Boise State offensive line coach Brad Bedell could have blamed the crazy-high expectations. He could have claimed his group isn’t playing as poorly as it appears. He could have emphasized how close his group is to putting all the pieces together.
That’s what many coaches would have done in his situation.
“I’m not going to hide,” he said this week. “I understand that I coach these guys — and I love them to death and they’re my guys — and I understand that I’ve got to get them better.”
This likely was one of the most difficult weeks to be an offensive lineman at Boise State. The Broncos are a disappointing 3-2 in large part because they couldn’t protect quarterback Brett Rypien or create a consistent rushing attack in losses to Oklahoma State and San Diego State, the two best teams on the schedule so far.
In those two games combined, the Broncos allowed 11 sacks, rushed for 85 yards on 67 attempts (1.27 yards per carry) and generated 119 rushing yards for standout tailback Alexander Mattison (3.05 ypc). Hits on the quarterback also caused two of four Boise State turnovers.
The problem is dramatic enough that coaches have abandoned the usual approach of deflecting blame away from any single position. It’s clear to everyone: The offensive line must perform better for the Broncos (3-2 overall, 1-1 Mountain West) to repeat as Mountain West champs.
That starts Saturday at Nevada (3-3, 1-1), which employs a defensive scheme similar to those run by Oklahoma State and San Diego State.
Boise State’s rushing output this season, outside of a 400-yard game against a UConn defense that might be the worst in college football history, is just 357 yards on 142 attempts in four games (2.51 ypc).
“We want to run the ball,” said coach Bryan Harsin, who helped build the Boise State offensive tradition that thrives on threatening defenses through the air and on the ground. “We’ll keep saying that, because that’s what we believe. That will never change, and right now, we’re no good at it. For our standard, we’re no good at it. We have a lot of football left. It better change.”
Bedell has reviewed practices to make sure the Broncos are prepping for the right defensive looks. He has gone back to see how the team came out of past bye weeks — last year, for example, the offensive line improved greatly after the bye. He has looked at the way he coaches to see where he can improve. He has emphasized competition on an offensive line that has started the same five guys in every game — rare cohesiveness.
He also has embraced those Boise State expectations bordering on perfection that can be so burdensome. The Broncos are the highest-scoring team in college football since the beginning of the 2000 season and have produced a 1,000-yard rusher in nine straight seasons. Not only did the Broncos lose 19-13 to San Diego State, but they generated their fewest yards on the Blue in 20 years (229).
Bedell showed his players highlights from the Broncos’ past to remind them what a Boise State offensive line is supposed to play like.
“We need to play better and more consistent as a unit,” he said, “... and not have the one-guy breakdown on this play and then this play. Next thing you know, you’ve got 10 plays and you have three tackles for loss. We need to fix that. That’s the goal, and that’s what’s gonna happen.”
Sophomore left tackle Ezra Cleveland is playing “unbelievable right now,” Bedell said. Others have performed well, too, he said.
But the linemen have struggled to handle the variety of pass rushes they see — a problem that boils down to communication, Cleveland said. Coaches also have cited breakdowns in blocking fundamentals.
“We still have high expectations in the room and we’re just gunning for them,” Cleveland said.
His take on the highlights of classic Boise State offenses that Bedell showed this week: “Everyone was a dirt dog back then,” Cleveland said. “We need to relate our play right now to what they used to do.”
The Broncos haven’t paid attention to the outside criticism, Cleveland said, but they’re fully aware of the internal pressure on the offensive line to improve. Bedell and offensive coordinator Zak Hill increased the difficulty of practice this week — asking for more intensity and creating more adversity.
“We’re under the spotlight,” Cleveland said.
Bedell says he’s getting the right attitude from his players. They’re “determined, eager ... working extremely hard,” he said.
But how much can the Broncos fix in a week?
We’ll find out Saturday in Reno, where Nevada quietly has built a defense that ranks 22nd in the nation in yards per carry allowed (3.29). The Broncos also have upcoming games against Fresno State (21st), Air Force (24th) and Utah State (27th) — heaping even more importance on the front five.
The two dreadful performances came against the defenses ranked 2nd (San Diego State) and 19th (Oklahoma State).
“It’s not like I’m just frustrated,” Bedell said. “I’ve got a whole group (that feels that way). They’re not hiding, either. They understand we’ve got to get better.”
Chadd Cripe is the Idaho Statesman’s sports columnist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow @chaddcripe on Twitter.