Winners in 10 of its first 11 games, the Boise State football team lost its final two of the season for the first time since 2007.
Gone are some key playmakers on offense and top contributors on defense. The 2017 schedule will be one of the most difficult in recent years. It could be another run at a New Year’s Six bowl, or it could be, by Boise State standards, a bit of a rebuild, a step back away from the Group of Five elite.
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“They always say you’re only good as your last performance,” senior defensive tackle Elliot Hoyte said before the 31-12 loss to Baylor in the Cactus Bowl on Tuesday night. “Next year, they’re probably going to analyze Boise State on how they played in the bowl game.”
The Cactus Bowl may be a symptom of larger issues, or could just be what happens to plenty of teams: a bad game. So, with the disappointing finish in the rearview mirror, what’s ahead for Boise State next season?
Junior running back Jeremy McNichols and his 2,183 yards from scrimmage this season (and 27 touchdowns) depart early for the NFL. Senior Thomas Sperbeck, the Broncos’ all-time leading receiver with 3,601 career yards, also is gone.
Those won’t be simple spots to replace.
“We’ll be fine. It’s the next man up mentality,” sophomore quarterback Brett Rypien said. “We’ve got a lot of guys that have been waiting for their shot to play. I think on a lot of other teams, they’d have played more, but we had some really good players in front of them.”
True freshman Alexander Mattison showed a wealth of promise in the backfield with 328 yards and four touchdowns, in line to be the workhorse next season. Junior receiver Cedrick Wilson had 56 catches for 1,129 yards and 11 TDs, poised for an even larger role.
The Broncos have only two other running backs on scholarship, one who redshirted this year, so depth will be an issue. At receiver, the other returning Broncos combined for 13 catches this season. Bubba Ogbebor, who played as a true freshman this year but didn’t have a catch, could be an intriguing prospect with his size (6-0, 187) and speed.
Boise State also must replace three starters on the offensive line. Freshman John Molchon saw three spot starts at tackle, and redshirting Ezra Cleveland was the rare lineman to get offensive scout team player of the year. All the tight ends (21 combined receptions in the regular season) are slated to return.
“We’ve got good depth. We’re bringing in some good (junior college) guys, Ezra Cleveland’s a baller, we’ve got John Molchon,” senior offensive tackle Mario Yakoo said.
Rypien was inconsistent, playing extremely efficient in big wins but struggling in closer games or losses. When he made mistakes early, it almost always compounded on him. Junior college transfer Rathen Ricedorff joins the program in January and will compete with Rypien in the spring and summer.
The Broncos’ 33.8 points per game are 37th in the Football Bowl Subdivision, their second-lowest average since 1998. Rypien said the goal was to score 40 against Baylor. The Broncos had six until 80 seconds remained.
“Guys just need to step up, that’s the bottom line,” said tight end Jake Roh, a senior next season. “... In the game, we need to step up, do what we’ve been practicing all week.”
After a hot start, the Broncos cooled off, dropping from 23rd to 31st nationally in scoring defense (23.3) in the second half of the season and 10th in sacks to 50th.
Boise State relied heavily on a core of four or five linemen all season, which led to a bit of fatigue down the stretch.
Two starters on the line graduate in defensive end Sam McCaskill (team-high 14 tackles for loss) and Hoyte. Sack leader David Moa will be a junior at nose, coming off a breakthrough season in his first major action with 8.5 sacks. Three of the seven true freshmen who played this season played on the line, and some talented redshirts will be in the mix next year.
“David will do a great job leading that room next year,” senior linebacker Ben Weaver said.
Six of the top seven tacklers depart, led by Weaver’s 108. Five of the seven interceptions the defense had will be gone, including senior safety Chanceller James. Only one team, East Carolina, had fewer turnovers created this season than the Broncos’ nine.
At linebacker, Joe Martarano will be the anchor as a senior in the middle once he returns from a broken leg, and junior Leighton Vander Esch has proven to be a playmaker on the outside in a backup role. At Tanner Vallejo’s vacated strongside spot, junior Blake Whitlock and defensive scout team player of the year Desmond Williams should have a nice competition.
“Some of those guys who I think might’ve been overshadowed by some of our really good seniors are going to be able to (show up),” Weaver said.
The Broncos lose two starters in the backfield in James and cornerback Jonathan Moxey, plus part-time starter Dylan Sumner-Gardner is not expected back. Tyler Horton, a sophomore, will be an important piece, while Cameron Hartsfield, a junior who had 65 tackles this season, returns at safety. Evan Tyler started the first three games this season at safety as a redshirt freshman before a season-ending knee injury, and his return should bolster one of the team’s most talented, deep groups.
Three freshmen played among those group: DeAndre Pierce, Reid Harrison-Ducros and Kekoa Nawahine. Pierce played multiple spots and is primed for a big role, while Nawahine got his first start at safety in the Cactus Bowl.
Boise State must replace its legs, as kicker Tyler Rausa and punter Sean Wale have graduated. Rausa made 9-of-13 field goals, making six of his last seven, while Wale was excellent, averaging 45.0 yards per punt, No. 6 in the nation.
Joel Velazquez, who redshirted this season, has a strong leg and could handle kicking and punting duties, but the Broncos will no doubt bring in some competition.
Wilson was a much-needed boost at punt returns, averaging 13.2 yards per return. If he is back in that role while being the No. 1 receiver, he could be electric. The Broncos muffed multiple punts, so that must be remedied.
Boise State’s 2017 schedule
Eight teams that played in bowl games this year dot the 2017 slate. Here is the tentative schedule, with dates and TV information finalized in 2017:
▪ Nonconference: vs. Troy (Sept. 2), at Washington State (Sept. 9), vs. Virginia (Sept. 23), at BYU (Oct. 7).
▪ Mountain West home games: Air Force, Nevada, New Mexico, Wyoming.
▪ Mountain West road games: Colorado State, Fresno State, San Diego State, Utah State.