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Pete’s Last Defensive Preview: Boise State

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The Broncos were three points away from an undefeated season.

NCAA Football: Marshall at Boise State Brian Losness-USA TODAY Sports

Intros? Um... Absolutely not.

Here’s the opposite of an intro:

Personnel and What to Expect

In a weirdly poetic ending, of course Boise State’s points allowed per game would be .2 points away from Washington’s same metric. That number is 20.6. It’s also worth noting that much of the time when the Broncos did allow more points than that, they ended up scoring so much otherwise that it didn’t really matter. (For example, a 59-37 victory over Hawaii, or a 52-42 victory over San Jose State.) Other than the three game stretch of those two games and the defeat to BYU, though, BSU was quite stingy and allowed just 16.78 points per game.

By the numbers, the Broncos are 83rd in pass defense (234 yards per game and 6.91 yards per attempt), 19th in rushing defense (112 per game and 3.48 yards per attempt), 32nd in red zone defense (.784 scoring percentage, with 72% of those being touchdowns), and 28th in tackles for loss (6.8 per game).

In classic ghost-of-Chris-Petersen fashion, the vast majority of this defense are upperclassmen. In fact, there isn’t a single first string player who isn’t a junior or senior.

They can be pretty versatile in their fronts and formations, but much of their defense looks quite similar to UW’s; they play many snaps in a 4-2-5 (or 2-4-5, if we want to get into that argument over which is right), but will also do 3-3-5 and occasionally throw in a more traditional look or dime to adapt to the circumstances.

Beginning up front is DE (and lifelong Boise fan) Chase Hatada, sixth-year graduate and captain David Moa at DT, and senior NT Sonatane Lui. Between the three of them is a handful of accolades, awards, and watchlists, including the Mountain West Championship Game Defensive MVP for Lui and All-Mountain West Second Team for the other two. But all of those are overshadowed by the productivity of fourth-year junior pass rush specialist Curtis Weaver.

Weaver, listed as BSU’s STUD position, is the all time Mountain West leader in sacks, has been All-Mountain West first team for three straight years, was on The Athletic’s Midseason All-American team, has picked up six All-American accolades since the end of the regular season, and is generally a soul-crusher for opponents. If there will be one player Washington fans become familiar with over 60 minutes, it’ll be him.

They’re not a really aggressive pass rush — rarely blitzing and occasionally sending only three — but typically provide a pretty consistent, albeit slow and steady, collapse of the pocket. In general, this means they don’t have that terrorizing havoc level every snap, but quarterbacks who aren’t disciplined with getting the ball out on time will be wrecked very often.

Behind them are a duo of juniors at inside linebacker, Riley Whimpey and Benton Wickersham, who are, indeed, actual human people and not just two fictional posh Englishmen. Whimpey was a second team All-Mountain West selection, but the middle of the field has been inconsistent for the Broncos’ defense this year. This namely shows up in that, while the numbers of 3.48 yards per rush are great, the eye test shows a kind of all-or-nothing reality. One instance, you’ll get a 4th down goal line stop, and then the next time you’ll see a string of runs between the tackles that go for 10 yards or more. In many of these cases, the linebackers aren’t terrible or anything, rather just aren’t quick enough to diagnose after having drifted slightly. As a Washington fan, certainly that would never sound familiar.

Just like everyone else, the starting defensive backs are equally experienced: the safeties are senior Kekoa Nawahine and redshirt junior Jordan Happle (with second stringer Tyreque Jones behind them, who had a nice interception against Colorado State), the corners are redshirt juniors Jalen Walker and Avery Williams, and the nickel is junior Kekaula Kaniho.

The strength of the defensive backs particularly lies in their ability to read quarterbacks’ eyes and disrupt those intended routes — but their weakness is in finishing those plays; while they finished the season with 10 interceptions, they only had four of those through their first seven games. In other words, they’re not natural catchers, even though they’ve improved significantly in that area since the halfway point of the season.

It’s also worth noting that the secondary doesn’t exactly help out a bunch with the linebackers’ running woes regarding between-the-tackle plays. While this unit isn’t bad at nipping longer runs in the bud once a ball carrier gets to them, none of these players look like natural enforcers there. Against Hawaii in the Mountain West Championship Game, one of the safeties got fully sidestepped in what was a pretty embarrassing play, gaining at least 20 yards on that one carry. And, as mentioned previously, there’s plenty of runs up the middle that go for longer than comfortable if you’re a Boise fan.

Overall, though, the secondary’s interesting in that they do a lot of things well but can be somewhat boom or bust against quarterbacks who are accurate at distance. On one hand, they’ve become quite good at reading routes and quarterbacks — especially when said quarterbacks get trigger happy about deep throws — but they also aren’t shutting down those high-risk, high-reward throws as often as you’d want if you’re BSU. That being said, when those plays are completed, it’s usually into quite good coverage, just not great coverage. But don’t expect the Broncos’ secondary to have a bunch of busted coverage that give opposing offenses easy yards.

Overall, much of this defense looks a lot like UW: defensive line whose performance is unsexy but good, pass rush that’s also unsexy but sneakily alright (plus Curtis Weaver’s explosive potential any given snap), and inside linebackers that are less than reliable. The main difference is that Washington’s secondary has come into their own a bit more than you can probably say for Boise, but even so, they’re not two hugely different looks.

Bottom Line

The first thing that’s apparent to me is that committing to the run specifically between the tackles should be plenty frustrating at times for Washington while also providing the Dawgs with decent big play potential. Running Salvon Ahmed against Boise State is like playing on a slot machine: useless, and then massively productive. There’s little reason to think he won’t be able to break off chunk yardage, but there will also be plenty of stops at the yardage of scrimmage.

In the passing game, I’m slightly worried about Curtis Weaver going up against an offensive line without Trey Adams and Jaxson Kirkland. That being said, I think it more comes down to Jacob Eason’s ability to get the ball out rather quick and his decision making when he decides to launch it on go routes. This is mostly because of the fact that Boise’s havoc rate for the defensive line is significantly higher when quarterbacks hang onto the ball for more than three or four seconds, and because of how often the Broncos either give up huge passes (or touchdowns) or create interceptions on those same plays — seemingly, there is no in between, and it’s up to Eason to pick which times are right to pull the trigger and which times will result in disaster. If he starts getting desperate and chucking it downfield, Boise could have a field day. On the other side, if he’s more surgical about the matter, there could be some long bombs that work wonders for Washington.

Do good things, don’t do bad things, and bow down to Washington.