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A Reasonably Anticipatory Assessment of: Boise State

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A random look at next fall, sans the inevitable injuries, suspensions and other pratfalls of the too-long interim.
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The least you should know about Boise State... What's Changed: Jared Zabransky was much more of a caretaker than his prolific predecessors, Bart Hendricks and Ryan Dinwiddie, and still was prone to ill-timed mistakes under pressure (witness his infamous four-INT game at Georgia to open 2005, his 15-32, two-INT game at Fresno State later that year, and the weird interception that nearly cost the Fiesta Bowl in January). Yet he goes out 34-4 as a starter, all but one of the losses against ranked teams and none at home, an immortal Gem State hero for the end of the Fiesta Bowl and a millions-selling EA Sports cover boy. Taylor Tharp, by contrast, watched.

In three years, Tharp's only thrown a few passes in a game that wasn't a blowout (the '05 Humanitarian Bowl). He was completely terrific against Louisiana Tech and Utah State last year, 7 of 8 with a touchdown in games BSU led 55-14 and 42-10, respectively, against the country's 119th and 116th-ranked defenses, but he lost ground in the spring to the younger and very ironically-named Bush Hamdan, the proverbial gunslinger to Tharp's efficient manager. High-flying as it can be, this offense has never had a star receiver, but Zabransky's top four combined for two-thirds of his completions and 18 of 25 touchdowns, and all of them are in NFL training camps; the same four guys were the leading receivers in 2005, too, leaving a 5-9 white guy as one of the "breakout" playmakers of the upcoming season. Not to diss Vinny Perretta or his halfback-pass-throwing ingenuity in the clutch - or BSU's recent tradition of offensive reloading - but the passing game here hasn't had a personnel overhaul of this magnitude on both ends since, well, since before the NCAA started tracking stats online in 2000. So, I dunno, ask Dirk Koetter about it. The point is, we know nothing about these gentlemen, and the success of their predecessors is no guarantee of its continuation.

Eh, blocking, no blocking. Ian Johnson prefers blocking, but it's all good.
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What's the Same: Tharp and Hamdan or some combination thereof ought to be well-protected by the line, which is unanimously regarded as the best in the conference due mainly to two certain all-WACkers, Ryan Clady and Jeff Cavender, and a likely third, Tad Miller, with several dozen consecutive starts between them. How much they're responsible for Ian Johnson's record-breaking sophomore season, and how much more Johnson brings to the table over just any old slightly undersized back, is purely academic; unless he's made soft and docile by domestic bliss, no defense on this fall's schedule is going to stop or even slow Johnson, in the same way no defense on last fall's schedule stopped or even slowed Johnson, including Oklahoma, which yielded four and a half per carry after holding its Big 12 opponents all year to three. Johnson is fast and tough, and the best defense he'll see this year will be probably be Southern Miss, so even against stacked lines, the only way he won't have 100 yards in every game is if a) he's hurt (he missed a whole game with a serious collapsed lung) or b) the pass is effective enough to limit his carries. Any attempts to neutralize IJ will only come at the expense of giving up plays elsewhere, if the new quarterback can make them.

Don't Know What You Got Till It's Gone: I wanted to demonstrate how much the defense thrived on turnovers (+11), but, really, it was just a nasty show most of the time - the only games that might have turned on opponents' turnovers were Hawaii and Oklahoma, and in the latter, obviously, Boise had to rally to overcome its own killer giveaway. The rest of the time, the Broncos were getting after the quarterback and leading the WAC in every major stat category, rush, pass, pass efficiency, total yards, scoring, whatever. They did everything well.

Where it was overlooked as a legit top 20 defense, the effects of attrition in the front seven are probably being undershot. In terms of yards and points, last year's unit was better than any under Dan Hawkins, which was in many ways the culmination of the careers of Korey Hall, league defensive player of the year, and all-conference picks Andrew Browning and Colt Brooks, the top pass rushers. No defense suffers those kinds of losses lightly, especially up the middle, where the solidity of Browning and Hall gives way to new tackles and a redshirt freshman middle linebacker. The secondary is in pretty good shape, personnel-wise, but it might be forced to cover a little longer than it's been used to the last two years. This will only be an issue in the handful of games the opposing offense isn't thoroughly outclassed, but Marty Tadman is already an active run support safety who'd rather not be caught up in the wash all the time because the front needs the extra body.

Overly Optimistic Post-Spring Chatter: National exposure, BCS riches, movie rights, ESPYs, tabloid weddings, trick plays - all wrong for Chris Petersen, who'd rather his team be known as a fundamentally sound, "blue-collar outfit that does things the hard way." To that end, all Fiesta gear was banned from facilities during the spring while players get their minds right and other cliches.

But who, who is the starting quarterback? Hamdan could barely manage a smile after the last practice, but that link is all about Bush:

Since no one else is willing to say it, here it goes: Bush Hamdan will be Boise State's starting quarterback when the Broncos open their season against Weber State under the lights at Bronco Stadium on Aug. 30.
Hamdan, a redshirt junior, took the lead in the Broncos' four-way quarterback derby during spring practice -- even if Boise State football coaches aren't conceding that anyone is a favorite...
But Hamdan has the best mix. Impressive arm strength. An ability to make plays when they aren't there or buy time with his feet. A desire to improve, through film study and experimentation. And a solid grasp of the Broncos' intricate offense.

Plus -- and this is what I think will make the difference when it comes time for the Boise State coaches to pick a starter -- Hamdan has the intangibles of a winning quarterback.

"He's kind of got that moxie about him in terms of leadership skills. I don't think you have to have a great personality to be a great leader, but I think it can help things," coach Chris Petersen said. "He brings a lot of those things to the table."

You can see it in the way others respond to him, in his reactions, in his responses. He pulled a teammate aside during Friday's scrimmage after a bad alignment forced him to use a timeout. Linebacker Derrell Acrey picked up Hamdan and then, in good spirit, patted him on the head several times after Hamdan took a shot on the sideline.
And Hamdan spent much of spring ball moving forward. Despite his own rough critique of Friday's performance, Hamdan produced some of the game's brightest spots.

He led two long scoring drives: a 65-yarder for a touchdown and a 53-yarder that led to a field goal. On the touchdown drive, Hamdan, while facing enormous pressure, somehow found tailback Jeremy Avery in the flat to keep the possession alive.

"That was instinct football and making a play when they have to," Petersen said.

He should have had a touchdown pass on that series, but his well-thrown ball was dropped in the end zone.

Reprters, TSA checkpoints go crazy for Bush Hamdan.
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The general air seems to echo that sentiment: we like Bush, the take-charge swashbuckler with more eligibility ahead of him. But Tharp, anecdotal evidence to the contrary, had enough nice performances to remain on top of every post-spring depth chart I've seen except the one in Athlon, unless you decide to ignore the big "OR" on the BSU media department's best guess. And so it is the mystery.

(P.S.: The wedding is July 28)

Boise State on YouTube: The "ultimate underdog" aspect of the Fiesta Bowl was seriously overrated by a fairy tale-starved public that hasn't been paying enough attention to BSU's success the last five years: Oklahoma was only a touchdown favorite, same as Ohio State in the mythical championship game and less than fellow bowl victim Clemson and near-victims Texas, Texas Tech, West Virginia and Boston College. Why no movie deals for upstart Utah when it hooked-and-laddered its way to a perfect season in the Fiesta? Or little Wyoming, a 12-point underdog when it improbably knocked off UCLA in the 2004 Las Vegas Bowl? Well, that's very nice, guys, but try it with a little flair next time:

My first instinct when I watch the entire sequence again is "that will never get old," but my second is a montage of slow pans over still glossies in a darkened locker room, illuminated by flash bulbs, and Doug Flutie in the Orange Bowl. I give the good will on that clip till October. See Also: Spend just another a night with the Boise Police DUI enforcement team ... Trick plays haven’t always been so kind ... A rather, well, interesting punt return, pre-blue turf ... And the Fiesta Bowl finale by David Chase. Well done. Really makes you think. Conventional Wisdom: Hawaii-Boise State shapes up as one of the games of the year, and one of the real battles among the prognostiscenti: Phil Steele, Athlon and Lindy's, feeling bold, digging the emerging the scene, like the Rainbows or Warriors or whatever on top of the WAC; Street and Smith's and The Sporting News take the chalk in Boise. There's no consensus, but the difference could be a lot: every mag has one or the other in its top 25, but none of them have both. And while Steele likes Hawaii enough to forecast an undefeated, Boise-like run to the BCS, nobody thinks the Broncos will be good enough to turn that trick again their own selves. Where there is agreement, among those who specify, anyway, it's in favor of the old Boise standby, the Humanitarian Bowl (TSN still has it by its name the last two years, the MPC Computers Bowl).

Best-Case: Not only for Boise State, but for the WAC and probably all mid-majors, there could be no better scenario than 11-0 Boise visiting 11-0 Hawaii on Thanksgiving Friday for a BCS bid. It's shortsighted to write off Nevada or brooding Fresno State or maybe even pass-happy New Mexico State - not to mention, in Boise's case, non-conference games with Washington and Southern Miss - but both teams' schedules are generally viewed as a one-game season for all the January lucre, and it's fun to think of the season playing out that way, however long the odds. An uncontested, debris-filled spectacle on the islands would also create a much bigger splash going into the BCS, media-wise and strength-of-schedule-wise, than creaming Nevada did for Boise in last year's clincher - Idahoans are a humble people, certainly, but where mythical championship fantasies hopes are concerned, spectacle can only work in their favor.

Ah, the old Midas touch. Seriously, careful with that.
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Did I say mythical championship? No, no. That hypothetical remains outside the realm of optimism. But a return to the BCS? Oh, si, si. Howls and indignancy if the Broncos run the table and don't get the courtesy bid.

Worst-Case: TSN lists Southern Miss over Boise on Sept. 29 as a stomach-turning, dream-squashing "head-scratcher," about which I have nothing to add, but there's no jinx at stake in speculation of upsets by Washington and any two of the abovementioned WAC upstarts (Nevada, Fresno State or New Mexico State). San Jose State, in respect for its eight-win season and near-hit against BSU last year, should be added to that list, though SJSU - like New Mexico State and Nevada - has to play in the black hole that is the blue turf, where they'll win only if the Broncos' quarterback situation is historically atrocious. Fresno and Washington are the de facto threats on the road, along with, of course, Hawaii at season's end. That adds to 2005 redux: 8-4, 7-5 with truly incompetent signal-calling, and a date with a middling, miffed ACC straggler in the Humanitarian Bowl.

Non-Binding Forecast: For all Steele's (mostly justified) Hawaii love, this fact remains: Boise State is 39-1 in the WAC since 2002, its second year in the league, and has won all five conference championships in that span. BSU hasn't lost a game it was favored to win, against anybody, since it joined the conference; even against the spread, it's 26-10 at home. The only recent parallel for that level of sustained dominance within a league is Florida State's reign over the ACC in the nineties, the sort of extended power play whose demise should never be reported before it's confirmed dead, embalmed, in the ground and covered. And then shackled and chained, too, and then encased in some sort of high tech mausoleum, picked up by a crane and thrown into the middle of the ocean, as Fresno State found out when it was prematurely assumed the Bulldogs had killed the big blue witch in 2005, about three weeks before Boise wrapped up WAC title number four.

But here's Hawaii, which has its own record of excellence at home (37-10 since 2001), which played BSU within a touchdown last year, returns a quarterback off one genuine masterpiece of a season and will almost certainly be undefeated when it hosts the defending champs, and the "changing of the guard" storyline is too attractive  to pass up; it's summer, and games are played on paper in the summer, and the paper says Hawaii.There's no way, with Boise replacing its entire passing game and the most productive portion of its front seven, to go against Hawaii under the circumstances, except out of respect for the Broncos' run.

Otherwise, there's a frustrating, quarterback-induced loss lurking somewhere in the first month and a half, most likely at Washington or Fresno State. Is 10-2 a disappointment?

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The assessments are up for grabs! You, too, can have your team profiled, with the right popular support. Meanwhile, previous assessments, reasonable and absurd ...

2006 Record
13-0 (8-0 WAC, Champions)
Past Five Years
58-7 (39-1 WAC)
Returning Starters, Roughly
11 (5 Offense, 6 Defense)
Best Player
You know how you know Ian Johnson is good? Other than the Heisman votes, I mean? The NCAA feels compelled to crack down on his side business, crocheting knit caps and scarves, and limit both the guest list and the gifts allowed at his upcoming wedding. Did he say "business"? Income? Heh heh, there must have been some misunderstanding – maybe some downtrodden fellow on the mean streets of Boise or someplace could use a bean– No. The NCAA prohibits charity crochet for the good of student athletes everywhere. Do not even think about it.

It may seem extreme in the short term, but this is good, Ian. It's like the IRS: they only come after you when you're somebody. When you can fly. Ian Johnson is definitely somebody.

Bizarre Tradition
Boise State was still a decade from even moving up to Division I-A, toiling in the Big Sky conference, when A.D. Gene Bleymaie made a completely arbitrary, bizarre decision to install the blue turf. Anything to stand out to recruits, to give the home crowd something unique of its own. Turf: this is the only thing most people even knew about Boise State before January, if they'd heard of the school at all. It's not actually an avian killing field, or even kind of illegal, unfortunately, but not only has BSU won almost 80 percent of its games in Bronco Stadium since it was built in 1970, it's had four times as many undefeated seasons there (12) as losing seasons (three). Because visiting teams can't see them!
Bizarre Item of Dubious Interest
All right, dammit, "hook and lateral" or "hook and ladder"? USA Today says the latter (er, no pun intended), and so does Phil Steele, and the the Worldwide Leader (well, only sometimes) and, for a little extra-sporting oomph, so does Salon. And, as it happens, so do I. Collectively, I’d say we put this "hook-and-lateral" malapropism to bed. Amateurs.
March 12: Tulane March 13: Baylor March 16: UCLA March 20: Kentucky
March 21: Oregon March 22: Arizona State March 23: BYU March 27: Missouri
March 28: Troy March 29: Iowa State April 3: Alabama April 4: Akron
April 5: Cincinnati April 9: UL-Monroe April 10: Army April 11: Syracuse
April 18: Florida April 20: Southern Miss April 25: Southern Cal May 1: North Texas
May 3: SMU May 8: Nevada May 14: Tennessee May 21: TCU
May 24: Notre Dame May 29: UAB May 30: Georgia May 31: Temple
June 1: Houston June 12: Wyoming June 14: Nebraska June 25: Florida International
June 27: Oregon State July 2: Michigan July 6: Washington