There was something poetic about Boise State’s Fiesta Bowl defeat of Arizona ending on a defensive play.
With the Broncos’ backs against their own end zone and the surging Wildcats looking to force overtime, defensive end Kamalei Correa pressured quarterback Anu Solomon one more time on an afternoon when Correa was repeatedly in the backfield.
Solomon had nowhere to pass and nowhere to run, taking the sack as time expired and Boise State won, 38-30.
“It was amazing to be able to hold such a high-powered offense, especially on the last drive,” said safety Darian Thompson. “It just showed us our potential is extremely high, and if we continue to work, we should be able to reach it.”
Boise State’s performance in the Fiesta Bowl wasn’t a culmination; it was a coming-out party. The Broncos return eight starters from that defense, with a nice mix of experience across each of the line, linebackers and secondary.
Correa is back, riding all the momentum he established at season’s end. He had two sacks in the Fiesta Bowl, bringing his total over Boise State’s final four games to 6.5. That was just over half of his season-long production.
Correa and linebacker Tanner Vallejo power one of the nation’s best pass-rushes. The Broncos finished fifth nationally with 47 sacks a season ago, and sixth in tackles for loss with 109. They’ll assuredly make a push for the top marks in the Football Bowl Subdivision in the coming year.
Defensive coordinator Marcel Yates can afford to get aggressive with his blitz packages, too, because Boise State boasts a premier secondary. In fact, the Bronco secondary thrives on the pressure its front seven generates, turning rushed pass attempts into takeaways.
In total, the Broncos gained 31 turnovers in 2014.
“It had a lot to do with [the play] up front; the D-line,” Thompson said. With seven picks last year, Thompson is tied for the most interceptions made by a returner in 2015. “They were able to make plays on the quarterback so we wouldn’t have as much time as he’d like.
“That causes a bad throw or missed throw,” he added. “A lot of times, I was just in the right position to make the play.”
Both Thompson and cornerback Donte Deayon were often in position to make big plays. Deayon intercepted six passes last season, and none bigger than his pick-six of Solomon in the Fiesta Bowl.
Deayon’s interception taken to the house was Boise State’s sole score of the second half.
The Fiesta Bowl capped a huge, bounce-back year for Boise State football. Long a pace-setter for the game’s outsiders, Boise State failed to win the Mountain West championship after a home loss to TCU in 2011. It then split the title three ways with San Diego State and Fresno State in 2012, then stumbled to a disappointing 8-5 in 2013.
With head coach Chris Petersen leaving for Washington, and the college football landscape shifting toward a playoff, Boise State’s window as a national power looked ready to close a year ago at this time.
But roaring to the Mountain West championship and winning 12 games, including the Fiesta Bowl, has the Broncos looking very much ready to do as it had done as a BCS crasher previously and shake up the game’s power structure.
Boise State’s defense will be central to pursuit of a perfect regular season, which starts next week with Petersen’s return. His Washington Huskies visits with major question marks on offense.
Washington has no clear starter at quarterback, so don’t be surprised to see the Broncos tee off. A showdown with BYU the following week pits the Bronco defense against Taysom Hill, a playmaker with a skill set similar to that of Arizona’s Solomon.
If Correa, Thompson and crew can find ways to limit Hill, and Boise State starts 2-0, look out. The Broncos are very real threats to go undefeated at that juncture.