Statistically, it does not appear that Boise State’s defense is better this season.
With so many key positions left vacant by graduation, that was expected.
Yet, somehow, it seems the Broncos are a little bit better than last season. Maybe it isn’t all there in the numbers, but simply in the attitude.
When the tough gets going, so goes the defense.
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“They don’t flinch when those moments come up, because you have leaders like (defensive end) Sam McCaskill, you’ve got (linebackers) Tanner Vallejo out there, Ben Weaver ... they embrace those moments,” Boise State coach Bryan Harsin said. “That’s where the toughness of this football team comes from.”
Through seven games, the Broncos are allowing 364 yards per game, 94 more than in the same period last season. The 20.4 points per game allowed is slightly more than the 17.7 through seven games last year.
Then again, last year’s team didn’t play offenses like Washington State or New Mexico in the first half of the season. Factor in that opponents have returned two interceptions and a kickoff against the Broncos, and the defense is yielding 17.4 points per game.
What’s different is stepping up in those tough moments.
In the past five games, opponents have started six drives in Boise State territory and mustered a total of 10 points. In 28 drives that have plays inside the Broncos’ 30-yard line, opponents have scored on just 16.
“If adversity hits, the worst thing you can do is duck your head or start pointing figures or get on your teammates,” Weaver said. “The adversity is what we live for, especially on defense.”
The Broncos call that mindset “watch me now,” which originated in having the whole team watch the first defensive series and has morphed into bringing that intensity into those key situations.
“We’ve put them in some really tough situations, and they’ve responded,” Harsin said. “I think our defense has been outstanding in a lot of times where they could have folded, because there’s a lot of excuses we could have made.”
Sure, the Broncos have bent, but have not been broken. They have not been gashed by big plays, perhaps the biggest issue for the defense last year, when it gave up 20 plays of 40 yards or more. Thus far, it has allowed just four.
First-year defensive coordinator Andy Avalos has been pivotal in the change, focusing on simplifying the system and stressing communication to enable quicker execution and allow less-experienced players to step in and play right away. The Broncos also have two new defensive assistants in cornerbacks coach Ashley Ambrose and safeties coach Gabe Franklin.
“When we sat down as a defensive staff, it was going to be more about fundamentals and technique. ... We felt like, losing the amount of players we lost off last year’s defense, we had a huge challenge for us in terms of teaching,” Avalos said.
A former Boise State linebacker, Avalos, like Marcel Yates and Pete Kwiatkowski before him, has the personal connection to the program that he tries to instill on his current players.
“He expects excellence from each and every one of us,” Weaver said. “The standards he has is huge. He does an extremely good job of bringing that out of each individual player. He knows the strengths, the weaknesses, what motivates each player, and every single day, he finds a way to bring the best out of each one of the players.”
Harsin said promoting Avalos from linebackers coach in January was a “no-brainer.”
“He’s a learner. He doesn’t act like he knows it all; he goes out there and asks questions, tries to get answers,” Harsin said.
One thing Avalos hopes to get answers for, perhaps starting Saturday against Wyoming (5 p.m., CBSSN), is creating turnovers. The Broncos have forced only three this season, two fewer than any of the other 127 Football Bowl Subdivision teams.
“We all know the one we need to improve the most,” Avalos said. “... We’ve got to go attack it like it belongs to us.”
Even without the turnovers, the Broncos have been plenty aggressive. They are fourth in the FBS with 3.57 sacks per game.
Advanced metrics have Boise State among the nation’s best. Football Outsiders’ S&P+ ratings, which don’t weight turnovers heavily, use a play-by-play standard and weigh them toward success on key downs, red zone and limiting long plays.
In those ratings, the Broncos are No. 7 against the run, No. 8 on passing downs and No. 12 against explosive plays.
ESPN’s defensive efficiency, which factors in strength of schedule and gives less weight to “garbage time” plays, ranks the Broncos at No. 13.
They’ve been scheming the crap out of teams. We’re going to have to come in and play a near perfect game. They have some athletes over there on the defensive side.
No. 13 Boise State at Wyoming
- When: 5 p.m. Saturday
- Where: War Memorial Stadium (29,181, FieldTurf, 7,200 elevation); Laramie, Wyo.
- TV: CBS Sports Network (Rich Waltz, Adam Archuleta, Cassie McKinney). CBS Sports Network can be found on Cable One (channel 139, 1139 HD), DirecTV (channel 221) and Dish Network (channel 158)
- Radio: KBOI 670 AM/KTIK 93.1 FM (Bob Behler, Pete Cavender)
- Records: Boise State 7-0 overall (3-0 Mountain West); Wyoming 5-2 (3-0)
- Series: Boise State leads 10-0 (won 34-14 in Boise last year)
- Coaches: Wyoming, Craig Bohl (11-20, third year; 115-52, 14th year overall); Boise State, Bryan Harsin (28-6, third year; 35-11, fourth year overall)
- Vegas line: Boise State by 14
- Kickoff weather: Upper 50s, sunny and windy