Boise State’s depth at linebacker took a hit in the last week when senior Tanner Vallejo and junior Joe Martarano shut down their seasons because of injuries.
On Friday, that depth was tested, but a group of unheralded backups proved to be up to the challenge.
Sophomore Leighton Vander Esch, who missed the previous seven games, freshman Tyson Maeva and junior Blake Whitlock, who joined the team in the summer, were pivotal in keeping Air Force in check in the 27-20 loss.
“We just focused on communicating and playing fast,” Vander Esch said. “We knew what we were doing, we were dialed, everything. We were talking, that's the biggest thing that got us in our rhythm, and it just made it easier.”
Vander Esch had nine tackles (two for loss) and an interception, while Maeva added a career-high nine tackles and Whitlock had five. The group subbed in on Air Force’s second drive and forced the Falcons into a three-play, minus-13 yard possession.
Whitlock started, but had a slight injury early and was replaced by junior Kam Miles on the No. 1 unit alongside seniors Darren Lee and Ben Weaver.
“It was awesome. (Vander Esch) was flying around and having fun, and we needed him out there. ... That crew has taken a hit so having Leighton back out there was a huge plus for us tonight,” Boise State coach Bryan Harsin said.
Returning to practice two weeks ago, Vander Esch said, “I kind of messed up my head a while back” and the team was cautious with him. The Salmon River High grad made a big difference against the Falcons, getting the Broncos’ sixth interception of the year.
Late in the second quarter and trailing 17-7, Air Force had moved near midfield and attempted a trick pass with receiver Tyler Williams throwing long, but freshman safety Kekoa Nawahine read it well. As he was coming down, tight end Ryan Reffitt pulled the ball free, but Vander Esch dove and caught it with 2:21 left in the first half.
BSU drove for a 29-yard Tyler Rausa field goal and trailed 17-10 at the half.
“(Defensive coordinator Andy) Avalos focuses on second-effort plays all the time, just running to the ball,” Vander Esch said. “They tried to hit us on a misdirection play on that toss and the throwback. We read it backside all the way, and I was there, he threw it a little high. Kekoa went up and tried to get it, pretty much had it, the guy just ripped it out, I just ran to the ball, made sure I was there. The opportunity presented itself and I capitalized.”