It was the offense that got the Boise State football program noticed.
It’s the defense that has kept the Broncos nationally relevant — with a streak of 17 consecutive seasons appearing in the Top 25.
And that defense will be the key as No. 17 Boise State tries to upset No. 24 Oklahoma State on Saturday afternoon in Stillwater, Okla. The Cowboys, like the Broncos, became a Top 25 program because of an offense that overworks scoreboards — but too often Oklahoma State’s defense does the same.
Boise State has built one of the nation’s most consistently effective defenses, with almost no fanfare. Since the beginning of the 2008 season, the Broncos rank seventh in the nation in scoring defense at 19.5 points per game.
The others who have allowed fewer than 20 points per game in that span are mostly a who’s who of this college football era: Alabama, Ohio State, LSU, Wisconsin and TCU among them.
Yes, the Broncos still have scored the most points in college football since the start of 2000 (39.5 per game).
But the best Boise State teams have controlled the game on defense — and excellence there is what differentiates the Broncos from the Group of Five programs that have used flashy offenses to earn brief stays on the national stage.
Coach Bryan Harsin, who was the offensive coordinator from 2006 to 2010, appreciated the defense’s role even then. For example, the 2006 team wouldn’t have come back for a critical win at San Jose State if the defense hadn’t limited the Spartans to 20 points, he says. And the Broncos have scored a defensive touchdown in all three of their Fiesta Bowl wins.
“I’ve never looked at it any other way,” Harsin said. “I knew how important it was when I was a coordinator. … I think maybe the perception is different on the outside. I think on the inside, all of our players and coaches know the importance of what our defense has meant to our program over all the years.”
Opposing coaches notice, too.
UConn coach Randy Edsall said after last week’s 62-7 loss on the Blue that Boise State is better than UCF, which went undefeated last year and beat UConn two weeks ago. He cited the Broncos’ “outstanding” defense.
“There are more issues playing against Boise State,” Edsall said.
Namely, the Broncos have a high-end defense to pair with their explosive offense.
Dozens of teams can score at a high rate. Fifty-one averaged at least 30 points last season.
But stingy defense has become rare. Boise State ranked 38th with 22.9 points allowed per game last season — a number inflated by a troubled September. They held seven of the final 10 opponents to fewer than 20 points (not including Oregon, which scored 14 of its 28 points on defense).
“The foundation of this program has been built off of discipline and toughness,” said defensive coordinator Andy Avalos, who was a linebacker for the Broncos from 2000 to 2004. “Any defense that’s going to be successful has to have that mentality.”
Senior STUD end Jabril Frazier didn’t know what it meant to play for the Broncos defense before he arrived in 2014, he said. He knew of past stars like defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, a standout with the Dallas Cowboys, but now understands that he’s representing that defensive tradition every time he takes the field.
“First off, it’s toughness,” Frazier said. “Conviction. We’re going to go out there no matter who we’re playing and we’re not going to back down from them.”
That starts in practice — where the Broncos’ defense battles its own potent offense and star quarterbacks. The defense doesn’t hold back.
“Iron sharpens iron” is a favorite saying in the Boise State football program. The practice battles are particularly intense during spring ball and fall camp.
“We love those guys when we’re working together, but it’s extremely competitive,” Avalos said.
That pays off when the season begins.
The Broncos’ offense is off to a stunning start — the team has scored 118 points in two games (14 by the defense) and set a school record with 818 yards last week against UConn — in part because of what it faced during the offseason.
“You’re so used to playing against (the Boise State defense) that when you play against other teams it’s kind of different,” senior wide receiver A.J. Richardson said. “It’s kind of easier to manage, to operate.”
The secret in an era dominated by offense, the Broncos say, is in their preparation. Whether it’s film study in players’ free time or a string of impressive defensive coordinators or the chip on the shoulder the players carry even onto the practice field, there’s a hunger to improve that has sustained success.
That’s not easy — and there have been dips, like the 2016 defense that only forced nine turnovers.
But if you were to bet on whether the offense or defense would perform better over the past six-plus years, the defense was the safer pick.
Last year, the defense scored touchdowns in three of the biggest games of the year — at No. 20 Washington State, at No. 18 San Diego State and against Oregon in the Las Vegas Bowl. The Broncos also limited No. 25 Fresno State to 14 points in the Mountain West championship game, allowing the team to win the trophy with just 17 points.
Saturday’s visit to Stillwater looks like the biggest game of 2018.
For the Broncos to win, the defense will need to rise up again.
“We’re definitely fired up for that,” Frazier said. “We know it’s the Big 12 — they like to score a lot of points. We have to go in there and play our style of football and see where that takes us.”
Top 10 defense in Boise
Here are the top 10 scoring defenses in college football since the start of the 2008 season (points allowed per game):
1. Alabama: 13.11
2. Ohio State: 17.93
3. Florida: 18.30
4. LSU: 18.36
5. Wisconsin: 18.54
6. Iowa: 19.34
7. Boise State: 19.47
8. Penn State: 19.50
9. Virginia Tech: 19.52
10. TCU: 19.66
Source: Idaho Statesman research