BOISE — Boise State’s inability to stop the run on defense and run the ball on offense have both been somewhat surprising and downright frustrating for the Broncos through three games.
But which one is the bigger concern?
“Both probably equally,” coach Andy Avalos said. “It’s not a matter of getting frustrated, it’s a matter of applying attention and urgency to who we are and where we can grow.”
Boise State’s offense ranks No. 126 of 130 FBS teams in rushing offense at just 67.3 yards per game on the ground. The defense is not much better, ranking No. 115 in rushing defense at a whopping 201.7 yards allowed per game.
We’ll look at the defense first. Twice in three games have opponents rushed for at least 245 yards on the Broncos. That previously had only happened twice in the previous 10 seasons by non-option teams against the Broncos dating back to 2011.
“Our fundamentals just have to be cleaner,” defensive line coach Frank Maile said. “When we do it right it’s good and we stop the run. When we don’t that’s the outcome of it, over 200 yards of rushing, which is unacceptable. It’s bad business. We can’t play that way and we can’t function as a defense.
“We’re six points away from being 3-0 in our season and a lot of that has to do with the run game.”
Maile said the tackling needed to improve but also where the players are looking as the play unfolds.
“Get your eyes out of the backfield,” Maile said. “We have to identify blocks that take us to the ball.”
UCF’s Isaiah Bowswer had 33 rushes for 172 yards and a touchdown against the Broncos in the season opener. It was, at the time, the most yards allowed by the Broncos to a single player since New Mexico’s Teriyon Gipson had 205 yards and three touchdowns on 24 carries back in 2014.
But last Saturday Oklahoma State running back Jaylen Warren out did that, rushing for 218 yards on 32 carries. It’s now the most rushing yards allowed to one player by a Boise State defense since Fresno State’s Ryan Mathews ran for 234 yards and three touchdowns on 19 carries in a 51-34 win for the Broncos in Fresno on Sept. 18, 2009.
“It’s frustrating and definitely not the standard with which we want to play and it’s something we’re excited to get fixed,” defensive coordinator Spencer Danielson said. “Giving up the yards we have is not something we’re proud of, but we do have the answers I believe and we not only have the players but we have the coaches to get it done.”
Boise State’s struggles against the run have been surprising given the personnel on the roster as well as the coaches. The Broncos were one of the top run defenses in the country in 2017 and 2018 with Avalos as defensive coordinator and again in 2019 even after he left.
Avalos said less could be more when it comes to the defense this week.
“It’s actually just really simplifying what we’re talking about in meetings, what we’re working on in individual drills and how that pertains to the group periods and the team periods,” Avalos said. “And being able to create some habits so when we cut it loose on game night those are our habits and we don’t revert back to other things.”
Boise State’s offensive coaches are dealing with their own issues this week as they try to figure out why it’s been such a struggle to run the ball. Boise State rank No. 127 of 130 teams with an average of just 2.06 yards per carry.
The Broncos’ leading rusher, Oregon transfer Cyrus Habibi-Likio, has just 61 yards on the ground through three games.
“We just lack the consistency right now to continue to get enough explosive runs and enough consistency to get positive runs,” Boise State offensive coordinator Tim Plough said. “And that falls on all of us but I’ll be the first one to always say if we have a tough game, don’t look anywhere past me. I have to be better and do a better job getting our guys ready to roll.
“It just hasn’t gotten off to a great start and we know that and we’re not going to run with it. It’s just not consistent enough.”
Boise State had a 1,000-yard rusher in each of the past 11 seasons prior to the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. At the current pace the Broncos won’t even have a rusher with 400 yards.
“I understand the legacy here and running the football and having 1,000 yard tailbacks,” Plough said. “No one gets that more than me and no one wants that more than me. We’re looking for ways to help our guys up front be more successful and we’re looking for ways to make it consistent and we’re just going to keep working on it.”
George Holani, who rushed for 1,014 yards as a freshman in 2019, missed the UCF game due to an injury but had just 50 yards on 17 carries the past two games. Andrew Van Buren has 18 rushes for just 37 yards.
Both Avalos and Plough saw they saw encouraging signs in the first half when they had close to 70 rushing yards not counting the yards lost by a Hank Bachmeier sack. But things turned south again in the second half when the Broncos finished with -2 rushing yards on 10 attempts.
For the game the Broncos had just 61 rushing yards on 35 attempts in the loss to Oklahoma State. Crazy enough it was still better than the 20 rushing yards on 26 attempts the Broncos had in the opener against UCF.
“We actually did some things well there in the first half in the run game,” Avalos said. “The yards don’t always how it. Some of that is an RPO (run-pass option) gets thrown but there were some things done up front where we were handling ourselves much better.
“It always starts with establishing the run game. That’s football. Who wins the line of scrimmage…that’s always a huge emphasis.”
Plough admitted the lack of success in the run game is “definitely disappointing” but voiced optimism it will soon turn around.
“I do think it’s going to come,” Plough said. “I’m a believer in it. Hopefully everyone is not jumping off the ship. I do believe the running game is going to come. We have talent and I believe in the guys and what we’re doing and the staff. We just have to stick with it. It’s going to come. I know it’s going to burst.”
The Broncos would benefit greatly from making big improvements this week. Utah State ranks No. 29 in rushing offense at 206.3 yards per game, while the Aggies’ defense only allowed 107.0 rushing yards per game in two games against non-option teams prior to last week’s matchup at Air Force.
Boise State is a disappointing 1-2 on the year heading into the start of conference Saturday in Logan. Stopping the run and running the football could both help fuel a turnaround.
“It’s not the standard,” Avalos said. “You know that, I know that. But having the answers and understanding and knowing what we need to do to move forward is very encouraging.”