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Has the window closed for Boise State?

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Boise State has struggled to match their own expectations in recent years. Can their tricks and strategies keep them in the national consciousness?

Motel 6 Cactus Bowl - Baylor v Boise State Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The Boise State heyday, which took place under Chris Petersen, arguably started to come to an end when the team joined up in the Mountain West conference. Back in their days in the WAC the Broncos were rolling through their conference every year and then typically had two big showcase games against “power five” teams every year. One would come in their pre conference slate and then they’d hope to make a statement in their respective bowl game against another top team.

The Broncos had a big breakout in 2006 when their undefeated record and win over Oregon State was enough to get them to the Fiesta Bowl where they beat the Adrian Peterson-charged Oklahoma Sooners in one of the more exciting underdog triumphs in college football history. It was one of Bob Stoops’ more limited Oklahoma teams from the 2000’s with a converted WR named Paul Thompson pressed into service at QB, but it was still a noteworthy win.

Their next big season in 2008 began with a 37-32 takedown of Oregon before smashing the WAC only to be sent to face fellow underdog TCU in the Poinsettia Bowl. Behind future NFL QB Andy Dalton, Gary Patterson’s Frogs beat Boise State 17-16.

The next two seasons featured two more 12-1 Boise State teams, the latter of which was the first to compete in the Mountain West conference, each of those teams lost perfect seasons to the hands of MWC rivals Nevada (2010, led by future NFL QB Colin Kaepernick) and TCU again (2011, the last Justin Fuente offense).

Ironically it’s generally been their fellow mid-majors, thirsty for the kind of attention that Boise has drawn with their success, who have thwarted their better opportunities for legendary greatness.

What made them great in the past?

Perhaps the two biggest missed features of the top Boise State teams has been their defense and their run game. Just like his 2016 Washington Huskies team, the Petersen offenses were always built around running the ball and setting up play-action.

The 2005 Boise State Broncos were the last of five very good Dan Hawkins teams before he was hired away by the Colorado Buffaloes to replace Gary Barnett. His offensive coordinator Chris Petersen remained and took the helm while Hawkins floundered for five consecutive losing seasons in Boulder. When Petersen left for Washington they hired his former OC Bryan Harsin to replace him, maintaining the same underlying system in Boise.

Their defenses have had a little more variety over the years than the offense but they were an under appreciated component to their top units, ranking in the top 15 by S&P+ on four different occasions and rarely wandering outside of the top 40.

The remarkable thing about their run of dominance is found in the fact that their recruiting rankings have never been close to impressive and until their successful branding this decade they weren’t always even the highest ranked class in their own league. Their home state of Idaho only has 1.6 million people, a little over a third of which live in the Boise metro area, making for a limited natural recruiting turf.

Yet despite those limitations there are 23 former Broncos in the NFL. By comparison, their vanquished foe the Oklahoma Sooners have 39 and Hawkins’ destination Colorado has 18. In other words, Boise State is regularly finding true impact players in their lowly ranked recruiting classes though not as many as a blue blood power.

Dominant rosters have been built via some pretty standard underdog program building strategies. In Tom Osborne fashion, they have a solid walk-on program that regularly finds worthy players from the local community. Their 2010 squad, arguably the best, had three walk-on starters and six Idahoans overall in the starting lineup.

Another major component is their use of greyshirts and redshirts to give some of their more raw or undersized players a chance to develop. Lots of two and three star players have very promising futures if you have the time and patience to allow them to grow and develop, there are countless D1-caliber players that aren’t no-brainers as 16-17 year olds but may be good enough to play as pros by the time they’re 22-24.

Nabbing undersized players is perhaps the biggest factor in their ability to find great players. This market inefficiency in the recruiting world is also invaluable for the purpose of building run-centric offenses, because short, mauling OL are often available to smaller programs like Boise State. You can smash teams in the mouth with a line of veteran, 23 year old guys, even if most of them are “only” 6-2, 280. The concerns with that kind of personnel show up in pass protection and you can always use TEs or RBs and play-action to aid the protection scheme when you want to buy time for the QB to throw it deep, which is exactly what Boise State does.

The 2010 and 2011 Broncos teams had a single tackle in Nate Potter, a former two-star Idahoan recruit that took a greyshirt AND a redshirt, who was anywhere close to prototypical size at 6’6” 293. The 2006 squad that beat OU was similarly comprised of a former two-star tackle with NFL size (and an NFL future) Ryan Clady (6’6” 319). The rest of their lines over those two years were 6’3” or shorter and starting centers Jadon Dailey (2006) and Thomas Byrd (2010-2011) were each 5’11” 285.

Having a shorter OL also could only have made it easier for Kellen Moore (who’s maybe 6’0”) to see over the line or for their shorter RBs (Doug Martin and Jeremy McNichols were each about 5’9”) to hide behind road graders before darting through creases.

The trick plays that have made Boise State famous over the years are all a component of the much more essential theme to their teams and overall strategy and culture...they game plan much more carefully and elaborately than most of college football.

Trick plays are always designed with specific opponents and defenses in mind and are just one more way to make the most of how teams adjust to their run-centric offense. The real brilliance is their use of two and three TE sets, lead run plays, and sporadic spread sets to set up defenses to get blistered by game theory-inspired play calls that often work like judo moves. They’ll often go spread only to run the ball, pack in the formation with big bodies only to use play-action and toss it over your head. Many of the calls are designed with specific tendencies or formational weaknesses of their opponents in mind.

Take this deep shot against the 2016 BYU Cougars:

They Broncos line up in a standard 2x2 spread set and BYU matches them with a two-deep pattern-matching coverage in which the safeties account for deep routes by the slot receivers. Both slots run deep outs in the “smash” route combination with hitch routes underneath to hold the corners, but the late shift by the RB creates an extra slot receiver that BYU never accounted for in their scheme. LB Fred Warner looks like the victim here but in reality he was just the only guy to realize what had gone wrong when the middle linebacker carried the RB up to absolutely no one at the safety level.

Subtle schemes like that, and more blatantly tricky concepts like WRs throwing passes, are regular features of every weekly Boise State gameplan.

The multiple tight end sets have always been an area of particular struggle for opponents as the Broncos have tended to load up on tight ends and move them around all over their formations to create leverage and angles for their run game. Under Bryan Harsin they’ve been wise to one of college football’s worst kept secrets, which is that you can teach anyone to line up out wide and run routes and not necessarily have to throw them the football.

Much like Jim Harbaugh at Michigan, the Broncos often get into multiple TE sets and send their blockers running routes to various parts of the field with the real intention of setting up their actual receivers to work in positive matchups with adequate spacing. More examples against the poor BYU defense of a year ago:

Boise sends a TE on a quick route underneath in the first example to clear a window to hit Thomas Sperbeck on a deep slant in space. Then they overload the boundary with receivers and send the TEs deep to get Sperbeck matched up on a distracted LB underneath.

The Broncos had three tight ends that they regularly put on the field in 2016 but they combined for only 36 targets while leading wideouts Thomas Sperbeck, Cedrick Wilson, and Chaz Anderson combined for 276 targets.

If you know what kinds of coverage a defense is going to present against a given formation and your tight ends know how to run routes, you can throw them out there and rarely actually throw them the football. The defense still has to cover them and the QB can make his way to them as secondary reads if the coverage ignores them while trying to respond to the way in which Boise used formation and route combos to set up their intended target.

Maintaining relevance

The typical criticism of Boise State that they lacked the depth to maintain their brilliant game planning and effort for a full, tough season has been borne out somewhat since they joined the Mountain West.

Their 2016 schedule included two Pac-12 opponents (Washington State and Oregon State) and BYU to go along with their MWC annual slate of Colorado State, Wyoming, New Mexico, Air Force, and Utah State. They navigated that schedule with only two losses, both coming within their conference to Wyoming and to Air Force.

Program investment into football is up everywhere and the Mountain West is a definite step up from the WAC slate Boise State was dominating back in their heyday.

Another issue is that while Boise State’s offense has aged like a fine wine in the modern era, maintaining their bigger sets while mixing in some modern spread-option concepts, but their defense has faced the need for more adjustments.

Pete Kwiatkowski, now at Washington with Petersen, had Boise State at the cutting edge at the turn of the decade with quarters concepts and defensive schemes that made it easy for them to gain numeric advantages at the point of attack against everyone on their schedule. Nowadays offenses are designed to attack those schemes and while Boise is current with some of the best practices in defensive football, they haven’t found quite the same advantages they had back in the day.

They’ve also had a great deal of turnover on their defensive staff and current DC Andy Avalos is only in year two while Kwiatkowski has continued to evolve his strategies up in Washington.

In their 2016 bowl game against the Baylor Bears the Broncos had almost as good a scheme for handling the “veer and shoot” offense as any team has attempted over the years. Their D features a hybrid DE/OLB that allows them to switch between 3-4 and 4-3 fronts and against Baylor they regularly moved and shifted their defensive backfield around to prevent freshman Bear QB Zach Smith from having clear pre-snap reads to attack while bringing pressure:

Their middle linebacker blitzes and is quickly replaced by the weak side linebacker shifting into his position and the free safety dropping down to replace the weak side backer. Meanwhile their “stud” DE/OLB hybrid player is dropping to replace the cornerback, who’s dropping into a deep half zone to replace the free safety. Baylor’s QB sees the safety drop down and the LB blitz and tries to beat what should be one on one coverage on the boundary only to find that his receiver is basically trying to get open deep against bracket coverage with a safety over the top.

You can see the “Y” and “X” receivers give up on even running routes when they see that they’re also facing bracket coverage which tells them that the ball is going elsewhere. Boise has Baylor’s intended options on this play confused and outnumbered thanks to clever shifting and formation-matching.

This is the future of spread defense, playing versatile personnel that can slide into different positions and allow the defense to shift numbers around and disguise weaknesses so that QBs can’t attack them with precise play calls and reads. It requires smart, well developed players but that’s a Boise specialty and within their wheelhouse.

The final challenge is the new playoff structure, which may or may not show deference to a top “group of five” program when selecting teams, particularly if it’s between a hypothetically 13-0 Boise State and an 11-1 SEC runner-up.

Would a 13-0 season in 2017 with wins over Washington State, BYU, and Wyoming be enough to warrant consideration? We still don’t know the answer to that question and it’s been established that being so much better than the rest of the MWC as to go undefeated is actually a fairly high bar to clear.

There’s a chance that we’ll see a televised G5 playoff in the future in which Boise State could be a regular fixture. The Broncos have also been mentioned as potential targets in expansion on the part of the Big 12, although that’s always been shut down.

Whatever happens, the Boise program keeps chugging along with their established tricks while continuing to expand their repertoire and growing their brand and recruiting reach. They may have missed their window for winning a national title but they’re in a flexible enough place to remain a national brand for the foreseeable future.