Broncos defense ready for spotlight
BOISE, Idaho -- For years, Boise State has made its name off its high-flying offense. Scoring 40 points a game? Check. Quarterbacks that pass for 3,000 yards? Check. Statue of Liberty plays? Absolutely.
Quietly, and without a lot of national recognition, the Boise State defense has been as solid as any unit in the country over the past several years. It started to gain more widespread attention after the Fiesta Bowl, when the Broncos held TCU to 36 yards rushing and forced Andy Dalton into three interceptions, including one returned for a touchdown.
Now the defense really takes center stage in the season opener against No. 10 Virginia Tech on Monday. The biggest storyline: How will they stop Ryan Williams, Darren Evans and Tyrod Taylor, the heart of the Hokies' offense?
"It's a good question. You got any answers for that?" new Boise State defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski said. "They have two really outstanding backs. It's going to come down to fundamentals of us coming off blocks, leveraging the ball. Both those guys are so good at running the football, it's going to take more than one guy. We talk about hunting backs so if one guy misses the next guy's there. We really need to get as many guys there as possible."
Boise State returns 10 starters to its experienced defense, one that finished last season ranked No. 14 in the country in total defense (300 ypg). Over the past 10 seasons, only its 2006 defense gave up fewer yards per game. The defensive line is loaded with talent, from All-WAC defensive end Ryan Winterswyk to second-team WAC tackle Billy Winn to unheralded Shea McClellin, one of the best players of fall camp.
The linebackers are experienced, too, and nickel back Winston Venable plays a hybrid linebacker/safety position that allows him to make many tackles. He was third last season with 63 and third with eight tackles for a loss. Safety Jeron Johnson also provides much help to support the run.
"Either if we get credit or we don't get credit we have to play the same way," cornerback Brandyn Thompson said.
Boise State has struggled with power backs in the past, most notably Ryan Mathews of Fresno State, who ran for 234 yards and three touchdowns last season. Stats like that prove to their detractors that they won't be able to slow down Evans and Williams. But Boise State has proven it can play well against the run and slow down mobile quarterbacks. It held eight opponents to less than 100 yards rushing last season.
There also are questions about whether Boise State will be any different under Kwiatkowski, in his first year as coordinator after taking over for Justin Wilcox. Kwiatkowski and his players maintain they will continue to use a multiple-set defense, using different looks depending on the opponent. They did that against TCU, and they most certainly will do that against the much bigger Hokies.
"You're going to see the same look," Venable said. "We have a lot of versatile players. Our D-ends can stand up and look like linebackers, and they can also put their hand in the dirt and play a strict D-end. We throw around a lot of different looks, but I don't think there's going to be a big difference between last year and this year."
Defensive leader Kyle Wilson is also gone; the Jets drafted him in the first round. Jamar Taylor, who redshirted last season, is scheduled to take over as the starter, so don't be surprised if Virginia Tech tries to go after him early. Middle linebacker will also feature a new starter, either Derrell Acrey or Byron Hout.
Despite the changes, Venable says the defense maintains its vicious attitude, behind Winn and McClellin. As for getting more publicity this season, he will take that, too.
"It's good that we get that recognition, maybe we can strike some fear into our opponents before the game even starts," Venable said.
Andrea Adelson is a national college football blogger for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.