Brian Murphy: Plenty of work ahead for Boise State's defense

bmurphy@idahostatesman.comSeptember 22, 2013 

FRESNO, Calif. — Boise State’s defense had been carved up all evening, riddled by Fresno State quarterback Derek Carr and receivers Davante Adams and Isaiah Burse, and humbled for three-plus quarters in front of a hostile crowd.

Yet, remarkably, with 6 minutes and 59 seconds remaining in Friday night’s Mountain West showdown, the Boise State defense had a shot at redemption.

One stop.

One stop and most — but not all — of its transgressions would be forgotten, cast aside by most in the glow of a thrilling and improbable comeback victory.

“It was in our hands,” defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski said.

More importantly, it was in Carr’s hands. And he wasn’t to be stopped on this night.

Well, not by this defense.

Fresno State marched 87 yards in 13 plays covering 4:55 to score the game-winning touchdown.

Boise State and Kwiatkowski are going back to the drawing board.

“It’s disappointing. We’ll go back and look at that film and study it inside and out,” said Kwiatkowski, in his fourth season as the Broncos’ defensive coordinator. “Everybody knows what we’ve got to do to get better. We just have to do it.”

Four games into the season, it’s not clear that this youthful group is capable of making the necessary improvements.

The cornerbacks haven’t been good enough to play shutdown man coverage. The linebackers haven’t been good enough to cover the passing lanes in zone coverage. The defensive line hasn’t been good enough at generating pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

There is no strength to play to, complicating strategy and calls for Kwiatkowski.

Add it up and it’s easy to see why the Broncos’ defense is off to its worst start of the Chris Petersen era.

“It’s everything. It’s zone drops. When we’re in zone drop and they throw underneath, you got to be able to tackle. When we play man, we got to play better man coverage. We’ve got to get better pass rush in the third-down situations,” Kwiatkowski said.

“It’s not one thing.”

It could be one thing — talent.

In 2010, Kwiatkowski coordinated the No. 2-ranked defense in the country in yards and points allowed.

That unit included nine players who have either played in or been drafted into the NFL — defensive linemen Chase Baker, Tyrone Crawford, Shea McClellin and Billy Winn, and defensive backs George Iloka, Jeron Johnson, Jamar Taylor, Brandyn Thompson and Winston Venable. At least five more defenders spent time in NFL training camps.

Outside of defensive end Demarcus Lawrence, there are no surefire pros on the roster this season. No doubt some will emerge, but they could be years away. The Broncos are starting just two seniors, and veterans Jonathan Brown, Travis Saxton and Jeremy Ioane have already missed time with injuries.

You can place the blame on youth and inexperience. The Broncos kicked two returning starters off the team in the offseason. Both ended up at FBS schools.

Of the 26 players listed on the defensive depth chart for the Fresno State game, eight were freshmen, including five true freshmen.

“I’m never gonna make excuses for that,” Kwiatkowski said. “We just got to get better and the only way to do that is to get back to practice and keep working.”

There’s plenty to work on.

Like missed tackles. The strategy Friday was to let Fresno State have short passes and then rush up to tackle. Too often the Bulldogs got extra yards.

Like forcing turnovers. Boise State forced zero against Fresno State in a game where forcing a mistake was pivotal.

Like third-down defense. Fresno State converted 8-of-17, including two on the final drive.

Like pass defense overall. Opposing quarterbacks must be drooling at the prospect of facing Boise State, an almost unimaginable sentiment just a few years ago. Carr threw for 460 yards and four touchdowns. Washington’s Keith Price had 324 yards and two TDs in the season opener.

“We have to play better pass defense, there’s no question about it,” Petersen said. “... We can play better than that. There were too many balls on the seams where guys were running fast and full speed. We have to be able to tighten that up.”

That and much more.

Or else a full season of shootouts awaits.

After Friday night, no one in blue and orange should be eager for that.

Brian Murphy: 377-6444, Twitter: @MurphsTurph

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