It is no secret the Boise State Broncos have struggled against option offenses in recent seasons, including two losses at Albertons Stadium last season. On Saturday for their home opener, they welcome the polar opposite.
Washington State will throw. And throw. And throw again.
Last season, the Cougars put the ball in the air 739 times. No one else tossed it more than 620. It’s the sort of test that keeps a defensive coordinator up at night, though Boise State’s Andy Avalos had a spring in his step looking ahead to the challenge.
“One of the things we’re grateful for here is our offense is multiple, and we get to see a lot of different looks,” Avalos said. “... Without that, it would be really, really tough.”
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The Cougars have ranked in the top 10 nationally in passing offense in each of coach Mike Leach’s four full seasons, finishing No. 1 the past two years.
“I think he’s one of the innovators of college football when it comes to the offensive side in particular,” Boise State coach Bryan Harsin said.
Leading the charge is junior quarterback Luke Falk, who completed 69.4 percent of his passes in 12 games last season for 4,561 yards with 38 touchdowns and just eight interceptions on 644 attempts. Falk, a native of Logan, Utah, said Boise State “was a team I tried to get recruited by,” but added like just about every other school, it wasn’t interested in offering him. He joined Washington State as a walk-on in 2013.
“He’s one of the better quarterbacks in the country,” Harsin said.
Leach has churned out big-time passers year after year, dating back to his success with Kliff Kingsbury and B.J. Symons throwing to Wes Welker at Texas Tech in the early 2000s.
In Falk, he has what senior receiver Gabe Marks once called “The Messiah of the Palouse,” the next leader of Leach’s pass-happy system and the best in a long time at Washington State, a school with its own proud history of passers like Mark Rypien, Drew Bledsoe and Ryan Leaf.
“He does a good job of elevating the players around him. He’s a tireless worker, very focused,” Leach said. “He’s accurate. He makes good decisions, has pretty good feet in the pocket, which I think he’s definitely improved on.”
There are no tight ends in the Washington State offense, just four- or five-receiver sets on most downs. And with that, an endless array of choices to pass to in nearly every situation.
“There’s so many options for him to throw the ball to, and when you have such a smart quarterback like he is, he can read the defenses, see what we’re in and he knows where to go,” senior linebacker Tanner Vallejo said. “It’s everyone sticking to their job, like we say every week, but especially this week.”
The Cougars work out of the shotgun a majority of the time (in 2014, they took one snap of their 1,011 offensive plays from under center but did so a little more often last season) and also place wide gaps between their offensive linemen, in effect making blitzing linebackers or rushing defensive ends move more to get to the quarterback. That also gives running backs more room to work when the occasional run is dialed up.
“They turn that field, it seems a lot bigger the way they space themselves out,” Avalos said.
Saturday, as Harsin describes it, is “a big game, big test.” Three of the Broncos’ four starters in the secondary Saturday at Louisiana were making their first career starts, and the Cougars will provide a big step up. It’s a mighty challenge for any defense, but it also means plenty of chances to make plays.
“Challenges are always fun. It’s why we play this game,” Vallejo said.
Dave Southorn: 208-377-6420, @IDS_BroncoBeat
Washington State at a glance
Location: Pullman, Wash.
Head coach: Mike Leach (21-30, fifth year; 105-73, 15th year overall)
This year’s record: 0-1 overall (lost 45-42 to Eastern Washington on Saturday)
The rundown: Coming off a season-opening loss to a Big Sky school for the second straight year, the Cougars hope for a repeat of last season, where they wound up 9-4 after losing to Portland State. Boise State is expecting Washington State to be a little more smooth Saturday, bringing a passing offense that averaged 389.5 yards per game last season and had 418 yards last week. The Cougars yielded 606 yards against EWU, 496 through the air. The defense allowed 13 passing TDs in 2015, but the Eagles had five Saturday alone.
Player to watch: Gabe Marks, WR
A 6-foot, 188-pound senior, he’s junior quarterback Luke Falk’s most trusted target, hauling in 104 receptions for 1,192 yards and 15 TDs last season. Against Eastern Washington, he had 10 receptions and 108 yards, scoring a pair of TDs. His 237 career receptions are 42 more than any other receiver in school history, and he needs 538 yards to tie the school’s career yardage record.
“He’s a stud,” Boise State coach Bryan Harsin said.