Boise State jazzes up offense, stymies Utah State drives to win Mountain West opener

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Communication issues between Boise State coaches and players contributed to the Broncos’ offensive struggles in their first three games, according to offensive coordinator Tim Plough, so he got up close and personal with the action on Saturday.

Plough called the first three games of the season from high above the field, in the coaches booth in the press box. On Saturday, he called the Mountain West opener at Utah State from the sideline — and Boise State put its most creative game plan of the season to good use in a 27-3 win over the Aggies.

“From a knowledge standpoint, trying to get answers during the game and trying to communicate them ... is sometimes just easier if I’m down there and can relay answers to guys,” Plough said after the game.

Plough said it was actually the players who requested that he be on the sideline this week. The Broncos’ leadership group went to head coach Andy Avalos to discuss how the team can improve, and one suggestion was making Plough more accessible during the game.

“That was a really cool moment for me, being a new coach and trying to earn the respect of the players and let them know I care about them,” Plough said. “For them to say that, how could I say no?”

With as creative as Boise State (2-2) got in the running game Saturday, it’s probably a good thing Plough was close enough to the action to keep everything running smoothly.

The Broncos had struggled to produce yards on the ground this season — averaging just 67.3 per contest heading into Saturday’s game — so they decided to turn to nontraditional means.

In the first half, Boise State players not listed as running backs carried the ball nine times, and the Broncos lined up eight times during the game with someone other than quarterback Hank Bachmeier taking the snap. Two of those plays were negated by penalties.

Wide receiver Khalil Shakir took snaps in a wildcat formation four times, and wide receivers CT Thomas and Octavius Evans got carries on jets sweeps and reverses. Bachmeier finished second on the team with 44 yards rushing, and freshman quarterback Taylen Green even recorded his first rushing attempt in the fourth quarter.

Boise State finished with 148 rushing yards — 87 of which came from non-running backs.

“We just felt like we had a bunch of guys on our team that needed to touch the ball, and maybe the best way to do that is get them involved in the run game,” Plough said. “Maybe that helps us expand our run game a little bit and create some more explosive (plays).”

Running backs get involved for Boise State, too

The Broncos got some production out of their running backs as well. George Holani — who also took some snaps in wildcat packages — put some yards together late to lead the team with 46 yards on the ground. Oregon transfer Cyrus Habibi-Likio picked up 55 yards on a swing pass to spark a drive that ended with a missed field goal, and 240-pound senior Andrew Van Buren ran through a couple of tackle attempts on a 2-yard touchdown run that gave the Broncos a 10-0 lead in the first quarter.

Avalos said the Broncos took advantage of an attacking defense on Saturday.

“If teams are going to be that aggressive, then we have to get them mixed up with their eyes,” Avalos said. “We’ve got to just continue to mix it up and get multiple guys the ball.”

Boise State’s creative calls weren’t limited to the running game. What may have been the most imaginative play of the game resulted in the Broncos’ final touchdown. And it was scored by a player who doesn’t usually touch the ball.

Facing third-and-goal from Utah State’s 3-yard line in the fourth quarter, Bachmeier found defensive tackle Scott Matlock wide open in the end zone for an easy score. Matlock was lined up as an extra tight end in the Broncos’ jumbo set, and he trotted behind the defense for the first touchdown of his career.

That was the cherry on top of a career day for Matlock. He finished with five tackles and a sack, and also blocked a field goal.

“Anything I can do to help the team, I’ll do it, no matter if it’s blocking, catching touchdowns or whatever,” said Matlock, who added that he caught some flack from teammates on the sideline for bobbling the reception.

Boise State has now won 22 consecutive conference openers and six straight games against Utah State. The Broncos (2-2) are 1-0 in the Mountain West.

“It’s a good feeling for everybody — coaches and players,” Matlock said. “It’s the start of conference play and the start of the climb up the mountain. We obviously know how good we can be, but it all depends on us and how we play.”

Bend but don’t break defense, with more turnovers created

Utah State (3-1) suffered its first defeat of the season as it dropped to 0-1 in the league. The Aggies’ high-powered offense moved the ball at will at times, but the Broncos came up with stops when they were needed most.

Utah State had 317 yards of offense in the first half but went into intermission down 10-0. The Aggies finished with 443 yards but didn’t score a point until kicker Connor Coles connected on a 20-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter, a score that made it 17-3.

They were limited to only those points despite four trips to the red zone, one of which ended in an interception. After going 6-for-12 on third down in the first half, they were 0-for-5 in the second.

“They got in the red zone and we battled, and that was a huge emphasis all week,” Avalos said. “It was a huge emphasis to study and understand who (the Aggies) are so when they get down there, it’s three (points) or nothing.”

The Broncos’ first points of the game followed the first of their three takeaways.

After a pass bounced off of Utah State wide receiver Justin McGriff’s hands, Boise State safety Tyreque Jones plucked it out of the air. That interception led to a 28-yard field goal from Jonah Dalmas that made it 3-0.

Boise State got the ball back again early in the second quarter after cornerback Tyric LeBeauf snagged an interception in the end zone, ending a Utah State drive. It was his third interception of the season, and it set up a drive that ended with Dalmas missing a 50-yard field goal try.

The Broncos’ third takeaway of the game was a fumble forced on a sack by nose tackle Jackson Cravens. It was recovered on Utah State’s 15-yard line by edge Demitri Washington, and that set up Matlock’s touchdown catch.

Creating turnovers was the Broncos’ primary focus this offseason.

“We’re talking about mentality, and we’re starting to see it,” Avalos said. “Our mentality starts with how we respond. That’s football. It starts with our week of prep and how we build the confidence to play a certain way. And when things don’t go right, we stay in the fight.”

As if Boise State needed any help in the second half, Utah State gifted the Broncos great field position early in the third quarter with a fake punt from deep in its own territory. Boise State snuffed it out and got the ball on the Aggies’ 18-yard line. Three plays later, Bachmeier found Shakir on a 3-yard TD pass for a 17-0 lead.

Shakir finished the game with seven catches for 113 yards — his second 100-yard receiving game of the season. His most impressive catch of the day, though, came on a pass that sailed just out of bounds. Whether he’s running the ball or catching it, Shakir’s teammates aren’t shocked to see him make mind-boggling plays anymore.

“I don’t want to take anything away from it, but it’s just Khalil,” said Bachmeier, who finished 22-of-39 for 287 yards, with two touchdowns and an interception. “When he makes a play like that, it’s normal. It’s not normal, but I’ve seen it so many times now, it’s normal.”

Boise State is back in action at home next Saturday against Nevada. Kickoff is 1:30 p.m.

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