Leighton Vander Esch’s “Baby Giraffe” nickname all but disappeared once Boise State’s 2017 football season started. Maybe somebody around the NFL will resurrect it next summer, as he has decided to forego his senior year with the Broncos and enter the draft.There was nothing “baby” about what Vander Esch did for Boise State this year, leading them to conference and bowl championships and earning Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year honors. He attached a passionate statement to the tweet announcing his departure yesterday. “It has been the honor of my life to play for the team I always grew up following,” Vander Esch wrote. “Because my love for Boise State runs so deep, this was the most difficult decision of my life. Idaho will always be my home, and I will be a Bronco until the day I die.”
This star power thing is all so new to Vander Esch, who didn’t start a single game last year as a sophomore. But he wouldn’t have made this decision if he didn’t have some credible information regarding his prospects in the NFL Draft. Scott Wright of DraftCountdown.com was on Idaho SportsTalk yesterday and predicted Vander Esch would be a “top 50” pick. “The film looks impressive,” said Wright. “Some games you put on and he’s just dominant.” This is the fifth straight year a Bronco has departed early for the NFL Draft. Previous players have alternated between the second and fifth rounds. DeMarcus Lawrence went to Dallas in 2014 in the second round, Jay Ajayi to Miami in 2015 in the fifth, Kamalei Correa to Baltimore in 2016 in the second, and Jeremy McNichols last year to Tampa Bay in the fifth.
Josh Allen is playing today in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. What a concept. Allen is not going to “Royce Freeman” his Wyoming Cowboys teammates. “Never a thought to sit out voluntarily,” said Allen. “I’m not that type of guy. I want to play. This is a team I’ve been on for the last three and a half years. I owe a lot to Coach Bohl for extending me the offer to play at the University of Wyoming.” I’ve always respected Allen. After all, he didn’t ask one NFL personnel director to tell ESPN’s Adam Schefter last spring to “put it in the books” that Allen will be the No. 1 pick overall in the 2018 NFL Draft. But Allen has had to deal with it. Boise State fans see Allen as a Mountain West division rival, but the best thing that could happen to the conference is for Allen to go to the NFL as a high-level draft pick—and then succeed.
These teams have been going opposite directions as kickoff approaches on the blue turf. Central Michigan, who was picked to finish fifth in the West Division of the MAC, ended up second. The Chippewas are 8-4 with a five-game winning streak behind—get this, Bronco fans—their left-handed quarterback who wears No. 11, Shane Morris. CMU has a senior-laden offense looking to put the chives on its potato today. Wyoming has a thing about slow finishes and looks to reverse that at Albertsons Stadium. The Cowboys lost four of their last five games a year ago and lost their final two regular season games this season, as Josh Allen was on the shelf with his shoulder injury. With Allen back in the lineup, Wyoming is 2½-point favorite.
Two more Mountain West teams play their bowls this weekend. San Diego State is in its eighth consecutive bowl and plays Army in the Armed Forces Bowl tomorrow. San Diego media bemoaned the fact that a 10-2 team has to go to Fort Worth, but I think this is a good matchup. The Aztecs edged Air Force 28-24 this season—the Cadets shut out the Falcons 21-0. Army knows how to defend the run game. Rashaad Penny may be something else, though. Fresno State is in the postseason for the first time since 2014 and looks to carry the flag for the Mountain West against the American Athletic Conference. The Bulldogs face Houston in the Hawaii Bowl on Christmas Eve and go in 9-4 following their trip to the Mountain West championship game. Fresno State’s eight-win improvement over 2016 is tops in the nation.
Boise State has put a wrap on its non-conference hoops season as it prepares for the Mountain West opener against Colorado State next Wednesday. The Broncos were 10-2 in non-league play, but the last time out against SMU was an exception to the rule on many levels. Boise State’s 135 three-pointers is currently first in the Mountain West and tied for No. 9 in the NCAA—the most against non-conference foes in the Leon Rice era. But the Broncos were 10-for-32 from distance in their 86-63 loss to the Mustangs. They’ve held opponents to less than 29 percent shooting from beyond the arc, but SMU shot 50 on Monday night. And Boise State posted a plus-7.4 rebounding margin in its first 12 games, yet was outboarded by seven at SMU. Are the Broncos only as good as their last game? Probably doesn’t apply here.
It’s uncanny how often making three-pointers and missing threes influences the outcome of college basketball games. Idaho was on the short end of that stick last night at the Vandal Holiday Hoops Classic in CenturyLink Arena, but UC Irvine was equally cold from beyond the arc. The teams combined to go 14-for-49 from three-point range. That part of the game was a push. The difference was at the free throw line, where the Anteaters shot 81 percent to the Vandals’ 50 in a 67-59 UCI victory. Despite the Vandal loss, this is an event that needs to continue, as 4,096 fans showed up in Downtown Boise. Idaho’s attendance average in Moscow this season is 1,730. Elsewhere, San Diego State struck a note for the Mountain West last night, upsetting No. 12 Gonzaga 72-70 at Viejas Arena.
The Idaho Steelheads would seem to be in a pretty good position as they play their final two pre-Christmas games this weekend in Rapid City. The Steelheads have won seven straight road games while the Rush have dropped nine in a row overall—including the 6-1 thumping at the hands of the Steelies Wednesday night. Idaho has now moved into sole possession of second place in the ECHL Mountain Division, overtaking the Wichita Thunder. The hottest Steelhead is captain Jefferson Dahl, who has scored goals in four consecutive games.
Back to football—the AP has divided its “Little All-America” team into divisional groups this year, and College of Idaho defensive back Nate Moore has been named a first-team selection on the first-ever AP NAIA All-America team. Moore, a senior from Mountain View High, logged 96 tackles and two interceptions this season as the Coyotes earned their first winning season since reinstating football in 2014. Moore joins previous C of I Little All-Americans Tom WInbigler in 1949, Norm Hayes in 1953 and the legendary R.C. Owens in 1954.
This Day In Sports…December 22, 1987, 30 years ago today:
Boise State draws 12,265 fans, still the biggest crowd for a non-conference home game in its history, as fifth-ranked Wyoming comes to the BSU Pavilion three days before Christmas. The Broncos’ Chris Childs and Arnell Jones battled the Cowboys’ Fennis Dembo and Eric Leckner to the end. Boise State had a chance to tie in the final seconds, but Childs slipped while driving the lane, and Wyoming prevailed, 59-55. The teams would have a rematch in Laramie in early March—the Pokes won that game as well, 56-50. The Broncos and Cowboys would both advance to the NCAA Tournament in Salt Lake City, though not against each other.
(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.)