Reinforcements without consequences

As Boise State heads into the final three or four games of the season, the door has opened for redshirting players to get playing time without losing a year of eligibility, thanks to this year’s new NCAA rules. Here’s one player I wonder about: quarterback Riley Smith. Chase Cord’s torn ACL has changed the dynamic of spring football, with Smith and incoming freshman Hank Bachmeier (assuming he signs next month) assured more reps in the race to replace Brett Rypien next season. Since Cord’s injury, Smith has had to prepare as if he was going to play just in case, as he’s No. 3 on the depth chart behind Rypien and Jaylon Henderson. Smith, the true freshman from St. Augustine, FL, would surely benefit from getting his feet wet. The most plausible opportunity may come tomorrow night at New Mexico.

Smith is considered to have a stronger arm and has a more pro-style quarterback skill set than Henderson, the junior college transfer from Kingwood, TX. Henderson, a dual-threat, has played in two games this season—versus UConn and Colorado State—completing his only pass attempt for 14 yards and rushing five times for 29 yards. Cord is expected to miss spring ball as he rehabs his knee and hopefully be ready in time for fall camp next August.

Of course, as soon as you speculate about getting backup QBs into a game, suddenly the starters are in ‘til the end, hanging on for dear life. Hard to tell if the Broncos will fall into that in Albuquerque. These are not your father’s New Mexico Lobos. A lot has been made of their shift in philosophy, with coach Bob Davie getting away from his old triple-option for a more traditional attack. New Mexico has found itself in a state of flux, and the results have been less than stellar. The Lobos are averaging more yards passing than rushing, 198 to 163. But neither number is enough to make them a contender. Versus San Diego State, though, the Lobos defense almost made up for offensive shortfalls. UNM forced three fumbles, one of them a scoop-and-score, and the Aztecs needed 17 fourth-quarter points to collect a 31-23 win.

There’s certainly a committee at wide receiver for Boise State this year, and the Broncos will have to go all the way down the table tomorrow night to make that banged-up group click. Octavius Evans looks like he’ll remain out this week, and no news is not necessarily good news on John Hightower. The junior speedster has been out since sustaining an injury against BYU. There are other nicks among the wideout group that may affect the rotation. But Sean Modster and A.J. Richardson have certainly reached the point that they’re comfortable as feature receivers.

Bowl eligibility this year doesn’t necessarily mean a bowl guarantee. Remember when three 5-7 teams snuck into bowls in 2015? There’s one less bowl now (since the demise of the Poinsettia Bowl) and there are more FBS teams. And the way the cards are falling, some 6-6 teams are going to stay home. Writes Stewart Mandel of The Athletic: “At this point, I’m projecting at least three, and possibly as many as seven surplus six-win teams.” Could someone in the Mountain West be left out? Air Force and Wyoming are both 4-6, needing to win out to get to six victories. One of them will be eliminated Saturday, as the Falcons and Cowboys face each other in Laramie.

If Leighton Vander Esch is going to contend for NFL Rookie of the Year honors, this kind of publicity can’t hurt. The former Boise State star has been named NFC Defensive Player of the Week after what Dallas media call a “breakout game” in the Cowboys’ 27-20 win over the Eagles Sunday night. Vander Esch made his first NFL interception and clocked 13 tackles, upping his team-leading total to 77, an amazing 61 of them solo stops. Longtime Dallas beat reporter Ed Werder tweeted that, according to Cowboys coaches tape, Vander Esch had 19 tackles against the Eagles, the most in single game by any Dallas player in history. And the coaching staff has LVE at 96 for the season. No rookie has ever finished a season as the Dallas tackles leader.

If he can stack up favorably next to Boise State’s previous standouts out of the Chicago area, Bronco fans are going to like Raymond “RayJ” Dennis. First there was Derrick Marks, then Lexus Williams—now there’s Dennis out of Oswego, IL. The latter signed a National Letter of Intent yesterday to join coach Leon Rice’s program. Dennis averaged 17.2 points and 4.9 assists last season for Oswego East High. “He is a terrific scorer and an elite shooter,” said Rice. “RayJ has an ability to see the court, and with his feel for the game, he makes everyone better.” Rice sounds ready to plug Dennis in against Jackson State tomorrow night, but he’ll have to wait until next November.

Nevada is holding up so far as the standard-bearer for Mountain West hoops. The Wolf Pack is reaping the benefits of being ranked No. 6 in the AP Poll, the program’s highest spot ever. There’s a feature in the most recent Sports Illustrated on Nevada coach Eric Musselman and his “joy in the journey,” detailing how he’s driven much like his late father, Bill Musselman, who had 15 jobs in 37 years in coaching. Eric has had 15 jobs in 30 years. But I thought Musselman’s most interesting quote was this one regarding how he approached taking over a 22-loss team in 2015. “I didn’t want to rebuild, so I built this team like an NBA team,” he said. Transfers are like his free agents—there have been 14 of them since he took over in Reno. The Pack hosts Arkansas-Little Rock tomorrow night.

On the pro front, the Idaho Steelheads forged a 2-0 first-period lead on Rapid City last night but couldn’t hold it in CenturyLink Arena. Spencer Naas and Kyle Schempp tallied early, but the Rush tied it in the third period and won it in a shootout, 3-2. The Steelies have now dropped six of their last seven games. And, after taking last week off, Troy Merritt is back on the course today as the RSM Classic tees off at Sea Island Resort in Georgia. The former Boise State star has made the cut in all three of his PGA Tour events this fall and has already made $270,820.

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November 15, 1975: Boise State welcomes its first major college opponent to Bronco Stadium, as Utah State comes in to challenge the undefeated Broncos. Boise State was ranked No. 3 in Division II and was riding an 18-game home winning streak, and Tony Knap was fired up to face the team he once coached. But the Aggies unleashed defending Division I rushing champion Louie Giammona—and he was too much, running for 198 yards on 40 carries in a 42-19 USU victory.

(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.)