With injuries, a midseason departure and the NCAA’s four-game limit for potential redshirts, the Warriors have had only six available receivers for the four-wide offense the past few weeks. Slotback James Phillips, who is set to redshirt, has played four games and won’t play any more. Wideout Jonah Panoke has played in three games, and can play either today or in the bowl game. Wideout Mekel Ealey has only played in two games. In the past three games, when quarterback Cole McDonald and Chevan Cordeiro were splitting reps, the left-side receivers have been very busy. Wideout Jared Smart and slotback Jason-Matthew Sharsh have been targeted 29 times apiece. During that span, McDonald has thrown 23 passes in Sharsh’s direction; slotback Cedric Byrd has been targeted 14 times by Cordeiro. The return of power back Dayton Furuta, who missed nine games with an ankle injury, has added two elements to the offense: a backfield blocker and a receiving option. The Warriors have thrown only three passes — two of them shovels — to running backs the past three weeks. The Warriors are missing ailing left guard J.R. Hensley’s leadership — he was the only senior starter on the O-line — but replacement Michael Eletise has provided a boost. During the summer, Eletise back-squatted a team-high 675 pounds. Left tackle Ilm Manning has allowed only two sacks in 571 pass plays. He has 69 knockdown blocks.
The past three weeks, the Warriors won the coin toss and each time opted to defer the decision until the second half, opening the games on defense. The results were a touchdown drive and two punts, but the statement was this: The defense is back. Head coach Nick Rolovich noted the defense has done well enough against physical offenses (UNLV, San Diego State, Army). “The biggest thing is they continued to grind it out, get better, and when we needed them to win games down the stretch, they were there,” Rolovich said. With the Warriors’ prolific offense, the defense’s goal is at least two stops a half, to break serve. Against Army, the Warriors had seven service breaks, including two picks and three fourth-down stops, in 12 possessions. “At the end of the day, it gets back to whipping blocks, making tackles,” defensive coordinator Corey Batoon said. The Warriors have undergone a transformation, with the base changing from a 4-2 front to a 4-3. Freshman linebacker Darius Muasau gives the Warriors another lateral defender. In safety Kalen Hicks’ absence, sophomore Khoury Bethley has been used to cover inside receivers or mix it up in the box. “He’s a good, physical box safety,” Batoon said of Bethley. “He enjoys that part of the game. He’s kind of an old-school type of guy, an old soul back there. The last three games, those type of physical, downhill games, those are the games we needed him to play well in, and he did.”
It was apparent early that Lincoln Victor, a three-time league MVP in high school, was a special player. The Warriors had tried to limit his participation to the four-game limit to qualify for a redshirt. But after reaching that max on Oct. 12, it was clear Victor was needed as a kickoff returner. In the six games since, the Warriors have been penalized only once with their average start at the 27 following Victor’s kickoff returns. In elevation-site games this year, Ben Scruton is averaging 46.3 yards per punt. His average is 43.1 at sea level.
The deal with the Broncos is every roster spot comes with assignments, whether it’s portraying the upcoming opponent in practices or being part of several personnel groups, some with just one specific play. That allows the Broncos to produce new gimmick plays each week. It also means the only routine to the base offense is chaos. The Broncos will have pre-snap motions and shifts, wideouts on jet sweeps or aligning in the backfield, double and triple tight ends/H-backs, and three- or four-receiver sets. Freshman QB Hank Bachmeier led a 6-0 start, and Chase Cord came off the sideline to throw for 175 yards and two TDs against Hawaii. But Jaylon Henderson will get his third consecutive start at QB. Each of the three has nine TD passes. But Henderson is more mobile (five sacks in 104 pass plays) than the twice-injured Bachmeier (15 sacks in 208 pass plays; six fumbles). Cord has not played in four of the past five games. John Hightower, a car enthusiast, is fittingly a high-motor wideout who is fast (4.45 seconds over 40 yards) and able to leap for 50-50 passes (6-foot-8 high jump). Slotback Khalil Shakir, who has a team-high 53 catches, also can take direct snaps as the wildcat. Freshman George Holani (912 rushing yards) leads a three-back group that has only 19 negative-yard carries in 310 rushes. Holani is a sure-handed receiver on screens. According to Pro Football Focus, blind-side blocker Ezra Cleveland is the league’s highest-graded tackle. Left guard John Molchon and center Garrett Larson have each yielded only one sack.
A remarkable thing about this season is Curtis Weaver — who plays the aptly named stud position — is doing exactly what he was predicted to do. Opposing offenses crafted their game plans to double- or triple-block his path, or move the quarterback away from Weaver’s heat-seeking pursuits. Of Weaver’s 47 tackles, 17 have been in the backfield. He has 13.5 sacks this season and, with 34 in three seasons, he is the Mountain West’s career leader. “Curtis didn’t come in this season unknown,” BSU coach Bryan Harsin said. “He’s a guy that people knew about and his game, his ability to go out there and make plays. And when you play against somebody like that, there’s going to be things that teams try to do, and he’s still out there making plays. He’s still out there getting better.” Weaver can set up on either side of the three-man front as a stand-up end or hand-on-the-turf lineman. He also can slide to the second level, then attack from the middle. Chase Hatada has emerged as a perimeter threat (four sacks). In the last meeting, the Broncos rushed with a three- or four-man front while cluttering the mid-level to secondary with dropping linebackers and active DBs. Nickelback Kekaula Kaniho has 11 tackles for loss. Jalen Walker is the Broncos’ best cover defender. The Broncos have forced 4.5 three-and-outs per game.
Soon after transferring from Division III Trinity, Eric Saches booted five field goals in the opener against Florida State. Saches, who is 13-for-15, has not missed since the seventh game of the season. Joel Velazquez has punts of at least 50 yards, and was summoned for both BSU field-goal attempts from 50-plus yards. Avery Williams has two punt returns for touchdowns this season, giving him four for his career. John Hightower also scored on a kickoff return.