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UW Opponent Defensive Preview: Boise State

Making simple out of Boise’s complicated defense

Washington v Boise State Photo by Loren Orr/Getty Images

Welcome back to the 2023 Football Season Husky Fans!

After nine months, its finally game week, and to kick off the season, the Huskies host a northwest program that we’re familiar with, the Boise State Broncos. The two programs have a shared history over the last two decades despite only five match ups. Ten years ago, the Broncos were our opponent in UW’s home opener in the newly-renovated Husky Stadium, and our last meeting was in the 2019 Las Vegas Bowl, which was the last game of the Chris Petersen Era at UW. Petersen, one of the most impactful coaches in both programs’ history, brought over many of the key assistants on his coaching staffs from Boise, including the lone remaining UW coach from Petersen’s staff, Scott Huff.

Petersen isn’t the only connection between the two programs though. Other familiar faces include current Boise Offensive Coordinator, and former UW OC, Bush Hamdan, and current Boise HC, and former Oregon DC, Andy Avalos. Despite moving into the lead role at Boise, Avalos’ influence on the defense is still pronounced, and their style of play should be familiar to the scheme-focused Husky fans.

The Scheme & Personnel

Mountain West Championship - Fresno State v Boise State Photo by Loren Orr/Getty Images

At a high level, the structure and philosophy of the Boise defense hasn’t changed much since Petersen and Pete Kwiatkowski were at Boise. Avalos, despite his various stints working for other defensive coordinators, has built his scheme and philosophy on the same Kwiatkowski defense that UW ran when he was at UW. At it’s core, the Boise defense is a nickel-personnel defense that blends 3-4 and 4-3 structures to present a multiple defensive look. Much like Coach K’s 2-4-5 defense, and like current 4-2-5 defense under Coach Inge & Coach Morrell to a certain extent, hybridized roles and multiplicity in pre-snap alignments are how Boise tries to punch above their weight on defense.

Boise utilizes a similar EDGE role that is a blend of DE and OLB, and historically they dropped into coverage or played off-ball LB enough where the offense could never be certain about what they were doing. When paired with Boise’s preference to go with single-high coverage structures, there were often five players in the box who were legitimate rushing and coverage threats on any given play (2 LBs, 2 EDGEs, 1 Safety), rather than just two or three in a more conventional 4-2-5 defense.

The extra off-ball rush/coverage threats and pressure from all angles aren’t the only ways that Avalos’ defenses tried to gain a schematic advantage. His defenses also liked to play disguised coverages on obvious passing downs. Safeties often rotated post-snap, CBs would bail at the snap into softer coverages, fire zone blitzes were common up front, and almost every version of Cover 1 and Cover 3 will get called. Changes in alignment, depth, and pre-snap movement will be common down to down to blur the picture opposing QBs are trying to decipher.

All of these strategies worked phenomenally for Boise in 2022 (top 10 nationally in total defense and passing defense), but talent had just as much to do with that success. From a personnel perspective, there are a lot of new starters with big shoes to fill. Safety JL Skinner, CBs Caleb Biggers, Tyric LeBeauf, and Tyreque Jones, and DL/EDGEs Scott Matlock and George Tarlas have all moved on from the program. Fortunately for the Broncos, there is a lot of upperclassman depth to tap into. Every starter on defense (DT has sophomore Braxton Fely OR RS senior Michael Callahan listed as starting) is at least in their 3rd year in the program, which is critical when running a system as complicated and voluminous as Avalos’. Like an offensive line, you can never tell if a secondary is going to gel quickly until the season gets going. There’s lots of communication and teamwork required to avoid coverage busts, and unless all five guys have been working together on the 2nd team defense before this season, you can’t project how a change in line up will go.

One other position to keep an eye on is NT. Broncos coaches, media, and fans have all noted how big of an impact Scott Matlock was last season despite play a low-stat position. Much like how the losses of UW’s NFL-caliber DTs like Greg Gaines and Vita Vea under Coach K completely changed the complexion of the defense, Boise’s ability to adequately fill that NT position this season will be critical.

Keys to the Game

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

If I were drawing up the game plan for our offense, I’d make sure that we utilized tempo to maximum effect. Against a defense like Boise’s that wants to set up coverage traps and lean on disguises to make up the talent disparity, we want to force them to play as vanilla as possible. We need to at least threaten the quick snap on offense. I would also lean on spread formations to force Boise to declare their coverages. The fewer people Boise can keep in the box, the fewer options they have to work with in disguised coverage and pressure packages. Ryan Grubb tends to focus on our strengths more than exploiting an opponents weakness, at least when it comes to talent advantages, so I suspect that we’ll continue to lean on our high-flying passing game even if it may expose our new starters at iOL to additional pressure. If we can keep keep Penix clean in the pocket and utilize our formations and tempo to make this a game of talent and fundamentals, we should come away with the win.

Overall, I think that Boise’s defense will provide us with a good challenge to start the year. They are a well-coached group that has had recent success. While I believe that the Huskies should have a healthy, multi-score margin of victory at the end of the day due to our talent advantage, the Broncos are good enough to make us pay for mistakes.