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November 25, 2010
Boise State's defense defends its turf
Playing defense for Boise State often can seem like playing bass guitar in a rock band: You're not necessarily going to be forgotten, but you certainly aren't likely to be the main attraction, either.
"From my perspective, when people think of Boise State, they either think of the blue turf or the offense," Boise State cornerback Brandyn Thompson said.
That perception is changing. This season, Boise State's defense is too good to ignore.
Boise State (10-0) is second in the nation in total defense and scoring defense. The Broncos have recorded three shutouts and have allowed seven or fewer points in five of their 10 games. They lead the nation in run defense, red-zone defense, sacks and tackles for loss.
And they haven't merely overpowered weak offenses. The Broncos gave up seven points to a Hawaii team that leads the nation in passing and averages 36.5 points per game. Last week, they blanked Fresno State, which had scored at least 27 points in each of its previous nine games. Next up is Nevada, which ranks third nationally in total offense and fourth in scoring.
Nevada (10-1) has averaged 44 points per game with an offense that features Colin Kaepernick, who needs 16 more rushing yards to become the first FBS quarterback to throw for 2,000 yards and rush for 1,000 yards in three consecutive seasons. Vai Taua is seventh nationally in rushing at 124.1 yards per game.
The Wolf Pack haven't been held below 21 points this season, but they also haven't faced a defense this good.
"The big thing for us is we always hunt in packs and get all 11 to the ball," Boise State linebacker Aaron Tevis said. "That's been a focus for our team since I was a freshman. That always beats skill and speed, just having everyone have heart and everyone trying to get to the ball. It definitely makes up for other things you might not have."
Yes, this defense has plenty of heart and tenacity. But the Broncos also have quite a bit of talent.
This isn't a defense that relies on a star system. The Broncos' leading tackler (sophomore linebacker J.C. Percy) has only 51 stops. Boise State leads all FBS programs in sacks and tackles for loss without having any player who ranks among the nation's top 40 in either category. Rather than depending on one or two standouts to make all the big plays, Boise State thrives on its depth, particularly up front.
Senior end Ryan Winterswyk arrived on campus as a walk-on and has since collected 43.5 career tackles for loss to rank eighth among all active FBS players. Junior tackle Billy Winn's ability to clog the middle has helped give Boise State the nation's top run defense. Junior end Shea McClellin has 11.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks to lead the Broncos in both categories.
The linebacker corps was good enough to blank Fresno State in its first game without Byron Hout, who had served as the Broncos' starting middle linebacker before breaking his foot two weeks ago. Thompson and senior safety Jeron Johnson lead a secondary that has successfully replaced cornerback Kyle Wilson, selected by the New York Jets with the 29th overall pick in the 2010 NFL draft.
"They just do a terrific job," Nevada coach Chris Ault said. "They're very confident in what they do. The thing that impresses us is they work as a total unit -- the front with the 'backers, the 'backers with the secondary. They were very good last year, and they just improved in that aspect of the game."
Most of the preseason attention regarding Boise State focused on the return of Heisman candidate Kellen Moore and all the team's other offensive weapons. But the Broncos also brought back the nucleus of an outstanding defense. Of the 11 defensive starters from last season's 17-10 victory over TCU in the Fiesta Bowl, all but Wilson remain on the team. The biggest hole to fill was on the sideline.
The Broncos had led the Western Athletic Conference in total defense and scoring defense during each of Justin Wilcox's four seasons as coordinator before Tennessee coach Derek Dooley lured him away from Boise.
Boise State coach Chris Petersen replaced Wilcox by promoting defensive line coach Pete Kwiatkowski. Bob Gregory, who had served as the Broncos' defensive coordinator in 2001 before spending the past eight seasons in the same position at California, returned to Boise to work as a defensive assistant. The Broncos haven't missed a beat.
"It's been awesome -- completely seamless," Petersen said. "We kind of picked up where we left off last year."
In fact, the Broncos have been even better. Boise State was 14th nationally in total defense and scoring defense last season. The Broncos allowed 25 points to Idaho. Nevada, Louisiana Tech and Fresno State each scored more than 30 points against Boise State.
This season, Boise State blew a 17-0 lead in a season-opening 33-30 victory over Virginia Tech but has shut down just about everyone else. The only other Boise State opponent to exceed the 20-point mark was Oregon State, which scored one touchdown on a punt return and another after recovering a fumbled punt at the Broncos' 31.
Boise State didn't have to worry about adjusting to the staff changes because Kwiatkowski didn't make any significant alterations to the 4-3 scheme. Kwiatkowski said he benefited in that he wasn't breaking in many first-year starters.
"Everybody has played a lot of football," Kwiatkowski said. "They knew the system. Any little tweaks we've done this year, it's not that it's something we haven't done before. I can't give enough credit to the experience we had coming back this year. It gives us the ability to do a little bit more as far as Xs and Os.
"They guys can pick it up fast and can go out on the practice field and execute it. We've got more tools in the toolbox to go to when we need to make adjustments."
Boise State's defense has been so dominant this season that it hasn't needed to make too many adjustments. That could change this week.
Kaepernick and Taua won't be intimidated by anything Boise State throws at them. Kaepernick has thrown seven touchdown passes and has run for two more scores without throwing an interception in his three previous meetings with Boise State, though Nevada lost all three games. Taua rushed for 160 yards and a touchdown in a 44-33 loss to Boise State last season.
Boise State's history of high-profile shootouts such as that battle with Nevada last season helps explain why the Broncos' offense gets much more attention than its defense.
The Broncos' famous Fiesta Bowl victory over Oklahoma to close the 2006 season was a 43-42 overtime thriller. There's the 39-27 loss to Hawaii in 2007 that helped catapult the Warriors to the Sugar Bowl. Boise State shut down Virginia Tech's potent rushing attack this season, but the Broncos still gave up 30 points.
Defense made the difference in the Broncos' 19-8 victory over Oregon and its Fiesta Bowl triumph over TCU last season, but the national perception of Boise State focuses mainly on its potent offense and its knack for trick plays. For whatever reason, the defense has been overlooked.
"I wouldn't say it bothers us, but we talk about it," Thompson said. "We carry that chip on our shoulder going into every game. Hopefully, that mentality changes around the nation."
A big performance Friday night certainly would help.