The Boise State football team’s wide receivers didn’t need to listen to outside opinions to know what was being said.
They were probably the biggest question mark on the 2018 Broncos team during the offseason — and they knew it from the moment Las Vegas Bowl MVP Cedrick Wilson graduated in December headed for the NFL.
Half a season later, that same group of wide receivers is not only the best position group on the Broncos team — they’re the most entertaining, too. They’ve caught several passes one-handed, one with one shoe and another with the ball pinned against the receiver’s butt.
“It’s pretty amazing, actually,” said senior wide receiver A.J. Richardson, who’s building an All-Mountain West case. “Boise State hasn’t had a full receiver corps like this in a long time. It takes a lot of stress off. ... Everybody’s fresh, everybody’s getting the ball, everybody can do something different, can show their talent in a different way.”
The Broncos have five wide receivers on pace for at least 35 catches and four on pace for at least 550 yards. Five have multiple touchdown catches, four have made plays of at least 50 yards and three have combined to add 253 rushing yards with three touchdowns. Senior quarterback Brett Rypien has completed passes to at least seven different players in every game this season.
Last year, only three wide receivers topped 15 catches (Wilson had 83), only one topped 500 yards (Wilson had 1,511), four had multiple touchdowns, three had a 50-yard play and the group rushed for a total of 21 yards.
In fact, the Broncos haven’t had five wide receivers with at least 35 catches in a single season since joining the Football Bowl Subdivision in 1996. They’ve never even come close.
“I don’t know if anybody in college football is deeper than they are, in terms of the number of guys they involve offensively,” Air Force coach Troy Calhoun said.
That many-pronged attack was the expectation coming into the season — and it was one reason, players say, that the wide receiver crew has performed as well as it has. They all knew that the Wilson void left many playmaking opportunities to go around, and the competition was fierce to get a piece. Remarkably, the Broncos’ projected No. 1 wide receiver — sophomore Octavius Evans — hasn’t even been a part of the breakout season because of an injury that has limited him to two catches.
“In past years, Boise State always had that one receiver,” Richardson said, “and we kind of got tired of that because this whole offseason everyone was asking, ‘Who’s that one receiver going to be?’ We just saw the group we had — even with the young guys coming in, we realized we have a special group and we have a great quarterback. ... We’ve done a great job as receivers. Everybody has that chip and is playing with that certain swagger just trying to prove everybody wrong.”
Modster started the show with a pair of touchdowns in the season opener against Troy. Richardson followed with one-handed catches against UConn and Oklahoma State, turning the UConn catch into a 74-yard TD on a screen pass and landing on ESPN’s top-play lists for the Oklahoma State catch. Speedy John Hightower, who has three receiving touchdowns and two rushing touchdowns, added his leaping catch while losing a shoe at Wyoming and an 88-yard run against Nevada. CT Thomas has contributed some clutch grabs, including the game-clincher at Nevada on which he reached for a first down while making the catch. Akilian Butler made one of coach Bryan Harsin’s favorite receptions at Nevada, where the ball ended up pinned to his backside — “the butt catch,” Harsin called it. And true freshman Khalil Shakir has provided a flexible spark with eight catches and nine rushes for 130 yards (7.6 yards per touch).
“They’ve all made some really spectacular catches,” Harsin said.
Last week, Richardson made a leaping, one-handed touchdown catch and Modster snagged a two-handed catch with his fingertips that might have had less skin contacting the football than any of the Broncos’ one-handers this year.
“I’m always a guy who’s going to try to get two hands (on the ball),” Modster said. “But if that one-handed catch does come up, then that would probably be my favorite. I’d be happy to look at John and A.J. and say, ‘I’m with you guys.’ ”
Wide receivers coach Eric Kiesau has made a point of reminding Rypien to give his guys a chance and they will capitalize. They’re trained to attack the ball.
“Coach Kiesau preaches every day that when that ball is in the air, we don’t care about anything other than that ball,” Modster said. “Nothing outside of football — no girlfriends, no homework, no nothing. When that ball’s in the air, that’s ours and we’ve got to go get it.”
This week’s predictions
Boise State plays at Air Force on Saturday (5 p.m., CBS Sports Network). The Broncos are favored by 9 points (58 over/under). Boise State is 3-3 straight up and 1-5 against the spread in the series. Boise State’s 44-19 win last year in Boise marked the first time it covered the spread.
My pick (5-2 straight up, 3-4 ATS): Air Force is a devilish matchup for Boise State, and that has little to do with the triple option. The Falcons’ defense has taken the Broncos out of their game by stifling the run and confusing the quarterback — a combination that proved particularly potent in the two previous encounters in Colorado. The Broncos lost to Oklahoma State and San Diego State when they couldn’t run the ball effectively. They must find consistency on offense against an Air Force team that limits possessions with its clock-emptying attack. I expect quarterback Brett Rypien, who is 1-2 against the Falcons, to fare better in his second visit to the Air Force Academy — and that will be just enough for a win. Boise State 27, Air Force 23
Air Force perspective, from David Ramsey of The Gazette (opponent view is 6-1, 4-3): Air Force isn’t boring. The Falcons aren’t powerful this season, but they almost always make the game exciting. They are veterans of close games against Florida Atlantic, Utah State, Nevada, San Diego State (all losses) and UNLV (a stumbling victory). Expect another close game at Falcon Stadium on Saturday. And expect Air Force to lose. Boise State 35, Air Force 31
Betting expert Lee Sterling of Paramount Sports, who appears Thursdays on KTIK (5-2, 4-3): “This Air Force team, they just keep plugging in different quarterbacks, and they’re getting the job done. (Coach) Troy Calhoun ... as an underdog since 2014 he’s 16-6-1.” Boise State 30, Air Force 27
College football spotlight
National game of the week — No. 9 Florida vs. No. 7 Georgia (-6.5), 1:30 p.m. Saturday, CBS: An angry Georgia team takes out its frustrations on rival Florida. Georgia 24, Florida 10
Mountain West game of the week — San Diego State (-2.5) at Nevada, 8:30 p.m. Saturday, ESPNU: This line looks like an overreaction to San Diego State playing lousy last week against San Jose State. San Diego State 23, Nevada 17
Pac-12 game of the week — No. 14 Washington State at No. 24 Stanford (-3), 5 p.m. Saturday, Pac-12 Network: Cougs took advantage of Oregon coming off an emotional home win. Cardinal do the same here. Stanford 27, Washington State 21
Chadd Cripe is the Idaho Statesman’s sports columnist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow @chaddcripe on Twitter.