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Pre-Snap Read: Previewing WSU vs. Boise State

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What concerns us about the Broncos, and why should they be scared of the Cougs? Plus, how BSU will try to defend the Air Raid.

Troy v Boise State Photo by Loren Orr/Getty Images

The Washington State Cougars find themselves in the peculiar position of having a 1-0 record. The 20th-ranked Cougs welcome Boise State into Martin Stadium this Saturday in a game that got picked up by ESPN for their 7:30 PM (PT) time slot accompanied by Rod Gilmore’s vapid mutterings.

The convincing win last week showcased Luke Falk’s ruthless efficiency, going the entire first half without an incompletion and finishing 33-of-39 for 311 yards and three touchdowns. The offense chugged along at a fantastic 7.0 yards per play and staggering 58 percent Success Rate. The defense pitched a shutout. Not bad for a trial run.

Now to see if it works against a decent FBS team.


Boise State defensive coordinator Andy Avalos is entering his second year at the head of the defense. Like head coach Bryan Harsin, Avalos is a former Bronco — he played linebacker for Boise State from 2001 through 2004.

Avalos bounced around a little after graduating. He was taken on as a graduate assistant by his former coach Dan Hawkins at Colorado before coming back to Boise State in 2012 and working with the defensive line and linebackers.

His Boise State defense isn’t terribly complex, but does make an effort to fool you.

Horizontal lines indicate the various alignments those positions lined up in up front.

The Boise State base defense predominantly functions as a 4-2-5, as it did under previous defensive coordinator Marcel Yates, but with more athleticism and versatility at the linebacker positions. It occasionally morphs into a 3-3-5, and very rarely a 4-3 or 3-4.

The key player to keep an eye on is highlighted orange in the diagram above. This is their version of a RUSH or “STUD” linebacker and he’s a stand-up rush end that is most always at the line of scrimmage on the boundary side of the formation.

If the STUD is anywhere but at the line of scrimmage on the boundary side of the formation, Boise State is probably up to something. Most stunts and blitzes came when he was moved from that “standard” alignment.

They like to move him off the ball — to linebacker depth, so the defense looks like a 3-3 — and have him either fly to the flat in Quarters coverage or stunt B-gap with Mike blitzing A-gap to the same side.

They’ll swing him all the way out to the inside of the furthest wide receiver to that boundary — still standing at the line looking like a rush end — and have him sit in the flat. He’ll also somewhat regularly line up to the field side and that was typically to the weak side of formation (opposite backfield RB or TE) and/or when teams spread 4 and 5-wide receivers.

His major role was to speed rush that backside, constantly putting pressure on that boundary edge.

Coverage-wise, Boise State will predominantly mix an aggressive Quarters (Cover-4), with a man-free, and Mix to the field side.

The alignment above looks like it could go either way. Might be man, might be zone. Corners are pressed, but that’s the sort of depth they typically play and the linebackers aren’t tipping much.

They locked into man after the snap. It would surprise me if they tried to do this all that often against Washington State, like they did against Troy last week.

James Williams and Jamal Morrow will outmatch whatever linebacker they try to man them up with, especially if they have to move across formation to catch up with them. That’s one of those mistakes I could imagine a coaching staff making out of arrogance, thinking they can hang before abruptly changing tactics mid-game.

Instead, we should see a lot of switching between zone and man, and a lot of it looking real similar before the snap. As a veteran, Wazzu quarterback Luke Falk shouldn’t be too fazed by this but it does present some real challenges.


What has me concerned about Boise State

Shifting gears: Last week was a more than fine performance from the offense. They did exactly what they wanted to do most of the time. The only Debby Downer being you could, if you wanted to suggest they didn’t want to do very much. (And some have.)

Falk’s criticisms have always been — warranted or not — that he (1) holds on to the ball too long, and (2) hits check-downs too often.

There’s a certain admirable maturity that’s involved in a quarterback being so stubbornly adherent to always targeting the route most open. There’s also a certain fanbase angst generated by not going out and just taking whatever you want as a quarterback, to not be content with only what they’re willing to give you.

Last week looked a lot like taking a Ferrari out for a spin and never leaving second gear. Sure you’re still driving it ... but not really. The offense has other, higher gears; just need to make sure we can shift into them.

Not-Rypien: Despite being adamant there isn’t a quarterback controversy in Boise, Coach Harsin is playing and relying on multiple quarterbacks. One is Brett Rypien, a prototypical pocket passer with a familiar — if not beloved — last name. The other is Montell Cozart. As Jesse Cassino mentioned, the offense doesn’t really change much under either guy.

NCAA Football: Troy at Boise State
Avery Williams found the end zone on a punt return in the opener. He’s scary!
Brian Losness-USA TODAY Sports

Cozart has a similar-looking skillset to Manny Wilkins from Arizona State. Mobile quarterback, yadda yadda, kinda going to keep being brought up until WSU proves it can stop one. Limiting MSU’s last weekend was a nice step in the right direction.

#Forces: The Broncos housed a punt from 81 yards out and returned another kick-off 55 yards. Their return teams are solid and the Wazzu special teams will be put the test.

Separation: In years past, the Coug receivers have had trouble getting open with teams that press-cover on the outside, especially when they were young in the system. I would expect Tavares Martin Jr. to break the press but we haven’t seen too much of the other receivers to know if it’s an issue or not.

B.J. Rains, who covers the Broncos at BlueTurfSports.com for the Idaho Press Tribune, was kind enough to lend his insights.

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

“That's a good question. Normally I would say the offense and their ability to put up points, but they only scored 24 against Troy and struggled with starter Brett Rypien in the game. I would expect the offense to bounce back and play better, but I would have to say the most confidence would be in the defense at this point.

“They held a talented Troy offense to just 215 yards and no offensive touchdowns and were very impressive. The group is young, but they are talented. I would expect the group to come out and play well, but facing this Washington State offense is whole different animal compared to what they faced last week. The offense should be the better side of the ball, but its hard to put my confidence in them based off what we saw last week against Troy.”


What has me confident about the Cougs

Hogmollies: Boise State’s offensive line did not put up a good showing against Troy. Their center is the only returning starter from last season and three of their guys made their first collegiate start last week. The Broncos struggled running the ball and gave up four sacks, one resulting in a fumble, and another pressure that lead to a forced pick-six.

Hercules Mata’afa and company should fare extremely well against their inexperience. Wazzu’s stunts are quite atypical, and all the pre-snap shifting around is geared to confuse this exact type of offensive line. Expect false starts and sacks.

BOOBIE goes WOO WOO: Coming off a wildly productive game last week, James Williams will have a lot of opportunities in the passing game against Boise State linebackers. The run game itself might struggle with Boise’s athletic front but I think the WSU offensive line has them beat for pass pro...and the RBs have every linebacker and nickel on that roster outmatched.

X & Z: While the Wazzu outside receivers didn’t get much showcasing last week, they’ll be heavily involved this week. Quarters and man are susceptible to deep crossing routes, and fades should come into play anytime there isn’t a free safety over top of either side.

So, Mr. Rains...

What about Wazzu should concern Boise State?

“There's plenty that concerns Boise State when they look at Washington State. The atmosphere will be electric and it's Boise State’s first road game of the year, which is concerning by itself. Once you get to the play on the field, both sides of the ball are concerning. Washington State's defense has a ton of speed, and according to Boise State's coaches, will be maybe the fastest team they play all season. The offensive weapons for Washington State and the challenge that presents for Boise State is obvious. Boise State's defense looked impressive last week, but this will be arguably the toughest test of the season.”


How I see this game playing out

WSU will have a game of mostly successful and largely methodical drives. The run game will probably be a little hit or miss but they string together a few 8-plus play scoring drives. Boise State’s offense can’t keep the WSU front from out of their backfield, leading to all sorts of problems. They manage a couple big plays and catch the defense a couple times, but it’s not enough.

Final score: WSU 38 - 24 Boise State

And B.J. ...

It all depends on how much better Boise State's offense can be from a week one win against Troy. If Brett Rypien plays like the All-Mountain West quarterback that he is, the Broncos can hang around. If he struggles again and Montell Cozart has to play significant snaps, things could get ugly. I expect the game to be fairly high scoring, and think Washington State has just a little bit too much firepower for the Broncos, especially at home. Washington State probably wins somewhere around 38-24, but the Broncos have a shot to win if they get another strong game from the defense and the Brett Rypien that we've seen for much of the past two years. It should be an exciting game, and I'm looking forward to it.


Huge thanks again to B.J. for answering our questions. See you guys in Martin.