BOISE — 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, theyre 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. Youve got to be smart and careful about that. Ive seen quarterbacks, ours included, where they dont really have to take that extra shot. They can go down and were 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. Hes 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.
Southwicks 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.
Its 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 were a big part of the run game, but youve got to protect yourself and sometimes thats hard your instincts take over. Youve got to be smart. They tell us: Dont be afraid to slide, get out of bounds. Protect yourself.
Petersen, in fact, even tells his wide receivers and tailbacks hed 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 cant see the defenders coming at them.
But not all coaches think that way.
Idahos 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 wont 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 Wyomings 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.
Youve got to protect them in the pocket and when they get out, theyve got to protect themselves, Wells said. Thats a play Chuckies made so many times, but there wasnt 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.
Joes done a really nice job running for us this year, but were on a mission to keep all our quarterbacks healthy, offensive line coach and run game coordinator Chris Strausser said. I dont think were 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