Boise State Football

Boise State-San Jose State report card: Broncos’ running game earns high marks

The second of Boise State freshman George Holani’s four rushing touchdowns on Saturday was set up by a reverse. Or at least the threat of one.

Reverses have become a mainstay of the No. 21 Broncos’ offense this season, and trailing 27-17 in the third quarter, they went to the well again and wide receiver John Hightower sold it hard.

Freshman quarterback Hank Bachmeier took the snap and handed the ball to Holani, who faked a pitch to Hightower, who was streaking across the formation behind the play. Holani picked up 5 yards to the San Jose State 6-yard line. On the next play, he bullied his way into the end zone to pull the Broncos (7-1 overall, 4-0 Mountain West) within three. Boise State went on to win, 52-42.

What may have been lost on the opposite end of the field from where Holani was fighting for yards was Hightower’s acting, which he took as far as to point out defenders as if he were directing blockers to create a running lane for him.

Whether Hightower has been running the ball, handing it off or pulling up to throw, which he looked close to doing a few plays before Bachmeier made a brief exit after a collision on a scramble, reverses have been effective this season for the Broncos, and it’s a safe bet there are a few variations nobody has seen yet.

The illusion of a reverse earned Boise State a key touchdown in a game that nobody thought was going to be nearly as competitive as it was. Here’s a look at how the Broncos graded out on offense, defense and special teams.

Offense: B+

It took them a half to fully commit to the running game, but for perhaps the first time all season, the Broncos’ backfield took over in the third and fourth quarters.

Boise State posted a season-high 253 yards on the ground and three different players scored a rushing touchdown without starting tailback Robert Mahone, who missed the game after suffering what looked like a leg injury in the first half of the Broncos’ loss to BYU.

Holani’s future looks a little brighter every week. He gets downhill in a hurry, he can stop on a dime and he’s slippery enough that the first tackler rarely brings him down. He’s also powerful enough to keep defenders at bay with a nasty stiff arm.

Speaking of powerful, did anyone else see sophomore Andrew Van Buren running over tacklers on the way to the end zone? Offensive coordinator Zak Hill said earlier in the week that he wanted to see Van Buren play like the big back he is, and that’s exactly what he got.

Hightower (five catches, 129 yards) broke loose on a couple of deep routes, including receptions of 23 and 41 yards on a drive in the second quarter, which ended with a 1-yard touchdown dive by Holani to cut the Spartans’ lead to 17-14.

Bachmeier was efficient in a game plan that wasn’t heavy on the pass. As has been the case for most of the season, though, he did take too much punishment. Whether it was from a free blitzer or the result of a scramble, he had to pick himself up — or have help off the turf — far too often. He did underthrow his intended receiver on an interception in the third quarter, but it was also the result of a ridiculously acrobatic catch by San Jose State cornerback Brandon Ezell.

The offense still needs to find more consistency on third down. The Broncos converted just 3-of-8 attempts in the first half, but they converted 5-of-7 attempts over the final two quarters.

Defense: C+

The Broncos knew going in that they were going to face a dangerous passing attack, and there were times on Saturday when Boise State could do little to nothing to slow down San Jose State quarterback Josh Love and wide receiver Tre Walker.

Love’s passes were on time and accurate, and he was throwing with anticipation, especially on a wheel route that went for a 16-yard touchdown to Isaiah Hamilton. Love released that pass before Hamilton made his break.

Walker caught just about everything that came near him. Whether Avery Williams or Jalen Walker was on him, he either ran past or leaped over them on the way to nine catches for 193 yards.

Williams said early in the week that Bailey Gaither might be the fastest receiver the Broncos face all season. He showed his wheels a couple times, and he looked bigger than the 6-foot-1 and 182 pounds he’s listed at, especially while going up and taking a couple of passes away from nickel Kekaula Kaniho.

Harsin was clear in the postgame press conference that he wasn’t content with how many yards or points his defense gave up, but the Broncos also struggled to get off the field on third down, especially in the first half. The Spartans converted five of their first six third-down attempts, including four on their second scoring drive of the game.

Special teams: B+

Williams’ punt return touchdown may be what kept San Jose State from running away with the game early. It followed back-to-back scoring drives by the Spartans, and it gave the Broncos their first taste of momentum. Khalil Shakir also came in and showed some nice moves on what proved to be a short return.

It’s a good thing the Broncos got something out of their punt returners because San Jose State wasn’t about to give Hightower a shot at a kickoff return. All of the Spartans’ kickoffs were high and short. Senior Matt Locher, a career backup and special teams player, got his hands on two kicks. Hightower didn’t touch one.

Kicker Eric Sachse hit his only field-goal attempt of the night to cut San Jose State’s lead to seven heading into halftime, but punter Joel Velazquez had another rough outing. He had a punt clear just 20 yards in the first half, and averaged 33 yards per punt. And after Boise State scored to go up 38-34 with a little more than 11 minutes to play, he sent a kickoff out of bounds, giving the Spartans the ball at their own 35-yard line.

Ron Counts is in his first season as the Idaho Statesman’s Boise State football beat writer. Contact him at rcounts@idahostatesman.com and follow @Ron_BroncoBeat on Twitter.

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Ron Counts is the Boise State beat writer for the Idaho Statesman. He’s a Virginia native and spent that past three years covering University of Virginia.
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