Bronco Blitz: Mountain West teams are trying to protect their biggest assets

Quarterbacks’ health is especially paramount in a Mountain West season full of attrition.

ccripe@idahostatesman.comOctober 12, 2013 

Boise State quarterback Joe Southwick dives for the pylon during a Mountain West Conference game against Air Force last month. Southwick is running the ball effectively this season, but the Broncos still try to minimize the pounding Southwick and run-oriented backup Grant Hedrick endure when they decide to use their feet.

KYLE GREEN — Statesman file

  • Broncos must triumph to stay in MW title race

    The Boise State football team is in must-win mode for its first game in October.

    That’s the price of losing a conference game in September, at Fresno State.

    And that’s the hazard of divisional play, where you can’t win a share of a title anymore.

    The Broncos, who are 1-1 in the Mountain West, play Saturday at Utah State, which is 2-0.

    If the Broncos win, they will continue to control their own destiny in the Mountain Division. Win the rest of their conference games, and they would qualify for the conference championship game.

    If the Broncos lose, they will be two games behind the Aggies and all but out of the conference race. Utah State, which doesn’t play Fresno State, would have to lose at least two of its last five conference games to let Boise State back in the race. Even then, the Aggies would hold the tiebreaker unless there’s a three-way tie.

    “Both teams will come out playing their hearts out,” Boise State senior quarterback Joe Southwick said. “We both know it’s an important game. I’m expecting both sides to scratch and claw.”

    Wyoming (1-0) and Colorado State (0-0) are the only Mountain Division teams other than Utah State without a conference loss. New Mexico is 0-1 and Air Force is 0-5.

    Fresno State and San Diego State share the West Division lead at 2-0, and UNLV is favored to join them with a victory Saturday against Hawaii (0-3). Nevada is 2-1, and San Jose State (1-1) can match the Wolf Pack if it beats Colorado State.

    — Chadd Cripe

— There is no more valuable commodity on a college football team than the starting quarterback.

His health can make the difference between a special season and a disappointing one.

And more and more, coaches are tip-toeing the line between extracting every bit of playmaking talent out of that quarterback and getting him through a season that can include 14 or 15 games.

Already this season, half the teams in the Mountain West have dealt with an injury to their starting quarterback.

Air Force tried to rally Thursday night with a 2-minute drill led by its fourth-stringer. Nevada played the second half at Florida State with its third-stringer.

And most notably, Mountain Division contender Utah State lost star quarterback Chuckie Keeton for the season when he tore an anterior cruciate ligament last week against BYU.

The Aggies might have been favored to beat division favorite Boise State on Saturday night with Keeton. Instead, they’re 6›-point underdogs.

Keeton was injured running with the ball, escaping the grasp of two defenders while running into two more.

“Any time that you are a runner, chances (of injury) go up,” Boise State coach Chris Petersen said. “You’ve got to be smart and careful about that. … I’ve seen quarterbacks, ours included, where they don’t really have to take that extra shot. They can go down and we’re good.”

The Broncos, who have not started a backup quarterback because of injury since Ryan Dinwiddie missed five starts with a broken ankle in 2002, have joined the quarterback-run revolution this season.

Senior starter Joe Southwick is third on the team with 106 rushing yards. He’s on pace to become the first Broncos quarterback to rush for 200 yards in a season since Jared Zabransky in 2005 and the first to rank in the top three on the team in rushing since Zabransky in 2004.

Southwick’s role is delicate. The Broncos want to use his mobility as a weapon — but coaches also ask him to put his safety over yardage, unless the game situation (fourth down, for example) dictates that he take a hit.

“It’s kind of hard,” said junior backup quarterback Grant Hedrick, who enters the game for some plays as a run threat. “They want us to be aggressive and we’re a big part of the run game, but you’ve got to protect yourself and sometimes that’s hard — your instincts take over. You’ve got to be smart. They tell us: ‘Don’t be afraid to slide, get out of bounds. Protect yourself.’ ”

Petersen, in fact, even tells his wide receivers and tailbacks he’d prefer they run out of bounds than take an unnecessary sideline shot. They prove their toughness in the middle of the field, he said. Quarterbacks prove it in the pocket, where they often can’t see the defenders coming at them.

But not all coaches think that way.

Idaho’s Paul Petrino demands aggression. His quarterback, redshirt freshman Chad Chalich, leads the team with 212 rushing yards.

“The day he has to run out of bounds or slide, he won’t be our quarterback,” Petrino said.

Keeton, who would have been a Mountain West Offensive Player of the Year candidate, rushed for 241 yards in a little over five games this season. The only non-option Mountain West quarterback with more is Wyoming’s Brett Smith (282).

Smith missed two games last season, both losses, after separate head injuries.

This is the second significant injury for Keeton, who missed most of the last five games in 2011 with a neck injury. He was taken off the field on a stretcher that time.

Utah State coach Matt Wells said there was nothing remarkable about the play on which Keeton was injured last week.

“You’ve got to protect them in the pocket and when they get out, they’ve got to protect themselves,” Wells said. “That’s a play Chuckie’s made so many times, but there wasn’t much he could do.”

The Broncos have experienced injury scares with running quarterbacks.

Southwick needed treatment on his throwing shoulder at halftime Sept. 20 at Fresno State so he could finish the game, after landing awkwardly on the shoulder on a keeper.

Hedrick and former backup Mike Coughlin have been banged up in the past few years while serving as the designated running quarterback.

The injury threat makes coaches consider more than just game strategy when deciding how often to call quarterback runs.

“Joe’s done a really nice job running for us this year, but we’re on a mission to keep all our quarterbacks healthy,” offensive line coach and run game coordinator Chris Strausser said. “I don’t think we’re going to be Nevada and just cut ‘em loose like they did, but at the same time that guy needs to be an effective runner for us.”

Chadd Cripe: 377-6398, Twitter: @IDS_BroncoBeat

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