Star Of A New Era
Atlanta, GA (SportsNetwork.com) - A new era in Boise State football begins on Thursday night, as the Broncos travel to Atlanta to clash with 18th-ranked Ole Miss at the Georgia Dome in the first-ever meeting between the two programs.
For more than a decade, Chris Petersen was part of the Boise State family, first as an offensive coordinator (2001-05) and then the head coach (2006-2013), presiding over one of the most successful football programs since the start of 2000. However, late last season Petersen decided to make the jump to the Pac-12 and the University of Washington, opening the door for the Broncos to bring on former BSU assistant Bryan Harsin to fill the role.
"We are extremely excited in our selection of Bryan Harsin as the next head football coach at Boise State," Director of Athletics Mark Coyle said in December. "Bryan is one of the top young head coaches in college football and we are thrilled to bring him back to Boise to lead the Bronco program. Bryan played a key role in the development of the football program as an assistant for 10 years at Boise State and we look forward to his leadership as we continue the ascension of Bronco football."
Harsin, who most recently was the head coach at Arkansas State for the 2013 campaign, takes over a Broncos group that took a step backward last season with an overall record of only 8-5 and a mark of 6-2 in Mountain West Conference action. Boise State was invited to play Oregon State in the Hawaii Bowl, but came up short in a 38-23 final on Christmas Eve.
As for the Rebels, under the direction of Hugh Freeze who is now entering his third season as head coach, they started off 2013 with three straight victories, weathered a three-game slide, and then rattled off another four wins. Eventually, Ole Miss found itself 7-5 at the end of the regular season, earning the team an invite to the Music City Bowl against Georgia Tech.
Ole Miss, which put up a 3-5 record in the SEC and lost the last two games in the regular season, bounced back to take down the Yellow Jackets in a 25-17 final in Nashville in late December. It was the sixth straight bowl win for the Rebels, one of the longest runs nationally.
"I have been careful to say that one game doesn't really define where a program is, particularly in the early stages," coach Freeze said. "I still believe that, but I also said that there is no question that winning a bowl game is very advantageous heading into recruiting and the offseason and for the confidence of our young men."
Coincidentally, Freeze was also the head coach at Arkansas State for one year in 2011, leading the Red Wolves to the Sun Belt Conference title, en route to being named the SBC Coach of the Year.
Ranked 20th in the nation in total offense last season with 476.0 ypg, the Broncos figure to take a step or two back in that department this time around as they learn some new schemes.
Grant Hedrick is the only returning player who has experience at quarterback for BSU. He appeared in all 13 games a season ago, completing 69.0 percent of his pass attempts for 1,825 yards and 16 touchdowns against five interceptions. Often playing during so-called garbage time at the end of games, Hedrick will have to refocus as he most likely takes on the starting role right out of the gate.
Named to the Davey O'Brien National Quarterback Award Watch List, Hedrick has the luxury of having Matt Miller on his side. An All-Mountain West selection each of the past two seasons, Miller led the team with a school-record 88 receptions for 1,140 yards and 12 touchdowns a year ago and has caught at least one pass in each of his 39 career games, the longest active streak in the nation.
Also giving Hedrick a reliable outlet down the field is Shane Williams-Rhodes who, in just 11 games, grabbed 77 balls for 702 yards and six touchdowns.
Coming out of the backfield, BSU has a horse in Jay Ajayi. The running back has been named to the watch lists for the Walter Camp Player of the Year, Maxwell and Doak Walker awards. Of the 50 players on the Walter Camp list, Ajayi is one of only seven running backs, and is one of the four players representing the Mountain West Conference.
Ajayi raced for 1,425 yards and 18 touchdowns on 249 carries, but those attempts also took a toll on the back as he had trouble maintaining possession of the ball occasionally.
It used to be that the dominant offense of the Broncos went hand-in-hand with a stifling defense, but that was not necessarily the case a season ago when the team allowed 24.8 ppg. Granted, that number was good enough for second in the MWC, but still ranked the program just 50th nationally, a far cry from some of the other stupendous efforts put forth in previous years under Petersen.
The good news here is that the top two tacklers from 2013 and five of the top six are making their way back to Boise to try and show that last season's numbers were a bit of a fluke. Linebackers Ben Weaver and Corey Bell were in on much of the action as they delivered 89 and 76 tackles, respectively, but by the time the action got to them in the middle of the field opponents had already gained key yardage.
The big loss for the group is along the defensive line where three starters are no longer putting on the pads. The most significant of the trio is Demarcus Lawrence, who was not only third on the unit with 72 stops, he was one of the top players in the country in terms of tackles for loss with 20.5. Lawrence and his team-high 10.5 sacks will be hard to replace for sure. Let's also not forget that two of BSU's three blocked kicks came from Lawrence as well.
As for the Rebels, they were right behind BSU in terms of offense last season, generating 473.3 ypg to rank 21st in the country. However, the team did have some issues when it got close to the goal line, converting red zone opportunities at a 73.9 percent clip, which was 109th in the nation in 2013.
The good news for Ole Miss is that quarterback Bo Wallace is ready to improve on what was already a record-setting campaign a year ago when he accounted for 3,701 yards of total offense and completed 283 passes. Wallace heads into the opener as the most experienced quarterback in the SEC, having started all 26 games of his Rebels career.
Having lost Donte Moncrief to the third round of the NFL Draft, Wallace will put even more effort into finding Laquon Treadwell down the field. The 2013 SEC Freshman of the Year, Treadwell set freshman records with 72 catches for 608 yards and five touchdowns. Evan Engram (21 catches, 268 yards, three TDs) figures to get more attention moving forward as well.
In addition to Wallace being a threat to run the ball, the Rebels also have Jaylen Walton at their disposal after he put up 523 yards and six touchdowns on 113 carries. I�Tavius Mathers (563 yards) may not be able to keep up with his 5.9 yards per carry, but hopefully he can find the end zone more than three times.
The strength of the Ole Miss defense appears to take shape in the secondary where there are five returning starters. Among them is safety Cody Prewitt who earned All-America status by producing 71 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss and a league-high six interceptions a year ago. Giving the group some more punch are Senquez Golson, Mike Hilton, Trae Elston and Tony Conner.
Regrouping the linebacking corps might take some time, but the unit does bring back a couple of All-SEC performers in Serderius Bryant and Denzel Nkemdiche. Bryant led Ole Miss with 78 tackles and 12.5 TFL, with three sacks and three forced fumbles.
Freshman All-American Robert Nkemdiche will line up in the trenches and hold down the defensive line for a group that ranked 37th nationally with 23.7 ppg allowed.