To get its points last season, the Boise State football team’s offense usually had to take the long way.
Field position for the Broncos was rarely advantageous. Their average drive started 72.06 yards from the end zone. Only six teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision had worse starting field position, according to College Football Analytics.
When the team lost twice by seven points or fewer, that made a difference. When the team won three games by five points or fewer, perhaps the score didn’t need to be so close.
“We’ve talked about it a ton. It’s been a big deal for us, and there’s a lot of things that go into it,” tight ends coach/special teams coordinator Kent Riddle said. “... The more you have to drive a long field, the more chance there is of something bad happening.”
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In the Broncos’ Oct. 28 loss at Wyoming, the Cowboys had an average start at their own 33-yard line, with Boise State at its own 17. Even in two October wins that preceded that game, by a combined eight points, the Broncos gave up 7 and 11 yards per drive start to Colorado State and BYU, respectively.
Part of what has made field position a focus as Boise State begins fall camp Tuesday is that it involves the whole team — a bad punt or poor return on special teams, not giving the offense short fields by creating turnovers or giving opponents short fields by giving the ball away contribute to the problem.
“It all matters,” Boise State coach Bryan Harsin said. “You emphasize it, you practice it, it’s more deliberate. You think about it more. I think we can teach our guys a better understanding of, ‘When you’re here, if this happens, we can change the entire field position.’
“We’ve gone back and looked at it, studied it. ... There’s a 200-yard difference in a game if we just change one or two things, really small things that make a big difference.”
For the Boise State defense, a large portion of improving field position has meant trying to create turnovers. After creating just nine last season, short fields were not common for the offense, which was 21st in total yardage in the FBS but 38th in scoring.
“There’s a lot of hidden yardage ... at the end of the day, the closer you can be to scoring, the better off you’ll be,” defensive coordinator Andy Avalos said. “That’s been a huge part.”
Even if the offense often had its back to the wall, it also can help out the defense, whether that means getting out of a hole or holding onto the ball. The Broncos gave the ball away 18 times, twice as often as they took it.
“It goes both ways,” offensive coordinator Zak Hill said. “... We have limited control on where we start our drives, so we try not to focus on that too much. That’s more of a program emphasis. I know coach Harsin is definitely talking about that, working on stuff like that.”
Of course, the biggest difference-maker in field position is special teams, which had its issues in 2016, including three onside kicks allowed, a kickoff return for a touchdown allowed, a blocked punt that was returned for a touchdown and two fumbled punt returns.
However, once Cedrick Wilson took over primary punt return duties in early October, the tide turned. He averaged 13.2 yards on 10 returns. In four of the last five games, Boise State won the field-position battle.
“We’ve got to be way better in the return game and in the coverage game,” Riddle said. “I think more than anything, you can’t have the screw-ups. You can’t get a punt blocked, can’t drop a punt. If we eliminate that, it’ll drastically affect field position. And on top of that, if we can continue like we did at the end of the year, getting some big returns, then we’ll be in pretty good shape.”
LYLE SMITH CELEBRATION ON THURSDAY
Boise State will host a Celebration of Life for former football coach and athletic director Lyle Smith, who died Wednesday morning at age 101.
The event will be held on the Stueckle Sky Center’s fourth floor at 1 p.m. Thursday. The public is invited. Overflow will be available on the fifth and sixth floors. The service will be streamed at http://www.broncosports.com/.