Strength vs. strength at Sam Boyd

UNLV hopes the return of quarterback Blake Decker tomorrow will keep the Boise State defense honest. UNLV hopes the return of starting quarterback Blake Decker tomorrow will keep the Boise State defense honest. The theory is that Broncos won’t be able to stack eight in the box versus the capable Rebels running game with Decker a threat to throw. But BSU has been stingy against the run regardless of an opponent’s philosophy. The glass half-empty people will point out that the Broncos’ last three foes each rushed for more than 100 yards. But each was a run-first offense—Colorado State’s net on the ground was 105 yards, Utah State’s was 177, and Wyoming’s was 110. The USU number was up there a bit, but the other two are fine. Boise State is yielding just 81 rushing yards per game, fifth in the country. The run is the Rebels’ forte, as they go for more than 213 yards per outing, 27th in the nation and their best mark in 13 years.

Boise State’s linebackers are continuing to excel without their centerpiece, junior Tanner Vallejo, who hasn’t been healthy for weeks, missed the Wyoming game last week, and is questionable tomorrow. “Their preparation, the mentality they have—that’s a special group,” said coach Bryan Harsin of his ‘backers. The transition to Joey Martarano has been seamless, especially in his first start of the season against the Cowboys. “Joey is long, athletic,” Harsin said. “His feel has gotten a lot better.” The former Fruitland Grizzly makes statements on defense. Wyoming was still trying to get Mountain West rushing leader Brian Hill going in the second quarter last Saturday when Martarano made a stone-cold stop on him for a loss of five yards on a third-and-two. Can’t wait to see what he’s like as a senior.

I’ve kind of had my eye on Boise State’s third-down conversions all season. It’s been a bone of contention for the Broncos. Last week they were over 50 percent against an FBS team for the first time this season, converting 12-of-19 against Wyoming. “We were ahead of the chains a lot more because we didn’t take negative plays, and we didn’t take sacks, and that was a huge emphasis,” Harsin said.

One of the curiosities of the 2015 season has been the utter dominance of Shane Williams-Rhodes, Thomas Sperbeck and Chaz Anderson in the Boise State passing game. The “first wave” of wide receivers, if you will. During fall camp, it was trendy to speculate as to who the “second wave” would be, and who would rise up this fall. The answer is essentially nobody. Williams-Rhodes, Sperbeck and Anderson have combined for 104 catches, 1,442 yards, and eight touchdowns. Tops among the “second wave” is A.J. Richardson with four receptions, all in the past two games. Akilian Butler and Terrell Johnson have two apiece, and Austin Cottrell one. That’s it. Williams-Rhodes, Sperbeck and Anderson have 92 percent of this season’s catches by the wide receiver corps.

This “first wave” preeminence at wideout is not a new development, though. Take last year, for example. Williams-Rhodes, Sperbeck, Matt Miller (who was replaced by Sperbeck after his season-ending injury), and Anderson had 168 receptions, 2,379 yards and 15 touchdowns between them. Only two other wide receivers had catches all season, Dallas Burroughs with 14 and Troy Ware with 12, including a TD. The “first wave” was at 87 percent in 2014.

While Boise State awaits it bye next week, there’s a lot of idling this week in the Mountain West. Fresno State, Nevada, New Mexico and San Jose State all have the weekend off. Week 9 kicks off with the Wyoming-Utah State game tonight in Logan. The Cowboys have the misfortune of facing an angry team for the second week in a row. San Diego State goes to Colorado State tomorrow. It’s important to the Rams if they’re going to keep their bowl hopes going. And Air Force visits Hawaii. Rainbow Warriors coach Norm Chow might not last the season if he doesn’t win this one, and there’s a strong likelihood he won’t.

If you look at Idaho’s defensive numbers so far for 2015 compared to all of 2014, they’re remarkably similar as the Vandals head down to New Mexico State for a pivotal game tomorrow. Idaho has allowed 37.7 points and 477 yards per game this season versus 37.3 points and 463 yards per outing last year. But the bigger picture is what’s happened with the Vandal defense the past two games. UI allowed 381 yards and 16 points in its victory at Troy and just 243 and 13 points in its triumph over Louisiana-Monroe. If the Vandals have turned the corner, tomorrow should provide more confidence-building. They take on a winless NMSU offense that’s averaging only 22.4 points per game.

The College of Idaho has a chance to erase a bitter taste tomorrow. The Coyotes get Montana Western at home, where they’ll try to avenge the 24-20 loss last month that saw the Bulldogs score the winning touchdown with 18 seconds left. Montana Western knows how to win close ones, as it’s coming off a 27-26 win over Rocky Mountain College. The Bulldogs might not be healthy at quarterback—and they’ll be facing the Frontier Conference’s interceptions leader, former Mountain View star Nate Moore. Fans are asked to dress in Halloween attire tomorrow, with a halftime costume contest planned. No truth to the rumor the Yotes are going to dress up in Alabama Crimson Tide uniforms.

Troy Merritt, seeking his first made-cut of the new PGA Tour season, got off to a solid start at the CIMB Classic yesterday in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The former Boise State star carded a four-under 68, finishing with a birdie on No. 18 to tie for 16th. Merritt is six shots off the lead, though—Scott Piercy torched the course with a 10-under 62. Graham DeLaet and Tyler Aldridge are sitting out this tournament.

The Idaho Steelheads are back on the CenturyLink Arena ice tonight to host the Utah Grizzlies before the two teams head to West Valley City for games tomorrow and Monday. The Steelheads’ offense has been good so far, with returnee Jefferson Dahl logging multi-point games in three outings already. But the Steelies’ power play unit is a work in progress—Idaho has scored one power play goal in its last 18 attempts. Another returnee, Colton Beck, has the Steelheads’ only two power play tallies on the season.

A couple basketball notes. Maybe we should call this the “Basque Hoops Friendly.” The Idaho Stampede are holding their annual D-League Draft party tomorrow at Leku Ona, the popular restaurant in the Basque Block. The Stampede have the first overall pick in the eight-round session. Word is that former Boise State guard Thomas Bropleh is back from a successful stint in Germany and has made himself available in the draft. And it’s already basketball season at the College of Idaho. The sixth-ranked Yotes are at the Quinn Classic in LaGrande and will play an exhibition against Langara, B.C. tonight and their regular season opener tomorrow versus the University of Victoria.

Boise State freshman cross country phenom Allie Ostrander already has a collegiate hardware collection started. Today Ostrander has a shot at another significant trophy as the Mountain West Championships unfold in Reno. I imagine the NCAA Regionals in Seattle November 13 are also on her calendar. The NCAA Championships November 21 in Louisville, too, for that matter.

This Day In Sports…October 30, 1982:

New Idaho coach Dennis Erickson brings the Vandals into Bronco Stadium to try to break a five-game losing streak to Boise State. Not only does Idaho snap the skid, it begins “The Streak”—as the Vandals would win the next 12 games against BSU. On this night, junior quarterback Ken Hobart, thriving in Erickson’s new offense, would lead Idaho to a 24-17 victory. Boise State would match the streak with its 12th straight win in the rivalry in 2010, a 52-14 victory at the Kibbie Dome before the series went on hiatus.

(Tom Scott hosts the Scott Slant segment Sunday nights at 10:30PM on KTVB’s Sunday Sports Extra and anchors five sports segments each weekday on 93.1 The Ticket. He also served as color commentator on KTVB’s telecasts of Boise State football for 14 seasons.