Bronco Beat

Two out of three ain’t bad: Boise State D, special teams overcome sluggish O

Avery Williams discusses his punt return TD for Boise State

Boise State redshirt freshman Avery Williams talks about his 81-yard punt return for a touchdown Sept. 2, 2017 in a win over Troy.
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Boise State redshirt freshman Avery Williams talks about his 81-yard punt return for a touchdown Sept. 2, 2017 in a win over Troy.

What was a question mark was turned into an exclamation point.

What seemed like a clear known is now hazy like the Boise air Saturday afternoon.

No longer is a rout guaranteed on the Blue, but what is certain is a spike in the blood pressure of the Bronco faithful.

Boise State’s 24-13 win over Troy at Albertsons Stadium was the new normal — expect the unexpected. And like many season openers, there were plenty of surprises.

Areas in which Boise State struggled last season were its strongest suits, from special teams to an aggressive defense. A tight end even scored a touchdown for the crowd of 31,581.

[Other coverage: Cripe — Rypien should remain starter; former walk-on scores on first college play; three potential starters don’t play]

When the Trojans threatened to make it a down-to-the-wire game that was so common here last year, the Broncos toughened up.

“I’ll say this about this team — we responded,” Boise State coach Bryan Harsin said. “That was the goal. When adversity hit, which it did, were we going to respond? ... Guys stepped up, guys made plays.”

No play was more of a game-changer than one that encapsulated all the Broncos had hoped to be this season on the defensive side of the ball.

With Troy trailing 17-10 late in the third quarter and 15 plays into a drive that had taken the Trojans down to the Boise State 18-yard line, it looked like Boise State sophomore cornerback Reid Harrison-Ducros would take a Brandon Silvers pass for a pick-six.

Instead, the ball popped out of his hands and up to receiver Deondre Douglas, who raced toward the end zone. Boise State redshirt freshman linebacker Desmond Williams didn’t assume the ball had been intercepted and gave chase, knocking the ball out of Douglas’ hands into the end zone. The fumble turned what could have been the tying score into Boise State getting possession at its own 20.

“You talk about clutch. There’s not much more clutch than on the 1-yard line, punching it out to get a touchback,” sophomore nose tackle Sonatane Lui said.

Boise State Broncos took the field for their first home game accompanied by fireworks, flames and smoke. Granted, it'll look more theatrical in a (ahem) night game. But still: Blue smoke. Really.

On a teaching tape to show the value of defensive pursuit, “that will probably be around for the next 10, 12 years on there,” Harsin said.

Boise State forced two more turnovers in the fourth quarter, a far cry from last season’s school record-low nine forced turnovers. With a defense that didn’t start a single senior against an offense that returned a senior in Silvers and 98.7 percent of its production from last season, holding the Trojans without a touchdown was mighty impressive.

“We did really well with composure, when they made big plays and had big drives, we held them out of the end zone,” said sophomore safety Kekoa Nawahine, who had an interception that set up the final score.

After Nawahine’s interception at midfield, senior quarterback Montell Cozart’s 7-yard touchdown pass to senior tight end Jake Roh with 2:12 to play finished off the Trojans. It was Roh’s first touchdown since 2015, and already gives the Broncos’ tight ends half as many as they had last year.

Cozart led Boise State on both of its touchdown drives, finishing 6-of-9 passing for 50 yards and the score to Roh. The mobile Kansas transfer also rushed for 36 yards. Starter Brett Rypien was 13-of-23 for 160 yards with an interception that was run back 53 yards for a touchdown late in the second quarter. He also was sacked four times as the offensive line trotted out three first-time starters.

Rypien, a two-time All-Mountain West selection, remains the starter, Harsin said. But a quarterback controversy was not on the checklist of likely events Saturday.

“They both know what they are doing, so it didn’t affect me at all which quarterback was in,” said sophomore running back Alexander Mattison, who had a 49-yard touchdown run. “We had a game plan on when we were going to use what type of quarterback, so we came out and punched them in the mouth.”

Sophomore safety Kekoa Nawahine had one of the Broncos' three turnovers Saturday in the 24-13 victory over Troy.

Maybe most surprising, and most relieving, was the Broncos’ prowess on special teams. The very first time a Bronco got his hands on the ball, redshirt freshman Avery Williams took a punt 81 yards to the house 1:36 into the game to give Boise State a lead it never relinquished.

Williams had 43 more punt return yards and added a 48-yard kickoff return. Senior Cedrick Wilson had a 55-yard kickoff return, and junior kicker Haden Hoggarth hit his lone field-goal attempt, a 41-yarder. It looked nothing like a unit that muffed three punts and had back-to-back onside kicks recovered against it once last season.

“It shows that our work did somewhat pay off,” Williams said. “We still have a lot of work to do in those areas. Just because we did well this game doesn’t mean we need to slack or anything, it just means we need to push harder. But I’ll say it’s a point of motivation for us. Our emphasis was to win the field position and get more turnovers than last year, and we’re on a great track already.”

As Boise State’s offense struggled at times, it was aided by those two areas of emphasis, with an average starting field position of its own 36-yard line.

But if the Broncos want to start off the campaign 2-0, they’ll need to get the offense back in gear as they face high-scoring No. 24 Washington State on the road at 8:30 p.m. Saturday.

“We know we’re building, growing, getting better, and moving forward. I’m excited about this team,” Harsin said.

SCORING SUMMARY

First quarter

BSU — Avery Williams 81 punt return (Haden Hoggarth kick), 13:24. Key plays: On his first-ever play, the redshirt freshman sliced his way through the Troy special teams and down the left sideline for the team’s first punt return TD since Nov. 22, 2014. Boise State 7, Troy 0

TROY — Bratcher Underwood 38 field goal, 10:14. Drive: 8 plays, 54 yards, 3:10. Key plays: Troy QB Brandon Silvers hit Damion Willis on a 26-yard pass on a first-and-20 to get into Boise State territory. Jamarius Henderson’s 26-yard run got Troy inside the red zone, but Boise State held steady, aided by a Kekoa Nawahine tackle for a 2-yard loss to force a third-and-12. Boise State 7, Troy 3

Second quarter

BSU — Alexander Mattison 49 run (Hoggarth kick), 7:51. Drive: 6 plays, 77 yards, 3:15. Key plays: With senior Montell Cozart leading the drive at quarterback, he completed his only pass for 17 yards on the play before the score and helped create some room for the backs to run. Mattison converted the lone third down with a 2-yard plunge on a third-and-1 on the drive’s third play. Boise State 14, Troy 3

TROY — Blace Brown 53 interception return (Underwood kick), 2:30. Key plays: After Cozart was in the previous two drives, Boise State starter Brett Rypien was back under center. He hit running back Ryan Wolpin on his first play for 20 yards, then telegraphed a long pass to the sideline to Cedrick Wilson. Brown stepped in front of it and forced Rypien to miss a tackle on the way to the end zone. Boise State 14, Troy 10

BSU — Hoggarth 41 field goal, :27. Drive: 6 plays, 18 yards, 2:03. Key plays: The Broncos were given excellent field position on a 48-yard Avery Williams kickoff return. Rypien was 3-for-4 on the drive for 21 yards. Boise State 17, Troy 10

Fourth quarter

TROY — Underwood 39 field goal, 10:59. Drive: 9 plays, 30 yards, 3:51. Key plays: One drive after a near-touchdown ended on a fumble out of the end zone, Troy benefited from a 24-yard Boise State punt. Jordan Chunn had a 13-yard run on a third-and-5 to get to the BSU 21. Boise State 17, Troy 13

BSU — Jake Roh 7 pass from Cozart (Hoggarth kick), 2:12. Drive: 10 plays, 49 yards, 5:05. Key plays: Cozart again was under center as the Broncos started the drive at the Troy 49 thanks to a nice leaping interception by safety Kekoa Nawahine on a deep pass. Rushes by Cozart and Wolpin on third downs kept the drive going. The touchdown pass was the only pass of the drive. Boise State 24, Troy 13

Dave Southorn: 208-377-6420, @davesouthorn

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