Boise State junior tailback Jay Ajayi was not benched last week at Air Force despite losing two fumbles.
Brief benchings have been common in that situation in the past, but running backs coach Kent Riddle said Ajayi’s value as a pass protector and receiver made it more prudent to leave him in the game.
Riddle remembers benching even one of the school’s best backs, Brock Forsey, in a similar situation during his first tenure in Boise (2001-05).
“We know (Ajayi) is going to be better,” Riddle said. “He’s going to take care of the ball.”
Those were the first two lost fumbles of the season for Ajayi, who leads the nation with 143 offensive touches this season. That’s a 1.4 percent fumble rate.
On both fumbles, Ajayi was struggling against multiple defenders. On one, he got turned around and was running with his back to the defense.
“He was fighting his tail off,” offensive coordinator Mike Sanford said. “On both of those fumbles, he was fighting his tail off. When you do that, you have to get six points of pressure (on the ball). Essentially, you have to cover the ball up with your off arm. Honestly, credit to Air Force.”
The Broncos’ coaches have stressed ball security all year. Riddle puts the running backs through a period of ball-security drills during the part of practice open to the media each week.
On Tuesday, he spun the running backs into the position Ajayi was in for one of his fumbles against Air Force — stumbling backward against several defenders.
“You have to know when you’re about done,” Riddle said. “One on seven is not great odds. One on three, he can usually make a couple more. We just have to be careful about that. He got rocked pretty good on the second one, but you’ve got to have that anticipation of, ‘I’m not in a good position right now, I better squeeze the ball.”
Ajayi has protected the ball well during his career. Riddle was asked if improved ball security was the next step for Ajayi to show he’s an “elite” back.
“He’s not far from an elite back as is,” Riddle said. “At the end of the day, you can only be on the field as a running back if you’re hanging onto the ball, regardless of how many yards you’re making. We’ve been talking at length about that. The ball matters more than the yards. The great ones, they take care of both. And I expect him to do that the rest of the year.”
The Broncos have failed to average more than 3.6 yards per carry in any of their three road games this year.
“The best teams here have always been able to run the ball when they needed to run the ball,” Riddle said. “We need to be able to do that, too. We can’t let it be dictated to us. We want to get off to a fast start and be able to run the football.”
The offensive line performance against Air Force wasn’t as bad as it looked.
Three of the linemen — center Marcus Henry, left guard Travis Averill and right tackle Stephen Baggett — played well. But the obvious struggles of freshman left tackle Eli McCullough, in his first start, and an off game by right guard Mario Yakoo contributed to a 97-yard rushing game.
“But it doesn’t really matter because you get judged as a group,” offensive line coach Scott Huff said. “We went back and watched it and we didn’t feel it was good enough as a group.”
McCullough, playing in place of injured starter Rees Odhiambo and injured backup Archie Lewis, committed four penalties — two false starts, a hold and hands to the face. Lewis entered for one play when McCullough was shaken up but was not ready for full-time duty.
“(McCullough) is a young guy,” Huff said. “And he’s got such a bright future. That’s all you express — ‘Hey, learn from it.’ There’s some stuff he can fix right away and there is some stuff that comes from experience that you kind of have to live with. Unfortunately for him, we don’t have a senior class in our O-line, so there are some guys that are playing who are a little young, but hey, we’re going to be better off for it down the line, so bring it on.”
Senior Corey Bell of Capital High has played nickel and safety this season while serving as the defensive captain.
“He’s a mentor to me, actually,” sophomore cornerback Jonathan Moxey said. “ He’s the guy who’s going to come in every day and be ready to work.”
Bell, who ranks second on the team with 25 tackles, was honored that his teammates voted him a captain, he said. Wide receiver Matt Miller is the offensive captain.
“That was something that was really special,” Bell said. “Really, probably one of the most memorable things here because that’s something you teammates chose. That was really cool and something I was really proud of.”
Among his duties: helping with the pre-game coin toss. Bell, Miller and the single-game captains take turns calling heads or tails.
“It’s a pretty tough decision,” Bell cracked.
It took 18 games, but the Boise State tight ends finally cracked the end zone last week at Air Force. They hadn’t scored since the 2012 MAACO Bowl Las Vegas.
The big winner: redshirt freshman Alec Dhaenens of Fruitland, who turned his first catch into a 2-yard touchdown.
“All of us were shooting for a touchdown,” he said. “I happened to be the one that was in there. It was the right play call for us to get it. First catch of the year for me and the first touchdown. It was awesome.”
Dhaenens is part of a deep tight end rotation that has become a much bigger part of the pass game this season, as promised.
Redshirt freshman Jake Roh leads the group with 14 catches for 190 yards. The tight ends have combined for 19 catches for 257 yards and the TD.
For comparison, the Z receivers — Dallas Burroughs and Chaz Anderson — have combined for 12 catches for 116 yards and no touchdowns.
“That was always our goal, all the way from summer, to get the tight ends to contribute to winning,” Dhaenens said. “That’s what we’re doing. We’re catching the ball and making plays.”
Boise State at Nevada
When: 8:34 p.m. MT Saturday
Where: Mackay Stadium (30,000, FieldTurf), Reno, Nev.
TV: CBS Sports Network (Rich Waltz, Adam Archuleta, Cassie Gallo)
Radio: KBOI (670AM), KKGL (96.9 FM); Bob Behler, Pete Cavender
Records: Boise State is 3-2 overall, 1-1 Mountain West; Nevada is 3-1, 1-0
Series: Boise State leads 27-13 (Boise State won 34-17 last year in Boise)
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