Four weeks ago, the Boise State football team’s defense appeared broken.
Too many injuries. Too many guys not playing as well as expected. Too many opponents celebrating in the end zone.
Defensive coordinator Andy Avalos and his staff used everything but duct tape and twine to patch the unit back together — and somehow, that group has returned to its role as the backbone of the Broncos.
“That’s why you have to have yourself prepared, because you just don’t know when it’s your opportunity,” coach Bryan Harsin said. “To me, it’s ... our team showing a lot more discipline this season of staying focused and knowing, ‘If something happens, I’m in.’ ”
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On Saturday night at Albertsons Stadium, the No. 21 Broncos will battle the No. 14 Utah State Aggies for the right to host the Mountain West championship game against Fresno State. The Boise State defense will face its greatest challenge since the Sept. 15 loss at Oklahoma State — a game that will show whether this pieced-together defense has been just good enough to squeak by or is so resilient that it can thrive amid personnel losses that would unravel many teams.
Utah State ranks second in the nation with 49.3 points per game, 12th with 6.89 yards per play and 15th in pass efficiency (25 touchdowns, four interceptions).
“We’ve got a huge challenge in front of us defensively,” Harsin said.
The Boise State defense entered the season as a leading candidate for best unit in the Mountain West. The group was outstanding and youthful in 2017; it returned nine starters in 2018.
Then those returning starters began falling. Only two of the nine have started every game — and both of them have been off the field at times because of injury or performance. Two of the top candidates to become the leading tackler this season have been lost to season-ending injuries, and a third has been far less productive than last season. Plus, an All-Mountain West performer was shut down after only a few series.
As a result, 21 different Broncos have started a game on defense this season — including seven first-time starters. Twenty players have started at least two games.
“I haven’t counted,” Harsin said of the rotating starters. “... We’re running out of guys.”
The defense began showing significant cracks in October, when it allowed 27 points in the first three quarters of a win at Nevada, 489 yards in a win against Colorado State and three straight 75-yard touchdown drives to begin a win at Air Force.
Air Force added a fourth TD for 28 first-half points. But since then, the Broncos have allowed just five offensive touchdowns in three and a half games — rising up as opponents get close to the goal line.
In fact, the Broncos have been significantly worse this season in several key defensive stat categories — including yards per play (5.68 vs. 4.83 last year), yards per carry (3.67 vs. 3.4) and pass efficiency (142.44 vs. 118.28). The pass efficiency defense has tumbled from 32nd last year to 97th this year.
But the stat that really matters actually has gotten better — even with less help from the Broncos’ star-crossed special teams. Boise State has allowed 22.2 points per game this season, down from 22.9 last year.
The difference? The Broncos have allowed a touchdown on 55 percent of opponents’ drives into the red zone (inside the 20-yard line). That number was 73 percent last year.
In the past three and a half games, opponents have reached the Boise State 40-yard line 19 times and scored five TDs (26.3 percent).
“Teams have moved the ball,” senior STUD end Jabril Frazier said. “We’ve faced adversity.”
And the Broncos have withstood most of it. There’s a fair question about whether that success is sustainable, but given what the Broncos have faced, it’s admirable what they’ve accomplished.
Players say the veterans have worked with the newcomers to the lineup to make sure they’re ready for game day — watching video together, encouraging them, working through communication and reinforcing the concept of filling a role your way rather than trying to replicate the guy you’re replacing.
“We’re coming together as a defense,” Frazier said.
The secondary is perhaps the best example of what’s happened to the defense this year. All four starters returned — senior cornerback Tyler Horton, sophomore cornerback Avery Williams, junior safety DeAndre Pierce and junior safety Kekoa Nawahine. That group finished second, fourth, fifth and sixth on the team in tackles last year.
This year, Horton has missed two games — including the loss to Oklahoma State — Pierce only played four games before a season-ending spleen injury, Williams sustained an elbow injury and has struggled in coverage at times and Nawahine lost some playing time as his production declined.
Yet in the last three games, the Broncos’ opponents have a total of one touchdown pass.
“It’s a humbling moment,” Horton said as he spoke about the secondary’s season. “You go into it and you think everything’s going to be peaches and cream, and then, boom, injuries happen.”
It’s the same story across the defense.
“We’re just staying poised with it,” Horton said. “We understand what’s at stake.”
Chadd Cripe is the Idaho Statesman’s sports columnist. Contact him at email@example.com and follow @chaddcripe on Twitter.