Let’s rewind about 10 months.
Boise State was 6-2. Following the embarrassing loss at UTEP, the Broncos had righted the ship with four straight victories. Behind OC Dirk Koetter and quarterback Taylen Green, the offense was humming. And the Boise State defense was making its case as one of the best units in the country.
That’s not hyperbole.
Heading into the BYU game midway through last season, the Broncos had the best pass defense in the country. And it was allowing the 13th-fewest rushing yards in America. There were fears that Boise State wouldn’t be able to afford to keep defensive coordinator Spencer Danielson if Power-5 schools came calling.
Now, as the Broncos gear up for their week-five matchup at Memphis (3-1), the shift has been stark.
Through four games, Boise State’s defense is giving up 294 passing yards per game. Only eight teams in FBS football allow more than that. Only a tad better is the Broncos’ rush defense, which is allowing just under 136 yards a game (T-73rd in FBS).
Now, it must be noted that the Broncos’ schedule looks a lot different in 2023. A year ago, Boise State opened the season against Oregon State (good), New Mexico (really bad), UT-Martin (decent for FCS) and UTEP (pretty bad). This season, the Broncos have faced Washington (best passing team in America), UCF (good), North Dakota (fine) and San Diego State (OK).
The fact that the Broncos’ defense has slipped from last season is not shocking. The fact that they have basically free-fallen, stats-wise, is unexpected.
“It’s not just one thing or one player or one position group, it’s how we work together,” defensive coordinator Spencer Danielson said of his group’s struggles. “There’s obviously some things on the back end from a coverage standpoint (that could improve) … But we also have to create more pressure on quarterbacks, too.”
The Broncos have been fortunate to bail themselves out of unfavorable situations. Against UCF, Boise State picked off two tipped passes in the red zone. On Friday, San Diego State quarterback Jalen Mayden fumbled on the 1-yard line.
The Broncos, though, have been forced to be spectacular in the red zone because they’ve struggled so much getting off the field when they should.
San Diego State came into Friday as one of the worst 3rd-down offenses in the nation. They were moving the sticks on a third of the time. Against Boise State, they successfully converted 7 of their 13 3rd-down tries (54%).
On the season, the Broncos are forcing a punt on just over 41% of the opponent’s 3rd downs (91st in FBS). Why has Boise State given up so many passing yards? Why have the Broncos allowed over 30 points a game? Because they keep giving offenses bonus chances.
“It’s monstrous,” Danielson said of 3rd downs. “You work your tail off to get to 3rd down. You have to win those 3rd downs — especially if you get an offense in 3rd-and-long. That’s favorable for the defense. You have to win those at a high level. And to be an elite defense, you have to win at least 70% of 3rd downs you’re in.”
Take a San Diego State drive that began late in the third quarter and finished with a touchdown early in the fourth. The Aztecs faced a trio of 3rd downs. None of them were easy: 3rd-and-10, 3rd-and-10 and 3rd-and-6.
On the first one, Boise State got zero pressure on Mayden. He sat in the pocket for nearly four seconds then fired a bullet to receiver Brionne Penny over the middle for a 36-yard gain. Rodney Robinson, who was trailing in coverage, couldn’t catch Penny. Jaylen Clark missed a tackle. And, finally, Kaonohi Kaniho brought him down.
On the second 3rd-and-10, Demitri Washington almost got to Mayden but the quarterback escaped the pocket. Braxton Felty dove at his legs but missed. Mayden kept running, keeping his eyes downfield. He pump-faked A’Marion McCoy and ran past the sticks.
On the last one, Boise State rushed four. Mayden saw a crease open and darted through the middle of the line. He juked Zion Washington and picked up 16 yards. The Aztecs scored on the next play.
Not even two minutes after the conclusion of Friday’s win over San Diego State, Boise State head coach Andy Avalos told CBS Sports sideline analyst Justin Walters that the Broncos needed to be better at tackling.
“I’ll tell you this,” Avalos said, “We’re gonna be tackling a lot on Tuesday when we get back to practice. We’ve got to be cleaner with our tackling.”
They’re going to need to be because Memphis’ quarterback Seth Henigan is completing nearly 70% of his passes. The Tigers are going to get their players in space. It’s up to Boise State to bring them down at first contact — especially on 3rd down.
“Our guys didn’t execute when they needed to, which 100% falls on me,” Danielson said. “The stuff we’ve struggled with … we’re gonna see it again.”