Who has the edge? Boise State Edition Part II
LARAMIE — People like to say that the game of football is not played on paper.
They are right — but it’s still fun to look.
Today, we will breakdown the defenses of the Boise State Broncos (7-1, 4-0) and Wyoming Cowboys (6-2, 3-1). The two squads will meet Saturday night on the blue turf of Albertson's Stadium with plenty on Mountain West Conference championship implications on the line.
So, who has the edge on defense?
Solomon Byrd just keeps getting better by the week. The Cowboys freshman defensive end leads the team with six sacks, but he's no liability in the run game. Byrd has 31 tackles and two forced fumbles in his first real opportunity on the Pokes defensive line. He is starting to take some of the pressure off Wyoming's other edge rusher, Garrett Crall. The former walk-on from Ohio has four sacks to go along with 32 tackles on the season. Josiah Hall is arguably the most hated man in Boise. You might remember his "safety dance" after Brett Rypien fumbled the ball through the back of the end zone, allowing the Pokes to snag an upset over the then-13th-ranked Broncos in Laramie in the fall of 2016. Hall has battled injuries this season but has still picked up 2.5 sacks. The interior of the Pokes defensive line was in serious question when Ravontae Holt was hurt during fall camp. Instead, Javaree Jackson, Cole Godbout, Victor Jones and Mario Mora have turned into one of the most dominant fronts in the country, helping lead the Cowboys' run defense to the No. 14-ranking in the nation, allowing just 98.4 yards per game. Those guys have also had success getting to the quarterback. That foursome has accounted for seven of Wyoming's conference-leading 26 sacks. So much for them being the weak link of the defense, huh?
Get to know the name Curtis Weaver. He's the "big rascal" Wyoming head coach Craig Bohl referred to in his weekly press conference. Weaver isn't just big -- 6-foot, 3-inches and 265 pounds -- he's destructive. The redshirt junior already has a team-leading 10.5 sacks this season, rotating between the defensive line and outside linebacker in the Broncos' 3-4 defensive scheme. No one else on Boise State's defense has more than 2.5. He's a Bednarik Award semifinalist and was named Midseason All-American by The Athletic. None of this is a surprise, Weaver is the Mountain West Conference's all-time sack leader with 31. He passed some pretty impressive names in that category: Jerry Hughes (TCU), Jan Jorgensen (BYU) and Wyoming's John Fletcher. Boise State also has a pair of seniors on the line, Chase Hatada and Sonatane Lui, who have combined for 57 tackles and 4.5 sacks. David Moa is another big man on the line. These guys are stout, holding opponents to just 116 yards per game on the ground, which is good enough for 23rd in the nation. Of the team's 22 sacks, this unit is responsible for 15 of them.
This has arguably been the Cowboys most solid unit this fall. And it all starts with one guy -- Logan Wilson. The Casper product was recently named a semifinalist for the Butkus Award, which is given to the nations' best linebacker. If that isn't impressive enough, Wilson is the only name on that list of 12 who doesn't play in a Power-5 conference. Yep, he's that good. And according to him, his teammates and the numbers, he is playing his best ball during his senior campaign. Wilson is the nation's second active leading tackler, and has added 62 more so far this season. He also has six pass breakups and an interception. Wilson is the straw that stirs the drink for this defense. Cassh Maluia has quietly been having his best season, too. The senior from Compton, Calif., has 33 tackles and leads the team with two interceptions. The emergence of Chad Muma has also put some at ease. Life after Wilson is coming soon. All Muma has done is rack up 39 tackles to go along with a sack. He is an up-and-comer. This unit doesn't skip a beat when Ben Wisdorf is inserted, either.
Yes, Weaver technically is listed as a linebacker, but he's more likely to creep up to the line and blow past a tackle. That doesn't mean Boise State doesn't have plenty of other play makers at that position. Riley Whimpey is the Broncos' second-leading tackler with 37. He also has a sack and three pass breakups. Benton Wickersham is Boise State's best cover linebacker. He has swatted three passes away and picked off another to go along with 30 tackles and 0.5 sacks. Ezekiel Noa and Demitri Washington are another pair of speedsters in the linebacking corps. The athleticism on the unit is unquestioned. They have helped lead the Broncos to the 37th overall defense in the nation, allowing just 350 yards per outing. They are also a key reason the Broncos are so good at getting off the field on third down. They blanket tight ends and can get to the edge.
Wyoming's cornerback situation is a scary one. Azizi Hearn, Tyler Hall and Jordan Murry are the only true corners for Wyoming who have really played this season. Braden Smith, a safety, has helped out on the edge. So has nickle back, Keyon Blankenbaker. Depth is a major concern on the Pokes' back end. Allen Smith is gone. So is Antonio Hull. CJ Coldon, who had a big start to the season, was lost with injury. Bohl calls this group "razor thin." He's not wrong. Murry is a true freshman. He was forced to burn his redshirt after playing in the past four games. Where the Pokes are solid back there is at the safety position. Alijah Halliburton hits everything that moves -- and it goes down. The senior leads the team with 76 tackles, a pair of sacks and he also picked up his first-career interception against Nevada. Rome Weber, the freshman from California, has been steady all season, recording 21 tackles and an interception. Esaias Gandy also has a pair of pass breakups and a fumble recovery. This group has improved big time over the past three games. They did rank dead last in the nation in passing yards allowed. They've crept up to 121st overall. allowing 288.8 yards per game through the air. Are they really getting better or did they take advantage of the competition? We will surely see on Saturday night in Boise, where freshman quarterback Hank Bachmeier has been lighting up defenses since the moment he arrived on campus. The Broncos also have a deep stable of wide outs. Four of them have more than 400 yards receiving.
If there's one area the Broncos defense has struggled on the back end, it's in the secondary. Sound familiar? They aren't giving up the amount of yards the Cowboys are, but over the last two weeks -- a loss to BYU and a 52-42 shootout win in San Jose -- these guys are giving up big plays in bunches. San Jose State quarterback, Josh Love, torched the Broncos for 438 yards and two touchdowns through the air last Saturday night. That's not to say Boise State doesn't have plenty of capable athletes on the back end. Outside of Weaver, their best defender might be safety Kekaula Kaniho, who leads the team with 38 tackles. He also has a pair of sacks and six pass breakups. Kaniho was injured against SJSU but is expected to be in uniform Saturday night in Boise. Fellow safety, Kekoa Nawahine, leads the team with two interceptions. Jalen Walker is the Broncos' best cover corner with 33 tackles and five breakups. Avery Williams will line up on the other side. Not only is he a great cover man, he is also lightning fast and returned a 66-yard punt for a touchdown last week. He might have been the difference in a win and a stunning upset at the hands of the upstart Spartans. As a defense, the Broncos have just five interceptions this season. What has made this defense less dominant than in years past is its inability to create more takeaways. They have 10 overall. The issue, their offense also has 10 turnovers.
ADVANTAGE: Boise State