The inability to nurse double-digit leads has put Boise State’s football program in unfamiliar territory at the start of the 2021 campaign.
The Broncos jumped out to a 20-7 lead late in the second quarter last Saturday against visiting Oklahoma State, but was unable to score the rest of the way and lost, 21-20. Two weeks before their rare home loss, the Broncos were rolling, up 21-0 on the road against UCF, but a rough second half helped the Knights escape with a 36-31 victory.
Not since 2005 has Boise State lost two games this early in a season. Indeed, the Broncos are reeling a bit heading into their Mountain West opener Saturday on the road against Utah State.
“We’ve got to do a better job as coaches starting and creating mechanisms that help us be able to finish these games at the end here,” BSU head coach Andy Avalos said following the setback to OSU. “Through these two losses early on, we’re going to be able to learn a ton that’s going to carry us forward as we start moving into conference play.”
Three glaring problems for the Broncos during their 1-2 start has been their failure to run the football, their struggles to stop the opposition from running the football and their inefficiency on the offensive side of the ball in the second half.
The Broncos currently rank 126th out of 130 FBS teams in rushing offense with 67.33 yards an outing, plus they are averaging a paltry 2.1 yards per carry. Conversely, BSU ranks 115th nationally in rushing defense as it has allowed 201.7 ypg.
Scoring points after halftime has been a massive challenge for the Broncos, who have found paydirt 10 times in the opening half, but just twice during the final two quarters. BSU has averaged an impressive 251.3 total yards during the first half of its three games, but a measly 97.7 in the second.
Despite their struggles, there’s no question the Broncos have enough talent to turn things around. BSU did, after all, welcome back 16 starters from its 2020 squad, which went 5-2 and lost to San Jose State in the MW championship game. Additionally, the Broncos always excel on the recruiting trail.
“They’ve played some good folks,” USU head coach Blake Anderson said during his weekly press conference. “I think that the talent level you’re lining up against has a lot to do with that. I mean, the stats lie to you. Look, they can play. It’s a good football team. I mean, Central Florida and Oklahoma State are both quality football teams. They’ve not played an easy schedule by any means.”
Anderson spoke very highly of Boise State’s veteran defense, which has already come up with nine takeaways — five interceptions and four fumble recoveries — in three games. All 11 of BSU’s defensive starters are juniors or seniors, plus seven of its second-stringers are also juniors or seniors.
“(They are) collectively, the best defense we will have played hands down,” Anderson said. “It is a huge challenge for our offense to extend drives and finish in the end zone. They are going to challenge you basically in every area and the matchups are difficult all across the board. Length, size, speed, the physicalness, there’s just not a weakness that you see.”
The Broncos brought back six defensive linemen that were in the starting lineup as least twice last season, but two of them aren’t expected to play against the Aggies. Divine Obichere is nursing a shoulder injury, and Scale Igiehon has taken a leave of absence from the team.
BSU still has a proven performer in the defensive trenches in Shane Irwin, who was a second-team all-conference selection a year ago. The redshirt senior is one of three Broncos with 2.0 sacks this season. He racked up 6.0 sacks last fall.
The Broncos have two very good linebackers in seniors Riley Whimpey and Ezekiel Noa, who both have ties to USU. Whimpey is the younger brother of a pair of former Aggie offensive linemen, while Noa is the older younger of current Aggie running back Elelyon Noa.
Whimpey, a two-time second-team all-MW honoree, is currently the team’s second-leading tackler with 25. Noa, a honorable mention all-league pick a year ago, has chipped in with 17 tackles and a pair of fumble recoveries.
JL Skinner, a 6-foot-4 junior safety, has sparkled in the secondary as he is BSU’s leader in tackles (32) and forced fumbles (two). Seyi Oladipo, another Bronco safety, has intercepted two passes.
It’s been a breakthrough season so far for first-year starting cornerback Tyric LeBeauf, who picked off two passes against UCF — one in which he returned 100 yards to the house.
Boise State has a proven commodity at nickelback in Kekaula Kaniko, who was a first-team all-MW honoree in 2019 and a second-team selection a year ago.
The Broncos have a highly regarded quarterback in Hank Bachmeier, a junior who, when healthy, has started ever since he was a true freshman. Bachmeier has completed 66 percent of his passes this season for 845 yards (281.7 ypg) and five touchdowns, vs. two INTs.
“I think their quarterback does a great job of seeing plays and getting the ball (to his weapons),” Anderson said. “They obviously do a lot of bells and whistles, a lot of eye candy, misdirection. He can deliver the ball. He’s very calm and he’s got tons of weapons.”
Bachmeier’s top target in the passing game is a bona fide All-American candidate in wide receiver Khalil Shakir, who caught seven passes for 123 yards and two TDs against the Aggies a year ago. Shakir hauled in 52 receptions in just seven games last year en route to garnering first-team all-MW accolades.
BSU’s two other veteran wideouts are seniors Octavius Evans and CT Thomas. Thomas only has two catches this season, but has contributed with 1,541 yards and 10 TDs on 119 receptions during his time at BSU. Evans has contributed with 116 yards on 10 catches in ’21.
The Broncos have a very good running back in 2019 MW Freshman of the Year George Holani, but he has been hampered by injuries ever since early in the 2020 campaign. Holani has played sparingly in two games this season and has 50 yards on 17 carries.
BSU’s leading rusher is Oregon transfer Cyrus Habibi-Likio, who has only managed 61 yards on 23 attempts.
Boise State’s offensive line is anchored by left tackle John Ojukwu, a four-year starter, and right guard Jake Stetz. Ojukwu and Stetz were named to the all-conference second team last fall.
Sixth-year senior Joel Velazquez has averaged 45.2 yards on his 13 punts this season for the Broncos, while placekicker Jonah Dalmas has been successful on 14 of 16 field goal attempts over the past 10 games. Dalmas did have a potential game-winning field goal blocked late in the fourth quarter against OSU.
Stefan Cobbs returned a punt 81 yards to paydirt in BSU’s 54-13 drubbing of visiting UTEP on Sept. 10, and Thomas has a 47-yard kickoff return this season.