. The team is young, though, and seemingly getting better every week. A lot of credit has to be given to the coaching staff for the progression of the players, especially on the defensive end.
At the beginning of the season, the Broncos looked flat-out awful on the defensive end. Both Washington and Fresno State tore up the young Boise State defense, taking advantage primarily of the linebacker corps and secondary.
Since those games, the weak spots in the defense have improved markedly. Admittedly, the Broncos haven’t faced a quarterback like Derek Carr or Keith Price since, but from a coaching perspective, that doesn’t matter.
On the offensive end, Petersen and his staff have effectively used the running game to set up the passing game, realizing that Joe Southwick needs help around him to perform well. While the defense will need continued improvement, the offense has shown signs of being the kind of unit that fans thought it would be before the season began.
For what it’s worth, this is essentially a grading of starting quarterback Joe Southwick. The redshirt senior has taken the majority and the most important snaps of the season.
Southwick has been an interesting case this year. While the redshirt senior’s completion percentage has improved greatly (his 72.3 percentage rate is up from 66.7 percent in 2012), he has already thrown five interceptions this season. In 2012, Southwick threw a total of seven picks.
Based on how fragile the defense can be, it is imperative that Southwick work on cutting down on his turnovers in the latter half of the season. Ball control will be extremely important in the Broncos’ success, especially against teams such as Nevada and Wyoming, which are first and fourth in the conference in turnover margin.
Statistically, Southwick is not having a poor season at all. But based on the eye test, there is work to be done before he can receive an A grade.
The running backs for Boise State have been a pleasant surprise in 2013. No one is going to question the talent on the field, but who would have guessed that such a young corps of players would be so effective so quickly?
Through the first six games of the season, redshirt sophomore Jay Ajayi has been carrying the majority of the load for the Broncos, rushing for 544 yards on 111 attempts. At a little over 90 yards per game, Ajayi has quickly become a player opposing defenses must target. This has only helped Southwick find receivers with softer coverage as the season has progressed.
Unfortunately, the other part of what was becoming a two-headed monster is out for the season. Freshman sensation Aaron Baltazar’s campaign was cut short when he suffered an ACL tear in the game against Southern Mississippi. Baltazar was averaging over 46 yards and 10 carries per game.
With Baltazar out, someone needs to step up to help out Ajayi. That task will likely fall to sophomore Jack Fields, who has seen limited action this year. Fields doesn’t possess the type of speed that Baltazar has, but can still be a strong complement to Ajayi in similar ways.
Because the Broncos don’t lead the conference in rushing yards per game (despite having more attempts than two teams ahead of them), a solid A grade hasn’t been earned. But one step down isn’t bad considering the youth in the backfield.
The wide receivers and tight ends may be the most difficult skill positions to evaluate, simply because so much of what they do depends on the decisions and effectiveness of the quarterback. So for the most part, the evaluation of these two groups will be primarily a comparison to preseason expectations.
The receiving corps for the Broncos was arguably the most talented group in the conference heading into the season, and for the most part, they have been solid in 2013. Three receivers (Matt Miller, Geraldo Boldewijn and Shane Williams Rhodes) are in the top 20 in the conference in average receiving yards per game, and Miller is No. 10 in the conference in total receiving yards.
However, the breakout star of the group (and really the entire team) has been Williams-Rhodes. The sophomore has stepped up in multiple areas for Boise State and leads the team in touchdown catches with four. Without Williams-Rhodes, Miller and Boldewijn would see single coverage much less often.
The tight ends have continued the trend of catching fewer passes in Petersen’s offense, as the group has a total of 11 receptions between four players (Jake Hardee, Connor Peters, Gabe Linehan and Holden Huff)
Linehan, a senior, was on the preseason watch list for the Mackey Award, given to the nation’s most outstanding tight end. However, he was not among the list of players included on the midseason watch list.
This season, Boise State had the task of replacing three starters from the 2012 squad (Joe Kellogg, Michael Ames and Brenel Myers) on the offensive line.
The running game has looked good. For the most part, Southwick is being given time to throw the football. But there is still work to be done for the retooled line.
The Broncos have given up 11 sacks already this year, which is two more than the team gave up the entire 2012 campaign.
Other than the Washington game, the offense has been humming, so the play of the offensive line can’t really be considered a true concern. But one of the ways that the Broncos have separated themselves from the rest of the conference in prior years has been by having a superior line.
Right now, that isn’t the case.
The Broncos defensive line, which was really the only experienced group on the defense heading into the season, has been keeping up its end of the bargain in 2013.
Despite not being elite at stopping the run, the Broncos are still fourth in the MWC and are giving up a respectable 150 yards per game on the ground. There are still two difficult tests left on the schedule (Wyoming and New Mexico), but generally, Boise State has kept everyone except Bishop Sankey in check.
In the past few weeks, the Broncos have improved dramatically at getting to the quarterback. In its first four games, Boise State’s defense had three sacks. In the past two contests, the Broncos have eight.
Beau Martin with three-and-a-half sacks and Demarcus Lawrence with three lead the way.
Boise State’s defense has struggled this season, but the struggles cannot be traced back to the defensive line. So far, it has done its job.
The following statement can be made about essentially the entire Boise State defense, save the defensive line—the linebackers are young and haven’t found a leader yet.
Blake Renaud was poised to become a leader on the defense, but unless he has settled into the role of more of a vocal leader, that hasn’t come to fruition quite yet. Instead, redshirt freshman Ben Weaver has been making the biggest impact of the non-hybrid linebackers.
Weaver is the leading tackler for the Broncos and has been the starting weak-side linebacker since the Fresno State game. If Weaver continues to improve throughout his career, he could be the anchor of yet another shutdown Boise State defense in a couple of years.
Not all of the credit for stopping the run can be given to the line, so in that regard, the Broncos have been OK at linebacker. But there is still room for improvement—the linebackers have been just mediocre overall this season.
The Broncos’ defensive secondary has not been awful in 2013. But it has struggled.
Boise State is seventh in the conference in pass defense, giving up nearly 250 yards per contest through the air. This stat really isn’t indicative of how poorly the secondary has performed against good competition, either. Ranked opponents average 392 passing yards against the Broncos.
Petersen had the difficult task of replacing Jamar Taylor and Jerrell Gavins at cornerback, two of Boise State’s best players period on last year’s squad. No one said it was going to be easy, but not many people expected it would be this difficult.
Redshirt junior Bryan Douglas and sophomore Donte Deayon have assumed starting roles at the position, and to say that there is no lack of talent at the position would not be a false statement. True freshman Jonathan Moxey has seen extended playing time at the position as well.
Fans are literally watching the secondary improve little by little every weekend. However, it is difficult to tell how much of it is real improvement and how much is a result of poor competition. Even this past week, the Broncos were lucky not to have to face Utah State quarterback Chuckie Keeton, who could have taken advantage of Boise State like Price and Carr did.
This group will continue to get better every week, but right now, it is definitely the weak link of the 2013 Boise State football team.
Special teams has been an issue for the Broncos in prior years. But this season, fans should be pleased with both the kicking game and other special teams units.
Dan Goodale has hit eight of nine field goals this season and 27 of 29 extra-point attempts. Obviously, you’d like to see perfect percentages in each category, but considering the inconsistency of the kicking game the past few years, those aren’t bad numbers.
In other special teams news, Williams-Rhodes has transformed into a threat in both the punt and kick return games. The sophomore’s speed is a big reason why the Broncos are one of the top teams in the nation in long punt returns.
Although the Broncos haven’t been in too many situations to rely on special teams yet, it is encouraging to see that when they may, they have capable performers.