The 2018 Boise State football season began with relatively few question marks on an experienced roster.
Midway through the season, the Broncos have found more questions instead of answers — and that’s how a preseason Top 25 team turns into a 4-2 outfit (2-1 Mountain West) that looks like maybe the fourth-best team in the league right now, behind Fresno State, San Diego State and Utah State.
The only big preseason question mark that has been resolved in the Broncos’ favor was about the wide receivers, who have emerged as a strength despite the disappearance of projected No. 1 receiver Octavius Evans. Here are some key open questions as the Broncos continue their pursuit of back-to-back conference championships for the first time in their Mountain West era.
▪ Which one is the real Rypien? During a four-half stretch from halftime of the Wyoming game, through the loss to San Diego State and until halftime of the Nevada game, senior quarterback Brett Rypien was 44-for-80 for 420 yards with one touchdown, four interceptions and seven sacks — leading the Broncos to just 33 offensive points. It was a shocking fall for a guy who was electric for the first three and a half games, and he returned to that form in the second half in Reno. In the other eight halves this season, he’s 113-for-153 for 1,438 yards with 13 touchdowns, one interception and nine sacks. This team isn’t good enough to win key games with Rypien playing poorly. He needs to prove those poor halves were just a blip.
▪ Can the Broncos run the ball? This wasn’t supposed to be a problem, with a veteran offensive line and a breakout tailback in Alexander Mattison returning. But the run game, outside of the UConn game and the occasional bolt of lightning from wide receiver John Hightower, has been abysmal. Mattison averages 3.9 yards per carry and is not on pace for a 1,000-yard season. The Broncos should find a spark on the ground Friday night against Colorado State, but they’ll face several stout run defenses in the second half.
▪ What happened to the special teams? The Broncos were a mess on special teams in 2016 and they flipped that facet of the game into a strength last year. But special teams has been a disaster so far this year: two blocked punts against Oklahoma State, a dropped punt snap against San Diego State, three missed field goals, a missed PAT and countless penalties. If this doesn’t improve, special teams will cost the Broncos a game in the second half. They’re 114th in the special teams ratings at Football Outsiders.
▪ Where are the defensive playmakers? The Broncos never were going to replace NFL first-round pick Leighton Vander Esch with one guy. They were going to need multiple players to step up, both to fill his shoes directly at linebacker and to fill the playmaking void he left behind. Senior cornerback Tyler Horton has been exceptional, with three touchdowns this season. But the rest of the team has combined for two interceptions and five fumble recoveries. Injuries have taken a bite — Horton missed two games and starters David Moa (defensive tackle) and DeAndre Pierce (safety) are out for the season — as the defense has regressed to 40th in defensive performance at Football Outsiders. The Broncos were 30th last year.
▪ Are the second-half woes back? Coach Bryan Harsin has been dogged by concerns about the Broncos’ second-half performances throughout his five-year tenure as head coach, and they’re not going away. This year, the Broncos have outscored opponents 131-54 in the first half and only 86-77 in the second half. They were outplayed in the second half in both losses. Of their four wins, only last week’s at Nevada was truly decided in the second half, as the Broncos used a 14-10 finish to win 31-27. In the second half of the season, expect the Air Force, BYU, Fresno State and Utah State games to be decided after halftime.
This week, though, none of the Broncos’ question marks should be an issue. They’re favored by 23.5 points against Colorado State (7 p.m., ESPN2) with an over/under of 62.5.
My pick (4-2 straight up, 2-4 ATS): I can’t seem to figure out these Broncos — since correctly picking a cover in the opener, I’m 1-4 against the spread on their games. This is a matchup the Broncos should dominate. Colorado State (3-4, 2-1) has the softest run defense they’ve seen since UConn, and the pass defense isn’t good, either. The Broncos’ defense will be the bigger indicator of how this game goes. Colorado State has scored 72 points in the past five quarters against Boise State. Boise State 52, Colorado State 20
Colorado State perspective, from Kelly Lyell of The Coloradoan (opponent view is 5-1, 3-3): Don’t be fooled by Colorado State’s recent wins; the Rams are still not a very good football team, as coach Mike Bobo has repeatedly said. Sure, they showed some signs of life by rallying for wins over San Jose State and New Mexico, but the fact that they had to come from behind against two of the worst teams in the Mountain West says a lot about where CSU stands. The Rams have never beaten Boise State, and I don’t expect that to change with this team, this season. Boise State 41, Colorado State 17
Betting expert Lee Sterling of Paramount Sports, who appears Thursdays on KTIK (4-2, 4-2): “Boise, bunch of turnovers the last two weeks. ... If they turn the ball over, why don’t they go with a turnover commode?” Boise State 37, Colorado State 21
College football spotlight
National game of the week — No. 16 N.C. State at No. 3 Clemson (-17.5), 1:30 p.m. Saturday, ESPN: Former Boise State QB Ryan Finley plays maybe the biggest game of his career for the Wolfpack. He’ll keep it close. Clemson 27, N.C. State 24
Mountain West game of the week — Utah State (-14) at Wyoming, 12:30 p.m. Saturday: It’s an ugly slate in the conference this week. But the Aggies are intriguing as the top challenger to the Broncos in the Mountain Division. Utah State 31, Wyoming 13
Pac-12 game of the week — No. 12 Oregon at No. 25 Washington State (-3), 5:30 p.m. Saturday (FOX): “College GameDay” finally makes its long-awaited appearance in Pullman. The Cougs will ride the enthusiasm and emotion to a win against a team coming off an intense, overtime win against Washington. Washington State 37, Oregon 31
Chadd Cripe is the Idaho Statesman’s sports columnist. Contact him at email@example.com and follow @chaddcripe on Twitter.