It took only a few minutes after Saturday’s win in the Las Vegas Bowl for Boise State coach Bryan Harsin to understand part of what beating Oregon 38-28 meant.
Harsin praised his team’s veteran leadership, the team’s ability to handle adverse situations and achieving the Broncos’ primary goals of a Mountain West championship and a bowl win. When it’s Boise State, and that’s accomplished, high hopes are sure to follow for what lies ahead.
“This 2017 team is done, and we’ll come back (in January) and we’ll start working on the next year, we’ll have all the other expectations,” Harsin said. “For today, something special happened this season, and we’ll enjoy it. I certainly will.”
Boise State will likely being the 2018 campaign as a ranked team, considering how the Broncos won nine of their last 10 games to end the just-wrapped season, and with a wealth of talent returning should be a Group of Five favorite for one of the major bowl berths.
Junior quarterback Brett Rypien is among those key returners after throwing for 290.7 yards per game in the final seven games, including a season-best 362 yards against the Ducks. He knows the drill — an 11-3 season isn’t always a dream year around here.
“It is definitely going to feel a lot better than the (Cactus Bowl) loss we had last year, but I think we’ve still got a lot of work to do,” Rypien said. “We had three losses this year. We want to put ourselves into a position every single year to be playing for that New Year’s Six bowl. Obviously the Mountain West is our main focus, but I think we want to take it to the next level now.”
Rypien loses four starters on his side of the ball, including his top two targets in wide receiver Cedrick Wilson (school-record 1,511 yards receiving in 2017) and tight end Jake Roh (11 total touchdowns). Offensive linemen Mason Hampton and Archie Lewis will graduate.
The Broncos are set to return running back Alexander Mattison, who rushed for 1,086 yards as a sophomore, but lose his backup, Ryan Wolpin. Four offensive linemen who started multiple games were redshirt freshmen or sophomores.
Wilson and Roh’s losses will be major, but freshmen receivers CT Thomas and Octavius Evans showed potential, with 15 receptions apiece. If John Bates gains more confidence and strength, he could be a major weapon at tight end as a sophomore.
“We lose a lot of production, but we lost a lot coming into this year,” Harsin said. “… we’re going to have new faces, guys like Octavius and CT, (Sean) Modster and AJ (Richardson) did some good things that will have to continue to step up.”
The Broncos’ 32.5 points per game were the second-fewest since 1998, a product of a slow start with a jelling offensive line and a rushing game (143.5 yards per game) that was inconsistent.
On the other side of the ball, the defense has the look of being one of the best in years and one that will be among the best in the country.
Only three of the 21 players who started at least once this season were seniors or have already left the team.
“We have a heck of a lot of great players that we should be getting back, so it’s exciting,” said redshirt freshman safety Jordan Happle, who didn’t start, but had an interception against Oregon.
Boise State could return one of the best linebackers in the nation if Leighton Vander Esch comes back for his senior season. His 141 tackles this season were tied for third-most in school history.
Every player responsible for the team’s 34 sacks is at the moment slated to return, along with those who had the team’s 15 interceptions.
“We were young this year, but we won a championship,” Harsin said. “If you’re just banking on experience, that’s not enough. They need to bring the same attitude as veteran guys as they did when they were younger guys.”
Defensive coordinator Andy Avalos said “it’s a really exciting way to spend our free time,” figuring how to use the defense’s now considerable depth. The Broncos clamped down on strong running teams in Oregon, San Diego State, New Mexico and Air Force, plus frustrated much-hyped quarterbacks in Washington State’s Luke Falk, Wyoming’s Josh Allen and Oregon’s Justin Herbert.
If the Broncos can make teams one-dimensional, as they did against almost everyone this season, it could spur a special run.
On special teams, junior Haden Hoggarth had some late-season struggles, but was otherwise solid on field goals. Punters Joel Velazquez and Quinn Skillin were often very good, both expected to return, as is returner extraordinaire Avery Williams, who had two punt return scores as a redshirt freshman.
All four Mountain West teams the Broncos will host in 2018 reached bowl games, and both road nonconference matchups (Troy and Oklahoma State) are against teams that won 19 games.
Using the strong finish as a springboard, the potential is there for a New Year’s Six bowl, but it’s the next eight-plus months which will set the tone.
“The one thing about this team was that it was a hungry team, so what’s it going to be in 2018? What will our new players contribute?,” Harsin said. “Hopefully we can use this and put in the work to be even better.”
Nonconference: at Troy (Sept. 1), vs. UConn (Sept. 8), at Oklahoma State (Sept. 15), vs. BYU (Nov. 3)
Mountain West home: Fresno State, San Diego State, Colorado State, Utah State
Mountain West road: Nevada, Air Force, Wyoming, New Mexico