Boise State still hoping to see results from an offseason overhaul of the offense

ccripe@idahostatesman.comSeptember 5, 2013 

Boise State tight end Holden Huff can’t come up with a second-half reception during Saturday’s season-opening loss at Husky Stadium.

JOE JASZEWSKI — jjaszewski@idahostatesman.com

  • BOISE STATE SCORING BY YEAR

    Here are the Broncos’ average points per game and national rank since Chris Petersen became offensive coordinator in 2001. Petersen became head coach and stopped calling plays in 2006.

    2001: 34.3 (18)

    2002: 45.6 (1)

    2003: 43.0 (T-1)

    2004: 48.9 (2)

    2005: 36.1 (9)

    2006: 39.7 (2)

    2007: 42.4 (4)

    2008: 37.6 (T-12)

    2009: 42.2 (1)

    2010: 45.1 (2)

    2011: 44.2 (5)

    2012: 30.2 (54)

Broken? No.

Cracking? Maybe.

And that was enough to convince Boise State football coach Chris Petersen that it was time to transform his program’s offense.

The team finished 54th in the nation in scoring last season — 36 spots lower than any other season with Petersen on the coaching staff.

The quarterbacks were so burdened by the growing playbook that it was difficult for newcomers to compete for the starting job.

The run game, which produced two of the highest-scoring running backs in college football history in Brock Forsey (2002) and Ian Johnson (2006), hit a wall in the red zone.

So Petersen sent his staff in search of a better, simpler system during the offseason. They settled on a no-huddle, pistol-heavy scheme that debuted to much criticism — from fans, former players and the media — in Saturday’s 38-6 loss at Washington. It was the third time in 14 games that the Broncos failed to score an offensive touchdown.

“We’re just trying to see if we can score more points, for sure,” Petersen said, “but in a different way where our guys can play fast and know exactly what they are doing and eliminate some thinking.”

Gone are the dozens of pre-snap shifts and motions and between-snap personnel changes that used to make defensive coordinators grumble.

In are a frantic pace, the abbreviated shotgun formation popularized by former Nevada coach Chris Ault and a simpler — though not significantly smaller — playbook.

“We are 100 percent confident that this will work,” second-year offensive coordinator Robert Prince said. “Unfortunately, it didn’t work Saturday. And so we’ve had a chance to study the film and see what we needed to tweak, and we feel good with it.”

Petersen signaled his intent to change immediately after the 2012 MAACO Bowl Las Vegas. The Broncos beat Washington 28-26 but completed the lowest-scoring season in 14 years — averaging 30.2 points per game, down two touchdowns from the previous season.

He said he wanted to rid the playbook of “dead weight” after adding layers from all kinds of offenses and “run the ball somehow a little more effectively.”

“I’m excited about this offseason,” he said then.

The offensive staff started its search for a new system by studying what the Broncos already did well and the players they had available. They looked at the whole spectrum of schemes, whether they were already part of the Broncos’ offense or not.

Petersen served as the “sounding board,” Prince said.

“We studied many offenses and talked with other coaches, other staffs, and visited other staffs,” Prince said.

He wouldn’t divulge specifics.

The coaches settled on the no-huddle, which they used off and on in recent years and extensively in the MAACO Bowl, and the pistol, which they began using part time in 2008 and called the “Q.”

Ault implemented the pistol to deal with one of football’s most vexing problems — how to put your quarterback in the shotgun, which improves his field vision, without sacrificing the run game. In the shotgun, running backs usually get the ball flat-footed.

The pistol places the quarterback a little closer to the line of scrimmage and allows the running back to stand behind him, disguising which direction the play will go and giving the runner momentum when he receives the ball.

“It starts with our running back (sophomore Jay Ajayi),” Prince said. “We feel like he is a downhill runner, and so what scheme is going to be best for him and for our (offensive line) without deviating too much from what our guys know? We started with a downhill running attack.”

Said Ajayi: “I’m definitely liking the offense. It gives us the opportunity to just get downhill and be able to make those drastic cuts where we can get to the second level really fast.”

The run game also is where the playbook shrank the most. The Broncos used to design running plays to take advantage of defensive tendencies. But defenses stopped cooperating — and that made some of those run plays useless on game day. The past two years, the leading rusher absorbed at least 70 yards in losses — a spike over previous seasons.

“Defenses, they’ve turned into a little bit like offenses, where they game plan you,” Petersen said. “And so you’d see something on tape and get to the game and you have this one run in that’s so specific and it’s not the look that we practiced.”

By simplifying, the Broncos can prepare for more possibilities — and get better at specific plays.

That improvement showed up last week. The Broncos rushed for 109 yards against Washington in the bowl game (3.0 yards per carry) and 171 (4.1 yards per carry) in the opener.

“It was a lot better for the most part,” senior center Matt Paradis said.

The one exception: short-yardage plays, which was one area the new run game was supposed to improve. Boise State was stopped on third-and-3 (blocked field goal), second-and-goal at the 2 (field goal) and fourth-and-1 (no points) to thwart promising drives against Washington, which led 17-6 in the third quarter after the fourth-down stop.

Those are the plays that still “gnaw” at Paradis.

“That’s not OK,” he said. “The culture we have here is you’re expecting touchdowns.”

Said Prince: “There were some runs that obviously we need to tweak.”

The pass game was the bigger disappointment. Starting quarterback Joe Southwick threw 40 passes that gained just 152 yards — a lower per-play output (3.8 yards) than the run game.

“We need to create those easy touchdowns and unfortunately we didn’t do that,” Prince said. “Their (defensive backs) did a great job on our receivers. We’ve got to win the 1-on-1 matchups. … I’ve got to create opportunities to help them get open a little bit more.”

The up-tempo passing attack should play to the Broncos’ strengths — a senior returning starter at quarterback and a veteran crew of wide receivers and tight ends. Coaches replaced the long, complicated play calls with hand signals and play cards on the sideline so huddles aren’t necessary. And instead of the hockey-like personnel changes, players substitute when they’re tired.

The no-huddle has taken over college football. Six of the 12 Mountain West teams operate an up-tempo system. Sports Illustrated reported this year that teams’ offensive plays per game nationwide have increased from 67.7 to 71.5 since 2008.

Boise State ran 88 in the opener; it averaged 67 last year.

“I really like playing fast,” senior wide receiver Kirby Moore said. “It makes everything a lot simpler for everyone involved. We just need to know our adjustments off coverage, and we’ll do a better job of that this week. … We look to the sideline and get our calls and we’re ready to go.”

Petersen likes the simpler system because of what it means for the quarterbacks. In his first 11 years at Boise State, he only used five starting quarterbacks.

It was easy to heap new concepts upon them.

But through last year’s quarterback derby, Petersen saw how difficult the system could be to learn. For newcomers, he said, “it’s overwhelming.”

“There’s just a lot there for the quarterback, and there always is going to be,” Petersen said. “But when you’re kind of the jack of all trades, that’s a lot of information for that guy to have to know. Maybe your starter can know it, but really nobody else can know it.”

The offense still will evolve from game to game, like it has in the past, Petersen said. The Broncos might huddle occasionally. And Prince says he can always reach back into the “vault” for a favorite play.

But this season also could be the beginning of a new era for a program that hadn’t overhauled its offense since Dirk Koetter installed it in 1998.

“It’s not like this is totally novel,” Petersen said. “But to work through the whole process of all the little tweaks we have made, it is different. It’s also part of the enjoyment of coaching, of trying to evolve and not just be exactly the same.”

Chadd Cripe: 377-6398, Twitter: @IDS_BroncoBeat

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