The Boise State football team still hasn’t played a game that has earned high marks in all three phases — but the Broncos perhaps moved closer to that with their special teams performance in a 38-13 win Saturday at UNLV.
The No. 14 Broncos (5-0) return to Albertsons Stadium to face Hawaii (4-1) at 8:15 p.m. Saturday (ESPN2).
Here’s how we graded the Broncos’ showing:
The numbers obscure the true struggles of the Broncos’ offense against UNLV, which has had defensive problems all season. Boise State scored 14 of its 38 points after starting quarterback Hank Bachmeier exited, and one of those touchdowns was a gimme after an onside kick. The Broncos rushed for 182 yards, but 120 of that total came on four plays — two runs by wide receiver John Hightower on the opening drive, a long run by tailback George Holani in the closing minutes of the game and a touchdown run by wide receiver Akilian Butler on a reverse.
These were the numbers that really mattered: On five third- or fourth-and-1 attempts in the first half, the Broncos were stopped three times and lost a fumble on a fourth instance; the offense was an uncharacteristic 2-for-13 on third down; the Broncos punted eight times, including on three straight possessions in the second half; and tailbacks Robert Mahone, Andrew Van Buren and Holani combined for 20 carries for 53 yards outside of that late Holani burst.
The pluses: The Broncos scored on the opening drive to score first for the first time this season, assembled a lightning-quick drive for a field goal at the end of the first half and found creative ways to use Hightower (four catches, 105 yards, TD; two carries, 51 yards; one snap at quarterback on the reverse) and slot receiver Khalil Shakir (seven catches, 111 yards, TD).
“We’ve obviously had more time to think about things and how we want to come out and attack and who we want to get the ball to,” coach Bryan Harsin said, referencing the bye week that preceded UNLV. “And I thought the offensive staff did a good job, was purposeful, and ‘we want to get the ball to these guys.’ ”
The Broncos are tied for 48th nationally in scoring offense (32.6 points per game), 21st in total offense (482.2 yards per game) and 30th in yards per play (6.38).
The Broncos posted the shutout in the first half this time and might have skunked the Rebels in total if not for two major penalties on the only scoring drive UNLV managed against the starters. That was part of a 130-yard penalty night for the Broncos — their highest total since 1997, according to CBS Sports Network.
Otherwise, this was another exemplary effort by the defense. UNLV managed 331 yards on 86 plays, only rushed for 69 (that is the Rebels’ strength), went 4-for-19 on third down and finished 1-for-5 on fourth down.
The Broncos are tied for 16th nationally in scoring defense (16 points per game), 25th in total defense (305.6 yards per game), 31st in yards per play allowed (4.81), third in third-down defense (23.88 percent) and tied for ninth in sacks (3.8 per game). Junior Curtis Weaver leads the nation with nine sacks.
SPECIAL TEAMS: A
The Broncos paid particular attention to their special teams during the bye week — and that paid off. Punter Joel Velazquez, who had given the Broncos the fifth-worst punting average in the country, averaged 42.9 yards per punt against UNLV with three of eight downed inside the 20-yard line. He also drilled a 52-yard field goal in a cameo because he has a stronger leg than usual placekicker Eric Sachse.
Cornerback Avery Williams added 58 punt-return yards and a 39-yard return of an onside kick that set up an easy touchdown. The special teams helped the Broncos win the field position battle, averaging a 2-yard better start than UNLV.
The only flaw was penalties, particularly one that erased a kickoff return for a touchdown by Hightower.