ESPN’s announcers know their focus on the hits Boise State quarterback Hank Bachmeier has absorbed this season is becoming a bit much.
“We’re not going to obsess over it, but it is what everybody here in Boise is talking about,” play-by-play announcer Dave Flemming said at the beginning of the Boise State-Air Force broadcast two weeks ago. “Can this kid make it through a full season with the number of hits that he’s taking?”
Then Bachmeier took a hit on four of the Broncos’ first seven plays in that game — and the obsession continued.
And rightfully so.
What’s happening to Bachmeier is not normal. He has taken a hit from at least one defender on 65 plays this season — an average of 16 per game. According to Pro Football Reference, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was hit only 39 times in a 16-game NFL season last year.
Bachmeier, a true freshman, has been hit so much due to a combination of his own inexperience, breakdowns in the Broncos’ protection, his willingness to run into defenders rather than protect himself and aggressive defenses that at times are rushing more defenders than the Broncos can block.
Bachmeier has been hit on 62 of 154 designed pass plays (40.3%) through four games — all wins. No. 16 Boise State faces UNLV on Saturday in Las Vegas (8:30 p.m., CBS Sports Network).
“He cannot continue to take this beating and remain effective,” ESPN analyst and former NFL and college football head coach Jim Mora said midway through the Air Force game. “It will take a toll on him. ... This guy’s got guts. I don’t like the hits he takes, but he’s got guts.”
Why is Bachmeier getting hit so often? And are the Broncos showing any improvement?
To answer those questions, we went through the Broncos’ four game broadcasts to find every hit on Bachmeier and the reasons behind them. Here’s what we learned:
▪ Bachmeier has taken hits on 65 plays this season (we counted instances where he was tackled by multiple defenders as one hit) — 25 against Florida State, 15 against Marshall, 14 against Portland State and 11 against Air Force, which shows the hits are declining.
▪ Of those 65 hits, 29 appear to come from protection breakdowns — less than half of the total. Those breakdowns also have been on the decline, from 14 to five to seven to three.
The breakdowns include 18 instances of offensive linemen getting beaten by defenders (five from backups thrust into the lineup by injuries), five by running backs and two by tight ends. The Broncos also had four apparent assignment errors against Florida State — times they had enough blockers to pick up the blitz but didn’t.
A couple examples of protection breakdowns: On one of the most vicious hits in the Florida State game, with Bachmeier’s helmet popping off, the Seminoles hit him despite rushing just four against seven blockers. The Florida State defender fought through a double-team. Against Marshall, Bachmeier lost a fumble on a sack caused by star left tackle Ezra Cleveland’s inability to hold off his rusher. Cleveland clearly was limping on the play and sat out the next game.
The Broncos, who returned all five starters on the offensive line, have started a different lineup in each game this season because of injuries to right tackle John Ojukwu, who might return this week, and Cleveland, who returned for the Air Force game.
“Do we want our quarterback getting hit? Absolutely not,” offensive line coach Brad Bedell said. “Do we take it personally? Yes. If you look at it through the course of time ... is it getting better? Yeah. ... I’m hoping that we get everybody back in their natural positions and we can start rolling.”
The Broncos have struggled to handle stunts or twists by the defensive linemen, who switch the lanes where they’re rushing after the snap to create confusion. On one such play at Florida State, a missed stunt snowballed into three defenders hitting Bachmeier together.
“A lot of it’s communication, a lot of it’s film study,” offensive coordinator Zak Hill said of how the Broncos can combat post-snap surprises. “... We’ve got to get better at twists. We’ve got to get better at (two blitzers attacking the running back). And there’s a lot of different things that we’ve got to get better at.”
That was a major emphasis during last week’s bye, senior offensive lineman and captain John Molchon said. Molchon already has started at three positions — left guard, right tackle and left tackle.
“Understanding who has what specific job is really important,” Molchon said. “We rehashed that. And just having accountability on which position group had an issue on a certain play ... to not blame them but to work together to fix it. That’s the biggest thing.”
▪ Sixteen of the hits appeared to come from either the design of the Broncos’ play (a screen pass, where pass rushers are let go), a clever blitz by the defense (overloading a side of the formation with a delayed rush) or coverage that led to a scramble.
An example: On Bachmeier’s touchdown pass to CT Thomas against Air Force, the Falcons were able to send three pass rushers at two blockers on the right side of the Broncos’ formation with a blitz/stunt combination. Two of the three hammered him. That’s a situation where Bachmeier’s willingness to take the hit he knew was coming resulted in points.
▪ Seventeen of the hits arguably came from Bachmeier holding the ball too long. This is the most difficult judgment to make without knowing his reads or being able to see all of the receivers on the broadcast. But coaches have made it clear that Bachmeier needs to get the ball out more quickly, particularly against the blitz.
A couple examples: The Broncos ran a bootleg against Florida State that should have resulted in a quick, easy throw. Instead, Bachmeier hung on so long he got knocked down. Against Air Force, he faced a delayed blitz knowing running back Robert Mahone had left to run a pass route. Bachmeier could have quickly dumped the ball to Mahone but instead waited long enough to take the hit. He still threw to Mahone.
“At the quarterback position, we’ve got to get better with our feet and get the ball out quickly and take our first open read,” Hill said.
Coach Bryan Harsin said the blockers need to adjust to the twists by the defense, but Bachmeier failed to spot some blitzes that he should have seen coming. Others, he said, were too well disguised.
The Broncos’ pass plays involve a significant timing element, which makes quick decisions and efficient footwork critical. Bachmeier also must recognize what his option is to get the ball out fast when the blitz comes, Harsin said.
“There’s an urgency in your drop,” Harsin said. “... You’ve got to throw on time. You’ve got to have a rhythm to what you’re doing. And at the same time ... defenses are a lot more complicated now. Any time you have a young quarterback, they’re going to give you a variety of looks. There’s a lot of things he’s had to see on the field. ... If you’ve got pressure, you take the quick throw. Sometimes, it’s a throwaway.”
▪ The other three hits came on designed run plays, including a shot at the goal line while scoring the game-tying touchdown against Marshall. Bachmeier also has been hit six times on scrambles — those are included in the other categories based on why he had to leave the pocket. Out of the 12 total times he’s run this year, he’s gone out of bounds without contact twice and slid just once (in the opener).
Coaches are trying to walk the line between encouraging Bachmeier (6-foot-1, 202 pounds) to protect himself and not wanting to rein in the competitive spirit that makes him the playmaker he is.
“He doesn’t mind the hits,” Hill said. “That’s the thing that’s been so impressive to me. To him, that’s part of the game. And obviously we want to limit that, OK? But he wants to go fight for that extra yard and try to go get a first down on third-and-6 or whatever it is. And yeah, you don’t see him sliding. And that’s part of the quarterback piece that the guys want to play for him because of that competitor in him. It’s fun to see.”
▪ While Bachmeier has made some key plays while taking hits, including a touchdown pass in each of the past two games, he is 17-for-43 (39.5%) with two interceptions when he gets hit and 70-for-93 (75.3%) with one interception when he doesn’t. He was still standing on four of his six touchdown passes. So keeping him upright is about more than just health — the plays are more effective, too.
The analysis of the hits shows improvement — and, likely as a result, Bachmeier’s efficiency rating has increased every game — but also demonstrates how complicated this problem will be to fix. Add in the fact that some hits certainly were caused by receivers not getting open and you have an issue that involves all 11 offensive guys on the field — and more than 20 guys on the roster when you factor in substitutions.
“It comes from a lot of different positions,” Hill said. “From the quarterback position to the running back position to the O-line, the tight ends, so it’s spread through the offense. It’s not just a one-guy deal or an O-line deal. It’s everybody. We’ve got to get better at what we’re doing.”
BOISE STATE AT UNLV
When: 8:30 p.m. MT Saturday
Where: Sam Boyd Stadium (35,500, artificial turf), Las Vegas
TV: CBS Sports Network (Carter Blackburn, Aaron Taylor, Jenny Dell)
Radio: KBOI 670 AM/KTIK 93.1 FM (Bob Behler, Pete Cavender)
Records: Boise State is 4-0 overall, 1-0 Mountain West; UNLV is 1-3, 0-1
Series: Boise State leads 7-3 (last meeting: Boise State won 42-25 in 2016 in Boise)
Vegas line: Boise State by 22 1/2
Weather: 85 degrees, sunny, light winds