BOISE — No one needs a reminder of Boise State's highest-profile missed kicks in recent seasons. But rarely, if ever, have the special teams units as a whole been as bad as they were in last year's 21-19 home loss to San Diego State.
The Broncos allowed a kickoff return for a touchdown to start the game, had a punt blocked that set up another Aztecs' TD and had a poor snap on a 2-point try in the first quarter that left them needing a 2-pointer late in the fourth to tie the game. They didn't get that either.
"We got hammered on special teams," Boise State coach Chris Petersen said this week. "And it cost us."
The units, normally a Boise State strength, are back to their typical high standards this season, with kicker Dan Goodale and punt returner Shane Williams-Rhodes leading the way. ESPN ranks the Broncos among the top five units in the country.
They'll need to be good as the Broncos prepare to battle the Aztecs, a team having its own kicking issues. San Diego State has missed its last seven field-goal attempts, including a game-winner against Fresno State. The Aztecs' last made field goal came in September.
There is no such worry on the Bronco sideline, a relief for sure after high-pressure misses in 2010 and 2011 cost the program dearly.
Goodale, a junior kicker who missed a game-winner against TCU in 2011, is No. 13 in the nation in field goal percentage (12-of-13, 92.3 percent). He said improved practice habits and a better understanding of the kicking game - physically and mentally - helped him improve.
"If there's probably anybody on this team that's the most improved, it's got to be Dan Goodale," special teams coordinator Scott Huff said.
Instead of kicking and/or punting 50 balls per practice, Goodale is limiting himself to about 25 to 30, but making each one count. He is concentrating on small details and focusing on those at practice. In the Broncos' victory against Wyoming, Goodale made a career-long 47-yard attempt, even while dealing with a broken shoelace.
"I thought I just had to kick a lot of balls to get better when, really, it's the quality of the reps that will make you better," he said. "The way I prepare and my mental approach to the game has changed a lot and it's really improved and helped me be successful."
His fresher leg is showing up on kickoffs, too. Goodale has 36 touchbacks on 71 kickoffs. And the other kicks have been covered well. Foes average 19.6 yards per return.
San Diego State's Colin Lockett took the opening kickoff 100 yards last year. Lockett is back.
"I'm just focusing on getting good contact on my kicks and hopefully kicking it out of the back of the end zone," Goodale said. "The more touchbacks we can get, the better. It doesn't give them a chance to touch the ball and make anything happen."
Among the lessons the Broncos learned from last year's special teams breakdowns was the importance of depth. Against San Diego State, the Broncos were without three starters on the kickoff team due to injury and suspension. Those new vacancies created issues that showed up immediately.
Huff has tried to prepare for the inevitable injuries this year. He's needed to - BSU has been ravaged by injuries.
"If there's one thing we learned last year and tried to prepare better for this year, it's how many guys get hurt through the course of the year. We've tried to continually build depth, because that's football. Guys get hurt. Whether it's special teams, offense or defense, you've got to continually build depth and get guys in the right spots," Huff said.
The emphasis has paid off.
In addition to Goodale's lofty statistics, Williams-Rhodes is 10th in the country in punt return average at 15.6. Punters Trevor Harman and Sean Wale have combined for 13 fair catches, 12 punts inside the 20 and nine punts of 50 yards or more in 32 punts. Harman's 44.2 average would rank No. 15 nationally if he had enough punts to qualify.
"All around, we've done a great job," Harman said. "All the coaches doing their small little part, coaching their little positions. We've definitely made a lot of improvement."
After arguably their worst special teams performance of the Petersen era, the Broncos' special teams units have a chance to be ones doing the hammering.
Brian Murphy: 377-6444; Twitter: @murphsturph