Of all the baffling moments in the Boise State football team’s historic dud Friday night at Albertsons Stadium, this one stands alone.
On Monday, coach Bryan Harsin was asked about freshman tailback Robert Mahone getting the first two carries against New Mexico and no more after that. “There’s no excuse for that,” Harsin said.
Four days later, with their run game in shambles, Harsin and his staff inserted Mahone for three carries in the second quarter. He gained 8, 8 and 5 yards on consecutive plays — the most promising tailback production all season. And Mahone never got another carry.
“Well it wasn’t Rob’s fault, I can tell you that,” Harsin said.
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Mahone finished with a team-high 21 rushing yards in the 42-23 loss — the Broncos’ most lopsided defeat on the Blue in 16 years and nearly their worst loss since Houston Nutt’s one-year stint in 1997.
More playing time for Mahone almost certainly wouldn’t have changed the outcome. But the fact the coaching staff made the exact same mistake in consecutive games is just another sign that the Broncos’ program has problems bigger than one loss.
This team is 2-2 and staring at two challenging road games, at BYU and San Diego State.
The program is 2-4 in its past six games and 5-5 in its past 10 — the highest concentration of losses at Boise State since late 1998 and early 1999, just before the program’s remarkable run of success began. Barring a huge winning streak, this will be the first season in which the Broncos failed to crack the Top 25 at any point since 2001.
The offense is disjointed and talent-deficient. The defense is young and overworked. The coaching staff can’t seem to get on the same page. And Harsin has made some head-scratching decisions, like calling timeout on fourth down in the second half, then trying to get Virginia to jump offside, then punting — an incredible waste of a timeout when you’re trying to erase a 21-point deficit.
“We’ll find out what we’re made of when we get a chance to go play again,” Harsin said. “That (loss) is disappointing — very disappointing — and certainly I don’t think that’s what this team is about. I don’t think that’s what this team is made of. But we’ve got to go prove it.”
He promised unspecified changes as the Broncos enter their bye – changes that likely will focus on an offense that has scored just 13 touchdowns in four games. All-Mountain West quarterback Brett Rypien showed how good he can be at times Friday night but dropped balls and blown protections limited the damage he could do. Senior wide receiver Cedrick Wilson accounted for 13 catches and 209 yards but is the only offensive player providing explosive plays.
Since Harsin took over in 2014, he has recruited only two high school skill players who have developed into dependable offensive weapons (Rypien and tailback Jeremy McNichols, who is now in the NFL).
He’s on his fourth play-caller in as many seasons — from Mike Sanford in 2014 to Eliah Drinkwitz in 2015 to himself in 2016 to Zak Hill in 2017. He has new coaches for the offensive line and wide receivers this year, and both positions have disappointed.
The talent is better on defense, but the inexperience of that group showed against Virginia’s shifts, motions and balanced attack.
“We need to fix right now the consistency of our entire team,” Harsin said.
Fans clearly are losing their patience. Season-ticket sales have dropped to 2004 levels — wiping out all of the progress of the three-Fiesta Bowl era — and the attendance for the rest of the home schedule could be dreadful if the Broncos don’t win at least one of their next two games.
There were boo-birds in Albertsons Stadium at several points during the Virginia game, and much of the frustration on social media was aimed directly at Harsin.
Still, Harsin’s job couldn’t be much more secure. He’s 33-11 — a step down from his predecessors but an outstanding record in college football — and he’s under contract through 2021. If the Broncos win eight games this season, he gets an extension through 2022.
If the Broncos don’t win eight games, Harsin would have $7.2 million in guaranteed income on his contract. If the Broncos win eight, that amount increases to $9.25 million.
So no matter how bad things get this year — barring some sort of legal or ethical breach — this is Harsin’s program.
He has to fix it.
“I’m glad we have the bye and have a chance to go back and really spend time on the games,” Harsin said. “That was a poor performance overall, and every guy in that locker room would say that. And that starts with me No. 1.”
He faces the biggest challenge of a coaching career that had been success-filled until this 10-game stretch. Boise State set an impossibly high standard with its dominance from 2002 to 2011 — and nothing but a return to the days of Top 10 rankings and one- and no-loss seasons will be accepted by portions of Bronco Nation.
It won’t be an easy road back.
“We can’t lay down and die,” junior linebacker and team captain Leighton Vander Esch said, “and we’re not going to do that.”
Chadd Cripe is the Idaho Statesman sports editor. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, 208-377-6398 or @chaddcripe on Twitter.