Here is the top of our game story for Friday’s newspaper:
ATLANTA — The new era of Boise State football began like the old one ended.
An offense incapable of performing on the big stage. A defense that surrenders too many big plays. A lopsided loss — once unthinkable for the Broncos — on the scoreboard again.
The No. 18 Ole Miss Rebels overwhelmed the Broncos in the fourth quarter of the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game on Thursday night at the Georgia Dome and rolled to a 35-13 victory.
New coach Bryan Harsin’s team looked better prepared than Ole Miss and won the statistical battle in the first half but eventually paid for its blown opportunities and turnovers.
“We’ll find ways to get better,” Harsin said. “I’m proud of our team, extremely proud of our coaches, for how we operated. The things we emphasized showed up. And we weren’t good enough to get it done tonight.”
Senior quarterback Grant Hedrick, plagued by poor starts and turnovers last year, threw four interceptions as the Broncos nearly failed to score an offensive touchdown in their opener for the third straight year. Hedrick’s 9-yard TD pass to tailback Jay Ajayi with 4 minutes, 26 seconds left broke the spell.
Hedrick was 36-for-46 for 264 yards and a touchdown with three sacks.
“Take away a few bad decisions on my part and you’ve got a really good ballgame,” Hedrick said. “ You see some things and you try to force it and that’s really what happened — just trying to force a few things and as soon as you let the ball go you go, ‘Crap, I should have tucked that one or checked it down (to the running back).’ ”
It was the Broncos’ fourth loss by double digits in their past 14 games. The four previous losses by that margin came in 2007 (two) and 2005 (two)— over a span of eight years.
Still, Harsin and the players say they found reasons for optimism in Thursday’s performance. The defense was terrific through three quarters — grabbing three interceptions, recording two sacks and stuffing the run until the outcome was decided. The young offensive line struggled early but seemed to get stronger as the game progressed. And the team plowed through the turnover-fueled adversity in the first half.
“Not a great start, but I’m so excited for this year,” Hedrick said. “I think we showed a lot of great things tonight and we have a lot of potential to be really good on offense.”
Safety Darian Thompson
On defense: “I think we came out firing. I felt like we had great energy going into this game, knowing we were the underdog, and we just took advantage of it. We played very well in the first three quarters.”
On his diving interception: “It was a great play by me, I guess. I was just reading the quarterback, and I could see the ball was overthrown, so I did my best to make a play.”
On the loss: “Not discouraged at all. The loss is going to hurt a little bit. We don't like losing, but we'll bounce back. We'll be all right.”
Linebacker Tanner Vallejo
On defense: “It wasn't good enough. We did pretty good the first half, second half got away from us.”
On offense not scoring: “That's not hard at all. We love to be on the field, but our job's to get off the field.”
On the defensive line: “They're young, got a lot of young guys in there. Their tenacity, you could just see it out there tonight. We need to learn how to play four full quarters, and we'll be good.”
Tailback Jay Ajayi
On red zone: “Once you get down around the 5-, the 1-yard line, you just have to find a way to get in the end zone, no matter what play is called. No matter if it’s blocked right, no matter if they’re covering us, we just have to make a play and get in the end zone and get points.”
On fourth quarter: “I feel like maybe a little bit of our focus went down and that’s where Ole Miss kind of got some big plays. I felt like our offense really started clicking because we started getting into our tempo offense, but it was just a little too late.”
On his workload: “I feel good right now. I don’t feel good about the result, obviously, but my body feels good. Anything I can do to help this team, that’s been my mindset from day one and if that’s me touching the ball over 30 times, then so be it. I know that when we get clicking and once we go back and watch this film, I know next Saturday we’ll be a lot better than we were tonight.”
On the game: “Definitely disappointed just because of how our defense was flying around and creating turnovers and it was just kind of annoying for us knowing that we want to be able to score and keep our defense off the field and put points on the board because our defense was playing lights out those first three quarters.”
On season: “We’re not defined by this game at all. We know we have a lot of season ahead of us. Our main goal is winning a conference championship and that starts next week. Coming onto the practice field this week, we’re going to really ramp it up and we’re going to get excited and show some emotion on the practice field and get ready to play a good Colorado State team.”
Offensive coordinator Mike Sanford
On the game: “I think the feeling of missed opportunities. That's kind of the storyline coming out of that game, having a lot of productive drives and getting down into the red zone and not finishing. That's going to be a huge emphasis for us this week. You just feel like there are some really good things you can draw on, that you feel like you matched up with a pretty darn good football team physically, drove the football, but didn't finish those drives for touchdowns.”
On QB Grant Hedrick: “Four interceptions is something that’s not going to be a standard around here, that's for sure. One of the four was a tipped ball, kind of a fluke play, but we've got to do a better job getting hands down. The one in the red zone was a bonehead decision by him, and he knows that. It was early on in the game, we had some momentum going and had a chance to make a statement on that drive, but just cut your losses.”
On Ajayi: “We were going to see how Jay was doing, but when he gets on a roll, it's hard to take him out. He didn't end up having a ton of carries, so I felt like we did a good job of protecting him, taking care of him, but he's a guy you've got to feed the ball to.”
On turnovers: “I think the takeaways are that even after a couple of those adverse situations, we came back and Grant did some really good things. Came back and led a touchdown drive and did some really good things. I think even within the game he responded to adversity. The biggest thing is we can't take for granted the ball security piece. We did a good job not fumbling the ball. I'm not worried about his psyche — we've just got to take better care of the football.”
On Hedrick: “He was very efficient. If you take away, honestly, two of those decisions, we probably win the football game, or at least we're right there to compete for it at the very end.”
On deep balls: “Ole Miss, they don't give you much down the field. They're a very top-down conscious defensive backfield. At times we got a little impatient as play-callers, taking what they give you consistently. It was a challenge to find deep ball opportunities, and we forced two of them that led to interceptions.”
On the game: “I feel discouraged because we lost the football game and we turned the ball over four times. I feel encouraged because our offensive line battled against one of the premier defensive lines in America. I thought they kept Grant relatively clean most of the game. I thought there were very few procedural penalties. There were some good things to take away from it, but honestly it’s the two things that really just kind of get at you as an offensive coordinator: the four turnovers at the quarterback position, which is unacceptable, and the second part is not finishing in the red zone.”
On Hedrick: “He hasn't turned the ball over in camp like that.”
Quarterback Grant Hedrick
On the interceptions: “All four of them (linger with him). That end zone one for sure. I’m trying to get rid of it. Just got to get out of bounds, live to play another down. Get some points down there is really the main thing. We can’t turn the ball over. But all four of them sting.”
On the offense: “I thought our guys upfront did a really good job. We’ve got some great playmakers on the perimeter. We’ve just got to find a way to get them the ball and make better decisions on my part.”
On whether he was injured on the targeting play: “Probably more mad at myself just the way the performance went but physically I’m fine.”
On Ajayi: “He’s our workhorse. He had a great game. He plays with a lot of heart and physically he’s very gifted. We’ve just got to keep giving him the ball.”
On wide receiver Matt Miller: “We’ve just got to find a way to get No. 2 the ball. He’s our go-to guy. We emphasized that.”
On offense: “We've got to go back and look at it, and the opportunities are there. It's cashing in on those opportunities. We have guys to do that. We just have to do it. We've got to go out there and do it. That's the bottom line.”
On Hedrick: “Yeah, there were some things in there, like a lot of guys on the team on both sides, it's the first game, there's some jitters, there's some mistakes that are made. He wasn't perfect, but I thought he played well. I thought he settled in there in the second half. He made some throws, checked the ball down, had some good decisions. A couple of those throws might have been ill‐advised, a couple of those throws were going for big plays.”
On defense: “We gave up some big plays. I think you go back, and that's what football is about, we gave up some big plays and it changes the game and the score changes and it looked completely different than what it really is.”
On defensive line: “I'll say one thing, I heard a lot about the other D‐line. I thought our D‐line played well tonight. I give those guys a lot of credit. I thought they played well. I thought they played hard. I thought our linebackers ‐‐ defense looked good.”
On red zone: “But obviously we don't get it in and we're trying to run the ball, then you would assume that somehow, some way they out‐physicaled us in that situation there. We've got to go back and obviously find a way to get it in. You're on the 5‐yard line, you worked all that way to get down there. We've got to be able to punch it in. We just weren't good enough tonight to get that done.”
On staying positive: “A couple of those drives, we get down there on the goal line and we don't finish it, that's difficult. Our team didn't deflate, and that's one thing about these guys.”
On effort: “That's one thing about our team tonight that I saw. I didn't see anybody laying on the field. Nobody is out there gassed, nobody is out there holding their hamstring or anything like that like they're cramped up. Our guys played.”
OM — Cody Core 30 pass from Bo Wallace (Andrew Fletcher kick), :57. Key plays: The Rebels overcame three false starts with a 20-yard catch by Vince Sanders, a 1-yard run by wildcat quarterback Jeremy Liggins on fourth-and-1 and an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty by safety Darian Thompson. Drive: 9 plays, 80 yards, 3:26. Ole Miss 7, Boise State 0
BSU — Dan Goodale 25 field goal, 7:58. Key plays: Matt Miller made a 14-yard catch, Shane Williams-Rhodes gained 23 yards on an end around and Williams-Rhodes took a shovel pass to the 1-yard line. But Jay Ajayi was stopped three straight times. Drive: 12 plays, 65 yards, 5:16. Ole Miss 7, Boise State 3
BSU — Goodale 43 field goal, 1:02. Key plays: Grant Hedrick hit Miller on a crossing route for 20 yards on third-and-5. Hedrick added a 9-yard run but Ajayi was stopped on third-and-5. Drive: 9 plays, 42 yards, 3:36. Ole Miss 7, Boise State 6
OM — Laquon Treadwell 14 pass from Wallace (Fletcher kick), 12:26. Key plays: Wallace scrambled for 10 yards on second-and-11 and completed passes to Treadwell on second-and-20 (12 yards) and third-and-8 (29). The touchdown came on second-and-10. Drive: 10 plays, 75 yards, 3:36. Ole Miss 14, Boise State 6
OM — Quincy Adeboyejo 31 pass from Wallace (Fletcher kick), 10:05. Key play: Hedrick threw an interception that gave Ole Miss the ball at the Broncos’ 40-yard line. Drive: 2 plays, 40 yards, :36. Ole Miss 21, Boise State 6
OM — Core 76 pass from Wallace (Fletcher kick), 7:45. Drive: 1 play, 76 yards, :11. Ole Miss 28, Boise State 6
BSU — Ajayi 9 pass from Hedrick (Goodale kick), 4:26. Key plays: Ajayi had an 11-yard catch and Williams-Rhodes had a 16-yard catch. Drive: 12 plays, 73 yards, 3:12. Ole Miss 28, Boise State 13
OM — Mark Dodson 19 run (Fletcher kick), 2:50. Key plays: Ole Miss got great field position after an onside kick attempt. Dodson ran for 13 and 9 yards. Drive: 5 plays, 40 yards, 1:42. Ole Miss 35, Boise State 13
The game featured six interceptions in the first half and seven for the game. The previous Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game record for an entire game was four.
Safety Jeremy Ioane, linebacker Tyler Gray and safety Darian Thompson grabbed Bo Wallace passes for Boise State. Gray’s came at about the Boise State 20-yard line, killing a potential scoring drive. And Thompson’s was a diving effort in the back of the end zone, also negating a potential score.
“Two of the three interceptions just were a bit unbelievable to us because (those receivers) weren’t even in his progression,” Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said.
Hedrick’s first interception (by Senquez Golson) came on a desperation pass toward the back of the end zone under a rush on third-and-goal at the Ole Miss 3-yard line. His second interception came on a ball that was tipped at the line of scrimmage, bounced off left tackle Rees Odhiambo’s helmet and was caught by C.J. Johnson. The third pick, by All-American safety Cody Prewitt, came on a poorly thrown deep ball.
Hedrick added a fourth interception in the second half on a ball that hung too long. He threw five interceptions on 242 passes last season.
“He wasn’t perfect but I thought he played well,” Boise State coach Bryan Harsin said. “He settled in in the second half, made some throws, checked the ball down (to the running back). A couple of those (interceptions) were going for the big play. We want those guys to go in there and have a mindset of making a play. There were some good plays made on the ball (by defenders).”
Page thrives in first start
Cornerback Cleshawn Page, who earned a starting job with a strong fall camp, showed exactly why Thursday in his first career start. The 5-foot-9, 178-pound senior had three tackles (one for loss) and broke up a pass in the first half against Ole Miss. He added one tackle in the second half.
“I'm extremely proud of him,” junior safety Darian Thompson said. “He did a very good job, he's been working hard this whole offseason and I feel like he's going to be ready this year.”
Boise State looked like it was winning at halftime on the stat sheet. The Broncos outgained the Rebels 203-168, outrushed them 89-20, held the ball for 19 minutes, 42 seconds and committed fewer penalties (four for the Broncos, 10 for the Rebels). Boise State was 2-for-7 on third down; Ole Miss was 1-for-7.
But the Broncos were undone by their red-zone performance. They drove inside the 5-yard line twice and came away with three points.
Ole Miss player ejected
Ole Miss linebacker Serderius Bryant was ejected in the first quarter for targeting. He was the Rebels’ leading tackler last season with 78 tackles, 12.5 for loss. He hit quarterback Grant Hedrick in the chin area with his helmet.
“Surely when they review it, they get it right on something like that,” Freeze said. “ You cannot go high. You’ve got to lower your target.”
Ole Miss nose tackle out
Ole Miss junior nose tackle Issac Gross did not play. Gross was a player who stood out to Boise State’s players and coaches when they were scouting.
Connor Peters out
Boise State senior tight end Connor Peters did not make the trip because of an academic issue, according to the school. The Broncos hope to know more about his status next week.
Peters was the co-backup for the game with redshirt freshman Alec Dhaenens. If Peters is out for an extended period, the Broncos could use true freshman Chase Blakley. Coach Bryan Harsin said Blakley would be prepared to play but he hoped to redshirt him.
Peters led Boise State tight ends with seven catches for 58 yards last season.
The Broncos started two freshman tight ends — Jake Roh and Dhaenens. Roh made four catches for 34 yards.
Boise State, the visiting team, wore orange pants, white jerseys and its new orange helmets with chrome trim. Boise State received a $1.1 million payout. Boise State won the coin toss and took the ball. Former coach Chris Petersen usually deferred. Boise State’s defense shifted before the snap on the first two plays. Ole Miss committed false starts both times. The Rebels committed seven false starts in the first half and eight in the game. Boise State backup offensive tackle Eli McCullough wore No. 90 and appeared at tight end. Boise State is 1-5 against the SEC. Wide receiver Matt Miller has recorded a catch in 40 straight games, the longest streak in the nation. At positions listed with ors on the depth chart, Mario Yakoo started at right guard, Tanner Vallejo at middle linebacker, Ben Weaver at weak-side linebacker and Armand Nance at nose tackle. Vallejo led the Broncos with nine tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss.
Some Idaho Statesman stories to get you ready for kickoff:
Boise State’s top four linebackers will share playing time in tonight’s season opener against Ole Miss, linebackers coach Andy Avalos said.
The rest of the linebackers are not expected to play on defense unless one of the top four gets injured, but they will be factors on special teams.
Sophomore Ben Weaver and junior Tyler Gray are the weak-side linebackers. Sophomore Tanner Vallejo and senior Blake Renaud are the middle linebackers.
“Right now, those top four guys, they’re all pretty neck and neck,” Avalos said. “Those top four guys have done a great job, not only this fall camp, but here in the last week, preparing and switching into game mode those top four guys are pretty sharp. If we could keep those guys fresh and equal out their reps, having them playing mentally and physically at 100 percent, that is going to do us well.”
Avalos declined to name starters or the fifth and sixth linebackers. He has an unspecified number of plays in mind for the rotation between the top four guys, but that will change depending on game situations. For instance, fast-paced offenses sometimes try to keep the ball on the far side of the field to make substitutions difficult.
“There’s a method to the madness,” Avalos said of substituting. “We’ve talked about it and we’ve practiced it. Those guys are in tune to when we will sub and when we don’t want to sub.”
Other notes from Avalos:
— On the linebackers: “We feel pretty good about where they’re at right now. We feel good about the four guys that are going to get the majority of the reps. They understand the game plan.”
— On depth: “We have the depth if we need to. We’ve been giving some reps to the other guys to continue to bring them along and keep them in it because at some point we may need them. At this point right now, we’ve got a four-man rotation.”
— The other linebackers getting some reps are freshman Joe Martarano, senior Travis Saxton, sophomore Darren Lee and sophomore Chris Santini.
— On the first game together as a coaching staff: “Even for staffs that have been together for a long time, that first game is different. We have practiced (communication and adjustments). Just like it is for the guys, game speed is different. You can say that for the mechanics on the sideline. Coach (Bryan) Harsin has done a great job of getting us coaches and players in position to practice that stuff.”
— On the defense: “Our mentality is we’ve got to be aggressive. We want to be a physical defense and we want to be a defense that runs to the ball. (Defensive coordinator Marcel Yates) is a great leader — he’s fiery — but he’s great at handling all situations. He’s never too high and never too low.”
Ole Miss received much national publicity in 2013 for landing one of the nation’s best recruiting classes. That group will have a big impact on tonight’s game. Its members include (rankings according to ESPN):
— DT Robert Nkemdiche: He was the No. 1 defensive end (and the consensus overall No. 1). He made 34 tackles with eight tackles for loss last season. He and coach Hugh Freeze have indicated that maturity will lead to a much better sophomore campaign as he moves inside. “I know the playbook so much better,” Nkemdiche said. “I’m more chilled out. I’m not freaking out, not nervous. My head’s on straight and I’m ready to have a huge game.”
LT Laremy Tunsil: He was the No. 1 offensive tackle. He started at left tackle as a true freshman. He was named second-team All-SEC after allowing one sack all year.
WR Laquon Treadwell: He was the No. 1 wide receiver. The SEC’s leading returner in catches with 72 last year only got 608 yards on those receptions. He’ll be the No. 1 passing target this year. “It’s fun to watch Laquon,” quarterback Bo Wallace said. “He’s Laquon — catching everything and going up and getting it.”
N Antonio Conner: He was the No. 2 safety. He started at nickel as a true freshman and made 66 tackles, five tackles for loss, one interception and seven pass breakups.
TE Evan Engram: He was the No. 27 tight end. He might have been underrated — he earned All-SEC second-team honors as a true freshman with 21 catches for 268 yards and three touchdowns.
DE Fadol Brown: He was not rated as a transfer from Florida International. He redshirted last year as he sat a year under NCAA transfer rules. Now he’s a sophomore starter.
Several other members of the class are listed as backups.
Hugh Freeze coached at Arkansas State in 2011. Bryan Harsin coached there in 2013. Here’s what Freeze had to say about the program, which also lost Gus Malzahn to Auburn after 2012.
“I’m sure (Harsin) and Gus would echo my comments when I say I'm so grateful for the opportunity that Arkansas State gave me,” Freeze said. “That administration there and fans there were great people, and those kids were awesome. That's the difficult thing in coaching, when you leave a group of kids that you know is the reason you're getting to move on, because of what they did. That's always difficult. I have a fond, fond place in my heart, as I'm sure coach Harsin would say also. It is kind of unique that both of us went there for one year. I got to come back home, and he got to go back home. It's definitely difficult for the people there I'm sure, but it is a bit ironic. The credit goes to those kids and the people in Jonesboro and in Arkansas.”
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.