Boise State's current football struggles could help later

Broncos will be tested, motivated to improve upon lackluster 8-4 campaign.

ccripe@idahostatesman.comDecember 4, 2013 

— This isn’t the first time during Boise State football coach Chris Petersen’s tenure that people have wondered whether his program was on the slide.

The Broncos lost four games in 2005 — and then won the Fiesta Bowl at the end of the 2006 season. They lost all three of their most important games in 2007 after those Fiesta Bowl stars departed — and then went on an epic 50-3, four-year run.

They’ve lost all four of their most difficult games so far this season, which sets up 2014 as another test of the Broncos’ staying power in the national conversation.

Petersen said this year’s 8-4 record — the Broncos’ worst since 2001, pending the bowl game — will motivate everyone in the program to rebound in 2014.

This year’s seniors, who will leave without winning an outright conference title, left an impression on Petersen when they repeatedly mentioned the team’s record during speeches to the team the night before the Senior Day win against New Mexico.

“I don’t think it’s just the seniors who know that (an 8-4 season is) not something that really goes down around here,” junior linebacker Corey Bell said. “All the way through, this is a winning tradition. We know what is expected of us. Our expectations don’t change because we went 8-4 this year. We’re going to be coming back with that attitude that it’s time to go, and we’re going to make a statement.”

Added sophomore tailback Jay Ajayi: “This year was definitely a learning experience for a lot of us guys who will be back next year.”

The Broncos’ struggles can be traced to many factors, including heavy attrition in the 2009 and 2011 recruiting classes; a rash of injuries that affected their quarterback, No. 2 tailback, both slot receivers, the top two tight ends, the right tackle and right guard, two of the top three defensive tackles, five of the top seven linebackers and the strong safety; a youthful defense that needed to learn to play with the energy that has been a staple of the Broncos’ defense under Petersen; and too few reliable playmakers on offense.

Still, as Petersen notes, this team just missed a memorable season.

The Broncos had the ball down 41-40 at Fresno State, failed on fourth down near midfield and lost. They had the ball tied 28-28 at San Diego State, missed a field goal on the final drive of regulation and lost in overtime.

Turn those two drives into success stories, and this is a 10-win team getting ready to host the first Mountain West championship game instead of watching it on TV.

“There’s a lot of lessons in this season,” Petersen said. “You can work your tail off and do a lot of things right and still come up … we came up really short in two games (at Fresno State and San Diego State), and in two games we didn’t play nearly well enough (at Washington and BYU).

“It’s just not going to happen. We’ve got to make it happen. We’ve got to scratch and claw, and it always comes down to details.”

The good in this season? The Broncos handled adversity well. They followed each of their losses with blowout wins and, with the exception of the Washington game, fought back when their situation was the bleakest.

“Every time we’ve lost, they’ve come back fighting harder than maybe we played the game before,” Petersen said. “They never backed down. They’ve been great to coach. … You want to win a few more games, but I think we can all be better for it when we move forward.”

The bad? Maddening inconsistency.

An offense that showed significant improvement over last year couldn’t function at the start of games and went through some sluggish periods, particularly in the losses.

A defense that dominated most of the past five years ranks third in the Mountain West and 72nd in the nation in yards allowed.

The special teams that were among the nation’s best most of the year failed the Broncos in a big way in the fourth quarter at San Diego State.

“At times we’ve played really good,” Petersen said. “The bottom line is we’d like to play a little more consistent. … It’s so much harder than people on the outside think it is. It’s just very hard to play at a high level at all times and stay at a high level. There’s going to be ebbs and flows. You’ve got to learn from them and regroup and be motivated from it.”

The roster next year will be loaded with experience after so many young players were forced into significant action this year.

The top five rushers, top two receivers and five offensive linemen who started games (two full time) return, along with backup quarterback Grant Hedrick, who played half of the regular season in place of injured starter Joe Southwick. The defense returns 13 of the top 14 tacklers (all but defensive tackle Ricky Tjong-A-Tjoe), 14 of 15 interceptions and — assuming junior defensive end Demarcus Lawrence doesn’t leave for the NFL — 28.5 of 30 sacks.

Of the top 23 tacklers, 16 were in their first or second year playing for the Broncos.

All those soon-to-be veterans set up 2014 as another with great expectations for the Broncos, who will have BYU, Fresno State, San Diego State and Utah State on the home schedule.

But they thought they were going to do big things in 2013, too.

“My feeling is definitely disappointment,” Ajayi said, “just for the simple fact we had a lot of opportunities that arose. We could have had a better season than what we are at right now, but at the same time, it was a learning experience. We’ll get through it. We’ll bounce back. And I think we’ll be better from it.”

Chadd Cripe: 377-6398, Twitter: @IDS_BroncoBeat

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