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Pre-Snap Read: WSU vs Boise State

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We take a look at the Broncos and get great insight from B.J. Rains, BSU beat writer for the Idaho Press-Tribune.

San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl - Boise State v Northern Illinois Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Washington State won’t have to travel nearly as far east to bounce back from an opening weekend loss to an FCS team this year. That’s good.

The Portland State loss generated a lot of existential questions from fans last year. Is this who we are under Mike Leach? Can we ever be good enough to not have to worry about these games? How long should my fandom tolerate this?

Collectively, the FCS loss bomb detonated with a few more megatons last year than it did this year for one simple reason — no one really thinks the defense we saw last weekend will be the defense that suits up every Saturday. That’s the goodwill a nine win season can grant you.

I believe him. Now they have to go prove it against a very good Boise State team.


Former Boise State and WSU linebackers coach Jeff Choate said of the Broncos, “We run plays, we don’t have an offense. It makes it difficult to defend” (link).

Head Coach Bryan Harsin was born and raised in Boise, playing quarterback for the Broncos in the late 1990s and returning as a graduate assistant in 2001 under Dan Hawkins. The next year he ascended to coaching the tight ends and stayed there until Chris Petersen was promoted to head coach and gave him the offensive coordinator and QB coach roles in 2006. Harsin left Boise in 2010 to be the co-OC at Texas with Major Applewhite for a couple years before filling the head coach vacancy at Arkansas State after Gus Malzahn left for Auburn.

Boise State’s offense is dynamic, in the literal sense. They adjust formation before the snap, adding motion in and out of the backfield so that when the ball is snapped, they could be operating from an entirely different strength of formation than what they broke the huddle with.

It’s about two things: maximizing personnel and changing the picture of the defense.

Those are two coach-speak buzzword terminologies that essentially mean creating a match-up advantage in your favor (e.g. creating a one on one outside, linebacker manned-up on a slot receiver, etc.) and causing an aggressive defense to think more than read and react. If you can get a defense thinking about who their keys are or what coverage responsibilities they might have, they aren’t going to be able to react to the play when the ball is snapped.

If we condense things down, there are three basic types of pre-snap movement.

Trade: Adjusting formation strength. One or more players on the line of scrimmage will move to the other side (right-to-left or left-to-right). Boise will do this with tight ends, H-backs and fullbacks.

Shift: This will involve a complete change in formation. A 2x2 or 3x1 spread formation will motion into a tight, running formation and vice versa.

Motion: Typical wide receiver movements that are shared in a lot of offenses. “Jet”, “Fly”, or “Zoom” is commonly used to denote a receiver sprinting full speed across formation, creating a mesh point with the QB at the snap. You also have:

  • “Move”, which brings the receiver across formation without the mesh at the snap;
  • “Orbit”, which brings an outside receiver in tight to the formation then back out again; and
  • “Fly” or “Zoom” (whichever wasn’t used in the earlier example) to motion a receiver in towards formation.

Boise State had 44 different pre-snap motions in their playbook under Chris Petersen. It’s not only advantageous in the pass game; shifting formation strength coupled with power (pulling guard on an inside zone) or weakside counters can really abuse linebackers that don’t maintain their leverage.


What has me concerned about Boise State

McNasty: Jeremy McNichols is a highly versatile back. The junior rushed for 1337 yards last season on 240 carries, adding another 461 yards on 51 receptions from 57 targets. He is their “do everything” type of back.

Rypien (non-Coug edition): Brett Rypien had a breakout first year after filling in for an injured Ryan Finley and ultimately taking the spot over. The good news is that WSU saw a pretty decent quarterback last week in Gage Gubrud; the bad news is that he hung nearly 500 yards on them and completed over 85 percent of his pass attempts.

Lingering: Last year the Cougs were able to venture into New Jersey and bounce-back from a terrible opener with a game-winning drive that hinted at how well they’d be able to finish close games the rest of the season. The defense, special teams and offense all traded series where they couldn’t decide if they wanted to be good or not. Wazzu needs to have that figured out at the start of the Boise game or things could get out of hand.

Motion: For a team that had problems locating (and covering) one wide receiver that was moved around, the prospect of facing a whole offense that is a threat and moves around is worrisome. BSU will be all over the place and WSU’s young secondary didn’t have much success adjusting to that when Eastern did it.

B.J. Rains, beat writer for the Idaho Press Tribune at blueturfsports.com, was kind enough to give us his insights.

What are you most confident in about the Boise State Broncos?

“They are going to move the ball and probably score some points. Boise State had 584 total yards in a 45-10 win at Louisiana in the season opener, but they went conservative in the second half and avoided what could have been an even more lopsided score. With Washington State giving up 600-plus yards to Eastern Washington, Boise State and talented quarterback Brett Rypien should have plenty of success moving the ball. Thomas Sperbeck is a preseason All-Mountain West pick, and juco transfer Cedrick Wilson looks like a star. Throw in running back Jeremy McNichols, and it's almost impossible to defend Boise State from all angles. I expect the Broncos to score some points, but my big question is whether the Bronco defense can stop the Cougars.”


What has me confident about the Cougs

Falk and Marks: The duo combined for 10 receptions and 108 yards last Saturday. Marks was Falk’s most highly targeted receiver (by a lot) and at this point, I don’t think anyone can guard him well enough to completely take him out of the game.

Underappreciated X: Tavares Martin Jr. only had 4 receptions and 34 yards last week. As explosive, potent, high-scoring, efficient, whatever you want to say this offense is, it will be even more so when he actually gets involved. X receiver production was about half of what we’d expect last week — almost a non-factor until the last TD drive. Look for him to have an impact this week in Boise. It’s unusual to almost neglect that outside receiver position as much as it was against Eastern.

Peace and harmony: Shalom Luani returns to the secondary. Be excited to have him back. Coordinating the secondary against an offense as dynamic as Boise will be a challenge, and one you’d rather not see thrust on a true freshman.

Youth: Boise played eight true freshman last week. Part of that is getting up big on the Ragin’ Cajuns and wanting to give them some reps, and part of that is Boise has a lot of young guys filling roster depth right now. Not necessarily a bad thing — those young guys could be pretty good -- but I’ll take facing inexperience over experience every day of the week.

Not-Momentum and Not-Martin: Jeremiah Allison told us game-to-game momentum doesn’t exist and the team proved it on the field last year. There’s enough recent history to think this team will respond well on the road, as their best games have been played away from Pullman (exception: Stanford) the past few years, and this team doesn’t have a problem getting up for big games (exception: the Apple Cup).

Being confident in your team because they just suffered a loss and now play on the road against a tough opponent is a weird head-space to occupy, but this team does weird things like that.

So, Mr. Rains...

What about Wazzu should concern Boise State?

“Washington State's Air Raid offense will pose a big threat to a Boise State defense that had to replace a ton of talent from last year's team. The Broncos lost four players that spent August in NFL training camps, including two that were drafted in the first three rounds in defensive end Kamalei Correa and safety Darian Thompson. Corner Donte Deayon signed with the New York Giants practice squad. Boise State had to replace all four starters from the defensive line, and two key members of the secondary. The defense did well last week at Louisiana - five sacks and 12.0 tackles-for-loss - but this will be a whole different animal on Saturday. Is the secondary (also without starter Dylan Sumner-Gardner due to a four-game suspension) ready for this type of high-powered challenge? We'll find out soon.”

How I see this game playing out

Late night game on The Deuce? Probably going to get some shenanigans, and this smells like a shootout. Even with Luani back at free safety I think it will take a few more weeks for this defense to catch its foothold. Most of their failures against Eastern can be distilled down to missed tackling — which can easily be improved in a week if the skill is there (and we think it is) — but the overall play will have to see massive improvement against Boise State if they plan on keeping them out of the endzone.

Falk should be able to attack this young defense and put up points. The offenses will probably trade scoring drives for most of the game with two or three defensive stops and/or turnovers being the difference. Stealing possessions is crucial in high scoring affairs.

Final score: WSU 45 - 42 Boise State

And B.J. ...

"I think obviously this will be a high-scoring game with plenty of points, but I just wonder if Washington State will be able to make enough stops on defense to be able to win. Based off the Cougars' struggles on defense against EWU (and I know the safety being back will help them), and Boise State's success at home, I just can't see Washington State coming in and getting a win. I think it might be closer than the 12-point Vegas spread would indicate, but I think Boise State will use an electric home atmosphere and crowd and get it done.

Final score: Boise State 45, Washington State 35.

Many thanks to B.J. Rains for being so generous with his time. You can find him on Twitter @BJRains, and you can follow his writing at Blue Turf Sports.