BOISE, Idaho — Boise State coach Chris Petersen could barely contain his grin while recounting the opening drive by his first-team offense after Sunday’s fall scrimmage.
Behind senior quarterback Joe Southwick and a clever mix of passing and running plays, the offense marched into the red zone with the kind of efficiency and crispness offensive-minded coaches like Petersen dream about.
But it was a play by the Broncos’ young defense that turned Petersen’s grin into a big, broad smile. With the defense on its heels, senior Ebo Makinde, a cornerback making the shift to safety, swooped in to tip Southwick’s pass in the back of the end zone before cradling it in his hands for an interception.
It’s the kind of big, momentum-shifting play that Petersen and his staff will need the defense to make often this season.
“I think we’re making progress,” Petersen said of his revamped defense. “This is always a hard position for me because ... on one side when the offense was moving the ball down there I’m thinking we’re not in shape on defense.
“Then our defense makes a play in the end zone and I’m thinking that’s a really bad play by our offense. So we’ll go back and put the tape on and see if it was a good play on either side of the ball and where we really need to shore up things,” he said.
More than likely, the offense for No. 19 Boise State will be just fine, even capable of putting up the kind of points that will remind fans of the days when Kellen Moore ran the show.
Southwick has looked sharp during spring and fall camps, and the interception by Makinde was just his third since fall workouts began. The senior, who began to flourish late last season, leading the Broncos to four straight victories, including a 28-26 win over Washington in the Las Vegas Bowl, has broadened his grasp of the offense and appears more confident each day, Petersen said.
“He’s been practicing and playing like he did in the last four or five games of the season,” Petersen said. “He’s not flawless, and that (turnover) was a good one to get on tape and see what he did. But he’s got tremendous command of what we’re doing.”
Southwick also has plenty of weapons around him.
The receiving corps is rich, starting with sure-handed veterans like Matt Miller, who has 128 catches the last two seasons, and Kirby Moore. But there are also deep-threat targets like Aaron Burks and Geraldo Boldwijn to stretch the field, along with shifty slot receiver Shane Williams-Rhodes, a sophomore whose role should expand even more this season.
The Broncos are also deep in the backfield. Sophomore Jay Ajayi, a load at 220 pounds, is the presumed starter. Ajayi rushed for 548 yards, four touchdowns and averaged 6.7 yards per carry as a backup last year.
But offensive coordinator Robert Prince is also expected to get sophomore Jack Fields more involved this year as well as junior college transfer Derrick Thomas, who rushed for 1,622 yards in two years at Butler Community College in Kansas.
Five things to know about the Broncos this season:
1. DEFENSE: The front line features only two starters from last year’s top 10 unit — tackle Ricky Tjong-A-Tjoe and end DeMarcus Lawrence, who led the team with 9.5 sacks last year and was voted first-team all-conference. Those competing for playing time on the line are either new or saw limited action a season ago. The secondary features two new faces at cornerback.
2. ON THE ROAD: The Broncos know they will be tested away from Bronco Stadium this season. The season opens Aug. 31 with a rematch against Washington at the Huskies’ remodeled stadium. The Broncos also travel to BYU, Fresno State, predicted to win the MWC’s West Division, and San Diego State, which upset the Broncos 21-19 last year.
3. THE KICKING GAME: A thorn in the side for several seasons, coaches believe those days are in the past. Junior Dan Goodale is competing for the job with sophomore Tyler Rausa. It’s too early to declare the starter, but Petersen says it may come down to who has the hot leg. Both were consistently hitting from 40 yards during the Sunday night scrimmage.
4. NO HUDDLE: The Broncos ran no-huddle, up-tempo on every possession during the fall scrimmage. The offense is no stranger to no-huddle, but the Broncos used it less last year than previous seasons. Expect more with Southwick’s experience. But Petersen also says it’s good experience for the defense and a schedule loaded with teams that are using it more often.
5. EXPECTATIONS: This season is no different than past years in Boise, where it’s BCS or bust. It’s been four years since the Broncos played in the Fiesta Bowl, despite making threats to get back each of the last three years. If they can beat the Huskies in the opener and BYU on Nov. 25, talk could resume about Boise State making a case for a spot in the high-profile bowl games.
Predicted finish: First place, Mountain Division.