D starts where it always has: against the run

The Boise State defense has gone retro this season, and it has the team in contention in the Mountain West. The Broncos are back in the top 20 in total defense, allowing 313 yards per game. And, like in the olden days, they set the tone by stopping the run. After holding Wyoming to 111 yards last week, Boise State cracked the top 10 in rushing defense at 103 yards per game. Opponents are a whisker under three yards per carry when trying to run on the Broncos, who still haven’t allowed a 100-yard rusher this year. It sounds like the Shea McClellin-Tyrone Crawford-Billy Winn days, but generally forgotten is the fact that Boise State was fifth in the nation against the run just two seasons ago. It just feels good to this group to be back in that territory—it was 69th in the country a year ago.

The next guy to try to crack the 100-yard mark on the Broncos will be Utah State’s LaJuan Hunt on Saturday night. Hunt is coming off a big outing at UNLV, helping balance a potent Aggies offense with 101 yards and three touchdowns. The leader of the group trying to stop him is Leighton Vander Esch, the junior from Riggins who has 74 tackles this season and leads Boise State by a whopping 30. What’s made the difference on defense this year? “Energy and fourth-quarter finishing, and just the little things we can control,” said Vander Esch after the win over Wyoming. “Week after week and day after day, just focusing on little things like being disciplined and staying focused. All that stuff adds up.” From a walk-on out of eight-man football to a team captain in the FBS. Vander Esch is really quite a story.

Saturday night’s game will be an interesting one for Boise State’s Riley Whimpey. The true freshman linebacker spent a lot of time in what is now Maverik Stadium in Logan while growing up. Whimpey’s twin older brothers, Kevin and Kyle, were both offensive lineman at Utah State, and Kevin was a first-team All-Mountain West pick in 2014. Riley has held up the family tradition, playing in all seven games for Boise State this season. Whimpey’s first play as a Bronco produced a tackle-for-loss for four yards against Troy on Labor Day weekend. He was also prominently seen bolting down the field to help lead interference on Kekoa Nawahine’s 51-yard interception return at BYU. Riley’s more athletic than his brothers—he performed a standing backflip in street clothes for fans at the BAA Kickoff Dinner in August.

There’s a clear need for reinforcements in the Boise State wide receivers corps—sooner rather than later. Later will have to do, though, and the Broncos received a commitment yesterday from John Hightower of Hinds Community College in Mississippi. The Broncos’ feature wideout, Cedrick Wilson, graduates after this season, and Hightower has Wilson-type measurables. One site lists him at 6-3, 175 pounds, another says 6-4, 185. It’s hard to tell if Hightower has Wilson-type skills. Hightower has nine catches for 153 yards and three touchdowns for a Hines team that doesn’t throw the ball very much.

There’s lot at stake this season for Utah State coach Matt Wells, whose Aggies went 3-9 last year. Wells is trying to reverse the recent slide and, at 4-4, has already exceeded last season’s win total. He’s one of five head coaches in the Mountain West leading his alma mater. That passion for home seems to result in big splashes at the beginning for such Mountain West guys before life settles down (as it has for Wells). He was 9-5 in his first season in 2013 and won the Poinsettia Bowl. Boise State’s Bryan Harsin, of course, won the 2014 Fiesta Bowl. Hawaii’s Nick Rolovich got the Rainbow Warriors to the Hawaii Bowl last year, Air Force’s Troy Calhoun was 9-4 with a bowl in 2007, and Fresno State’s Jeff Tedford has Fresno State in the midst of an epic turnaround after the Bulldogs were 1-11 last season.

The most relevant game for the Broncos outside their own this week is Air Force at Colorado State Saturday afternoon. The Rams are trying to go 5-0 in the Mountain West for the first time in 15 years. CSU leads the conference in passing at 311 yards per game—and will be facing a Falcons defense that is tops in the MW against the pass with a 148-yard average. The Rams are trying not to get ahead of themselves, but they have November 11 circled on their calendar.

The local NFL talk this week has been of Kellen Moore keeping his roster spot with the Cowboys after apparently being leapfrogged on the depth chart by rookie quarterback Cooper Rush. But how cool is it that fellow former Boise State standout Donte Deayon has been hanging onto his with the New York Giants? Playing alongside one-time Bronco running mate Darian Thompson, Deayon keeps contributing on defense. In his second game since being activated, only one of his four tackles in the Giants’ 24-7 loss to Seattle last Sunday came on special teams. And Deayon had a tackle-for-loss to boot.

Former Boise State star DeMarcus Lawrence has been a walking highlight reel for Dallas this year as he sits second in the NFL in sacks, a half-sack behind Jacksonville’s Calais Campbell. The peak moment so far came last Sunday at San Francisco, when Lawrence strip-sacked 49ers quarterback C.J. Beathard. This from Lindsay Jones of USA Today: “After knocking the ball out of Beathard’s hands, Lawrence scooped it up and ran 81 yards to the opposite end zone, only to learn he had been ruled down at the point of recovery. ‘I heard the whistle, but I heard some dumbass tell me to keep going. I did, so I guess I’m the dumbass, ’cause I was tired,’ Lawrence said. ‘I was ready to celebrate and somebody was like, keep going! I was like, (crap), now I’m tired, so I can’t even celebrate. I wanted to celebrate.”

After my mini-profile on L.A. Dodgers pitcher Rich Hill yesterday, it behooves me to recap Game 2 of the World Series last night, when the former Boise Hawk got the start. Hill, in a duel with Houston’s Justin Verlander, was replaced after only four innings despite allowing only one run on three hits and striking out seven. From there we fast-forward to the top of the ninth, when another Boise alum, Marwin Gonzalez, hit the biggest home run of his career. Gonzalez’s solo shot for the Astros tied the game 3-3,sending it into extra innings. Houston won the historic homerfest in 11, 7-6. The Dodgers should have left Hill in longer—maybe they wouldn’t have had to go all the way through their bullpen.

This Day In Sports…October 26, 2007, 10 years ago today:

In the most-hyped game in the San Joaquin Valley since Fresno State’s 2005 win over Boise State, the Broncos go back to Bulldog Stadium and dominate their WAC rival, 34-21. With star tailback Ian Johnson out due to a bruised kidney, freshmen backups D.J. Harper and Jeremy Avery each posted 100-yard games, with 153 and 124 yards, respectively. Avery scored three touchdowns and Harper one. The victory launched the Broncos back into the Top 25 in both polls. They had been out of the rankings since a September loss at Washington.

(Tom Scott hosts the Scott Slant segment during the football season on KTVB’s Sunday Sports Extra and anchors five sports segments each weekday on 93.1 FM KTIK. He also served as color commentator on KTVB’s telecasts of Boise State football for 14 seasons.)