Can the Broncos Finish Perfect?
Three weeks into the season….
and coming off a win at UConn, I think a Boise State Football rendition of the Presidential State of the Union is somewhat suitable. Now, without mixing politics and football, it’s safe to say there is still uncertainty on how the Broncos will finish this year and many questions remain unanswered … e.g., is a one loss season possible? Can they win the Mountain West? Could they break into the new playoff format? The Broncos are currently 2-1 and a fourth of the way through their regular season (WHAT!? it just started…I KNOW). Following their first game loss to Ole Miss, the Broncos and their faithful shifted focus. Since true perfection is no longer obtainable, Boise State has their eyes set on a Perfect Finish.
Below, I will attempt to decipher what can be drawn from the Broncos first three games; I will provide three reasons why I believe a one-loss-season is possible, and three others as to why I don’t. Disclaimer: I will not touch on the schedule or the qualities of our future opponents. This is because, well, simply put…I don’t watch our upcoming opponents with regularity. Therefore, if I attempted to break-down each team; I would unfortunately sound like an ESPN Analyst trying to cover a team that they’ve only received a sheet of stats to go off of … horrendous. Right, Bronco fans? Instead, I will strictly focus on the strengths and weaknesses of the Broncos at this current state.
First, let’s briefly recap the first three games with a few pictures for summarization:
Ole Miss 35 – Boise State 13
Well…shit…maybe a photo recap isn’t a good idea after all. This picture is depressing.
Boise State 37 – Colorado State 24
Don’t cry little Ram, CELEBRATE! After all, you did beat a cross-town rival and PAC 12 school.
Boise State 38 – UConn 21
Too many great things in one picture, but an individual in particular stands out.
Redshirt- ‘uhhhh … wtf is going on here …?’
Three Reasons a One Loss Season is Possible
1. Jay Ajayi
The most obvious reason of my 3 …
Jay Ajayi is undoubtedly the best pro-prospect on the Broncos. Although ‘best pro-prospect’ doesn’t always mean the best player on the team or biggest contributor; in this case, he’s all the above. We all know Jay’s story: chose football over fùtbol, nearly got kicked off the Broncos, tore his ACL; then bounced back in stellar fashion and has improved by leaps & bounds each year since. Jay’s most gaudy trait is his ability to maintain balance while dodging defenders and running through others. Anyone who has had the privilege to watch Jay when he is feeling it; will know what I mean when I say … he is special. Jay’s favorite move is his video-game-esq spin-move. He will use it consistently throughout a game to shed off wimpy tacklers as they approach from all angles. Jay has also relied on a special habit of his, and that is to quickly break his runs outside; he is very good at changing directions for his size and has an uncanny ability to turn what would be a short gain into a rather explosive one. Here, he encompasses both of the prior mentioned skills masterfully. To say he is an All-American talent and would be a Heisman candidate if playing for a “Major Conference” school—is an understatement.
The only fear with Jay despite the occasional fumble, is his exceeding workload. In 3 games he has had 71 carries and 18 receptions; very few if any other players in the NCAA have had more total touches. Scary. But for now, we’re all aboard—riding the Jay-train to victory.
2. Front 7
It’s been astonishing how impressive the Broncos front seven has been despite their youth and inexperience. Even further astonishing; it’s not just seven guys. Anyone who has rotated onto the field, seems to have made an impact at some point. Following Demarcus Lawrence’s departure for the draft, I was unsure if anyone could fill the massive void he left in the Bronco’s pass rush. I was somewhat correct in my assumption that not ONE particular guy could fill that void, but now it is more so a collective unit of interchangeable pieces that are all capable. It allows the players to stay fresh and provide a spark once they step back on the field. Highly successful. The Broncos defensive stats reflect that notion: Boise State currently rank 2nd in nation in rushing defense YPG (Yards per Game), 3rd in tackles for a loss, and 7th in sacks. Not bad. And mind you, nearly all the front 7 starters will be back next year (!!!).
Clearly, the Broncos have not only been phenomenal in getting to the quarterback, but, possibly even more stout in stopping the run. What is the direct factor? Getting to the QB/RB early is crucial but, if unable to wrap up; tackle, and finish the play—the pressure is useless. I contribute a lot of the Broncos front seven success to tackling. And I mean a lot. Whether it be new D-line Coach – Steve Caldwell or new Defensive Coordinator – Marcel Yates … the Broncos have shown a noticeable difference in their ability to tackle consistently compared to 2013.
The continued success of the front seven will a play a major role in completing a possible perfect finish. If the Broncos continue to tackle consistently we may be looking at an top-notch defense.
3. The 3 C’s
Complexity – Confusion – Cohesion
An added element to the Broncos this year is actually a staple of the past—complexity. Before Bryan Harsin roamed the sidelines as Boise State Head Coach, he was at one point the offensive mastermind during the Kellen Moore era. He spent 4 years as Boise State’s Offensive Coordinator throwing together wacky formations, unusual pre-snap motions/shifts, and trick-plays. The Broncos and Harsin consistently made an effort to confuse the defense pre-snap and force them to show their hand; therefore, making the ensuing play more successful. During that time, as we all know, BSU put up prolific offensive numbers. Casually ranking in the top-10 or top-5 each year for points per game.
Three games in, the complexity level is not to the extent it used to be, but with that being said; I believe we have only seen a snippet of the playbook and its expected creativity. With time, practice, and game experience … the play calls shall diversify. As the offensive unit gains cohesiveness—trick-plays and player motions will become more and more prevalent. In turn making an already potent offense even more dangerous.
Look out for the 3 C’s.
Three Reasons a One Loss Season is Not Possible
1. Grant Hedrick
Uh oh… he didn’t put Grant Hedrick as the number 1 reason why a one loss is not possible, did he? He did.
Usually I dislike breaking down QB play because as fans, we only give two ratings … HIGH praise or reckless condemnation. The ideas of ‘average’ or ‘mediocre’ are all but forgotten. When was the last time you heard two sports fans bantering back & forth and one say to the other ” Oh yeah, well, your quarterback… he’s… umm.. AVERAGE! ‘HA! got him’ “… never? Me neither. Quarterbacks are the face of every football team, even the bad ones.(Everyone say hello, Tony Romo…. Hello Tony…). They receive the glory win their team wins, but the most resentment when they lose. Why? Because football is a Quarterback driven sport, we love them, we hate them, WE WANT TO BE THEM. Removing team allegiance, if you wouldn’t want to be Tom Brady, you’re lying to yourself.
Grant Hedrick fits the mold for the debate I laid out above. Grant is average … or slightly below. Prior to seasons start, and in the BTN’s QB preview, I mentioned my doubts of #9. Here’s a short synopsis of what I noticed from Grant’s 2013 season: Indecisive and questionable reads, inconsistent accuracy, decent arm, and under use of good mobility. The first two have been very visible through three games—almost glowing. And I will only analyze the first 2; his arm strength is not really something he can change with ease nor is it a major problem, and to be honest I’ve liked the way he’s used his mobility thus far (except for his god awful half-hearted slides. Get down Grant, get down). Nevertheless… in the QB preview, I went as far as to label him a “game-manager”. Knowing what I know now, I take back that statement. That title is given to quarterbacks who won’t necessarily win you a game, but won’t lose you one either. Grant has yet to show me option number one … hold your breath … and a little longer…covers eyes… option # two may have (most likely – probably – yes – yes it did) occurred vs. Ole Miss. Heading into the 4th Quarter of the season opener, Boise State was only down 7-6. Then the flood gates eventually opened, leading to lopsided the final score. The 7-6 score was directly correlated to the Broncos stellar defensive play and how well they performed; before they just ran out of gas. Grant on the other hand threw 4 interceptions from a culmination of inaccurate throws and awful reads. Ole Miss is a very good defense, but if BSU is going to win big games like that, as we are accustomed to—4 picks will never get the job done.
I’ve come to realize analysis failure is common when evaluating College Football QB’s. Let us look at a fake example—QB-A’s stats: Completed 22-30 passes, 2 touchdowns, 1 interception and 275 yards (single game). By all accounts that looks like a decent game; most would assume that QB must be good or at the least, very accurate. Nope. Why? The QB presented in the example happens to be product of a system (Giving a QB spoon-fed reads and throws). The system in place for QB-A was developed for quick underneath throws and short passes. Meaning QB-A had one or two reads, maybe, before throwing a pass and most of which were no longer than 5 to 10 yards. In fact, nearly half of the throws occurred at or behind the line of scrimmage; one touchdown was from a screen play and the other was from a check-down to the running-back. Thus, not requiring much difficulty; accuracy, or play reading ability.
In 5 starts and 13 total appearances in 2013, Grant’s stats were: completed 167-242 passes, 16 touchdowns, 5 interceptions, and 1,825 yards. His 69% percent completion ranked 4th in the Nation— HIGHLY misleading as it was for QB-A in the given example. If you string out QB-A’s stats over 7 to 8 games, and compared them to Grant’s 2013 stats, they would be very similar. An important piece: The play style described for QB-A is nearly identical to what system Grant was operating under last year and somewhat this year.
My point is, yes, Grant’s statistics (77of 106 passes, 72% completion percentage, 5 TD’s, 5 INT’s, and 850 yards) haven’t been poor with the exception of the inflated interception #’s vs. Ole Miss; however, I would say his plays has. If able to go back and watch any of the three games, you’ll notice Grant has missed a lot of throws and made many reads that force you to cringe. He tries to use his arm strength to fit throws into places with tight-windows and he is for the most part, incapable of doing so. In numerous instances—if Grant set his feet, make a quick decision, and got rid of it earlier; a completion, first down, or big-play might have occurred. These are errors that can be made against the Colorado State’s of D-1 Football, but not against the likes of an Ole Miss defense or a top-caliber team. Interceptions against a great team are a definite NO-CAN-DO. And truth be told, underneath throws and behind the line of scrimmage tosses will not score enough points to win against most, if not all strong defenses. They are too athletic and too physical. Deep shots that are open, but commonly missed—have to be completed, no other way around it. Grant MUST be able to stretch the field and connect on designed deep passes to allow Boise State’s offense to turn the corner to become elite.
The Broncos will go as far as Hedrick takes them.
2. Cornerback Depth
In the first three weeks, Boise State corner-backs have been dropping like flies. It started with the Broncos #1 corner – Cleshawn Page – and has trickled all the way down on the depth-chart to 2nd stringers. The Broncos top 3 cornerbacks: Page, Donte Deayon, and Bryan Douglas; have each, already missed time. The Boise State cornerbacks behind them are few and far between. Mercy Maston who would be the Broncos No. 4 cornerback if the others were healthy; has played and will continue to play significant time while the others try to heal up. Other than Maston, there is not much left. The depth is so bad that Bryan Harsin has mentioned other players from their respective positions stepping in to fill the void for the time being. No bueno.
The silver-lining in this, if any, is that new Defensive Coordinator – Marcel Yates – was previously the Broncos Defensive-Back Coach and is known for being a defensive-back guru. He is the respected creator of the heavily popular Boise State phrase “DBU” constituted due to the plethora of Bronco DB’s who have successfully made it to the NFL (Wilson, Scandrick, Johnson, Iloka, Taylor, etc.)
Yates is already showing his impact, proven by the Broncos 7 interceptions in three games. So whoever is on the field at corner will be learning from a highly touted and successful coach. With that being said, the Broncos would obviously be at their best with their top guys on the field, and will need the defensive dominance that they are capable of when healthy; to finish the year without another loss.
3. Lack of Playmakers
Currently the Broncos rely on 3 players to make the offense go. Jay Ajayi, Matt Miller, and Shane-Williams-Rhodes. That’s it. Those 3 have combined for 61 of the 78 Broncos total receptions, that’s nearly % 80 (!!!). I knew it was bad, but I didn’t know it was that bad. Hedrick constantly looks for SWR (Shane Williams-Rhodes), Miller, or Ajayi. If they aren’t there—might as well call the play dead.
The emergence of tight-ends have been noticed, but they are still used very seldom in the passing game. Or at least thrown to. Tight-end – Jake Roh- has 8 receptions and is looking like a very athletic with good ball skills, I anticipate him getting a lot of targets during his tenure at BSU. The next highest player in regards of total receptions is Dallas Burroughs (receiver) with 3. Quite bewildering. The rushing attack is even less of a committee. The one man who bears the burden of carrying the load is of course, Jay Ajayi; as mentioned above he has 71 carries in three games. Behind him, running a close second in total carries is Devan Demas with …. 4 (!!!) Holy shit, maybe we’re trying to demolish Jay that way he can’t declare for the draft next year & has to return… GENUIS.
It is clear or it should be, that giving the ball to 3 guys repeatedly is not a recipe for success. I don’t think those astronomical #’s are what is intended, certainly Harsin and Sanford would love to get their best playmakers the ball, but when is too much? And how long before they begin to break-down? Especially Williams-Rhodes—5’6 & 158 lbs. It would be understandable if SWR, Miller, and Ajayi consumed 50-60 % of the passing offense, but not 80 %. Same applies for Ajayi on the ground – 75-80 % of the carries would make sense, but in ballpark of 95 % doesn’t. One could conclude this shows how inferior the Broncos other options are and also confirms the trust that Hedrick has with the 3 main guys.
I fear if the Broncos are not able to find a core group of “other guys” that can contribute offensively; they will become too predictable and easy to prepare for. To be straightforward, if the Broncos have aspirations of a one loss season, other Broncos need to step up AND Grant has to find them.
It all comes down to Grant. Plain & simple. The two other reasons I listed for why a one loss season is not possible happen to be easily rectifiable and will progress with time. The Broncos defense (if healthy) is skilled enough to compete with any team the Broncos have left to face. Jay is Jay and will do Jay like things for the remainder of the year; that will have us fans ooohing and awwing till it’s all over. I’m positive this team will contend for a Mountain West title, which, is ultimately the goal every year. I’m just not so certain a one-loss season is on the horizon. Baring anything out of the ordinary, I’m going to predict the Broncos finish 9-3 in the regular season and triumphantly revenge a team that beat them earlier in the year by giving them a smack down in that Mountain West Championship Game. The Broncos will be the 2014 Mountain West Champs.
Mission accomplished—I think?