Broncos try to rebound from flop at end of last season
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By TIM BOOTH
Four plays have hung over Brett Rypien and Boise State for months.
That's how close the Broncos were a year ago to playing in a New Year's Six bowl game. Four plays total in a pair of regular-season losses to Wyoming and Air Force that cost the Broncos not only a big payday, but also a shot at a Mountain West Conference title.
"We were nine points away from going undefeated in the regular season and it was really four plays that could have really changed the game. ... It really frustrated me," Rypien said.
The disappointing end to the 2016 season has hung over the Broncos through the offseason. But for the first time in many years, the questions about the Broncos as the 2017 season begins may outweigh the certainties, even if they are being pegged as favorites in the Mountain West.
"We have a young football team. They're talented. We see some good football players out there physically," coach Bryan Harsin said. "A lot of it's been about mentality, each and every day, overcoming some adversity, just some things that a more seasoned guy has been through a little bit. So we're accelerating that with our players."
Boise State lost at midseason last year at Wyoming but cost itself a chance to play in the Mountain West title game with a 27-20 loss at Air Force on the final week. That was followed by a 31-12 rout at the hands of Baylor in the Cactus Bowl. It was the first time since 2007 and just the second time since the Broncos became an FBS program in 1996 that Boise State finished a season with consecutive losses.
That speaks to the Broncos' general excellence over the last two decades. It also speaks to the standard that's been set and how a thud like last season is not acceptable.
"We've ended our season usually with a win. Not last year," Harsin said. "That taste, that's been with us ever since we got back and we started our training again. You're only as good as your last performance. That's really what it is."
Here are things to look for this season:
JEREMY'S GONE: Jeremy McNichols did more than most running backs. Last season, McNichols was responsible for 27 touchdowns and nearly 2,200 yards from scrimmage as a runner and receiver. McNichols averaged 5.4 yards per carry and 6.2 yards every time he touched the ball.
McNichols understandably bolted for the NFL but his departure left Boise State barren at running back. Alexander Mattison is the only returning running back with more than 100 yards rushing last season. Rather than going with one primary back as the Broncos did in recent years with a running game that included McNichols, Jay Ajayi and Doug Martin, it could be a committee at least to start.
"We've got to be creative, we've got to distribute the ball, we've got to find ways to get it to the right guys at the right time," Harsin said. "It's been more of an emphasis on when you get your opportunity, let's finish."
CATCH THIS: Along with the departure of McNichols, the Broncos lost receiving leader Thomas Sperbeck. Sperbeck finished his Boise State career as the all-time leader in yards receiving and fourth in receptions. Sperbeck had 80 catches and nine touchdowns last season.
The Broncos return big-play wideout Cedrick Wilson, who had 11 TDs, but the rest of the receiving corps is inexperienced.
GET THE BALL: In the midst of winning 10 games last season, the Broncos defense forced just nine turnovers. It's an even more stunning number when considering the Broncos had 22 interceptions in the 2015 season.
"It's one of those we've gone back and watched," Harsin said. "Were there opportunities? Yes. Were we creating opportunities? Yes. Did we execute on the opportunity? No. Why? That was something that we were focusing on."
OPENING ACT: Boise State's schedule begins with a Saturday afternoon game against Troy. It's the rest of September that's all over the map. The Broncos play at Washington State on a Saturday night, return home for a Thursday game against New Mexico and finish off the opening month hosting Virginia on a Friday night. Because of the odd opening schedule, Harsin restructured fall camp to mimic the turnarounds the Broncos will face.
"We needed to do it now, and not just be ready for it when it happens to us," Harsin said.
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Updated August 17, 2017