Enormous task ahead for ailing Boise State linebacker unit

Photo via Pam Davis

*An earlier version of this article stated Wyoming played New Mexico on Friday night. They play on Saturday. Thanks readers, for finding the error.

Win and wait. For the Boise State Broncos on Friday, that is the formula the Broncos must follow to find out if they’ll be Mountain division champions. Get the win and hope for Wyoming to lose Saturday evening against New Mexico.

No matter the outcome of the Wyoming game–even if it’s a Cowboy win–a victory over the Air Force Falcons will have to feel good. Yes, losing out on the division championship will sting. Satisfaction in ending a two-game losing streak to the Falcons would help lessen the pain of said sting.

In a re-occurring theme for Boise State, stopping the run will yet again be the key for the Broncos defense. And a depleted linebacker unit will have to be a force to be reckoned with to achieve that.

Tanner Vallejo, battling wrist injuries most of the season, missed the UNLV game and will be out for the rest of his senior season. Joe Martarano fractured his fibula in the UNLV game and will also not be playing. Redshirt freshman Leighton Vander Esch has been out for over a month.

Darren Lee has hammered his way into an outstanding senior season. He replaced an injured Martarano in the starting lineup earlier this season and has rarely left the field since. Lee has 56 tackles this season, including three sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss. He also scored a touchdown and, against UNLV, blocked a punt.

Ben Weaver has continued to be the leader and mainstay of the unit. Weaver has been a force the past four years and will once again be asked to lead this defense. Weaver has accumulated 92 tackles this season.

Two veterans in the lineup is a plus, but it will be two others that saw plenty of action against UNLV who will need to rise up. Both Blake Whitlock and Kam Miles have seen playing time this season and both will be expected to see plenty of snaps this coming week. Whitlock had six tackles against UNLV (26 for the season) while Miles had three. Both are juniors.

The group performed admirably against UNLV last week. They helped hold UNLV, a team averaging 255 rushing yards per game, to 189 yards rushing and 303 total. 156 of those yards came on two scoring drives in the middle quarters. The other two scoring drives were a field goal on a short field after a Thomas Sperbeck fumble and a late touchdown against reserves.

Dylan Sumner-Gardner will also be a key to stopping the Air Force ground game. He has helped lend support to the running defense and has 23 tackles over the past four games. Sumner-Gardner’s presence will be a positive as long as tackles are close to the  line of scrimmage and not ten yards or more into the secondary.

In last season’s 37-30 loss to Air Force, Boise State gave up 607 yards of offense. The Falcons, led by Jacobi Owens and his 145 rushing yards, gained 328 yards on the ground, averaging 6.1 yards per carry.

It was a prevalence for giving up the big play that doomed the Broncos in last season’s game. Karson Roberts, now graduated, threw for 279 yards against Boise State on only nine completions.

This season’s Air Force team is no different, averaging 323.5 rushing yards per game. Five players have 400 or more rushing yards, led by Owens and his 737. Timothy McVey has 606 yards and ten touchdowns, averaging 8.4 yards per carry.

A team effort on defense will be needed in stopping the Falcons ground game. The defensive line will need to hold their lanes and the secondary will need to stay home on play fakes. All stuff we’ve heard before.

Extra importance will be placed on the linebackers in helping limit Air Force to less than four yards per carry. Though depleted, it is without doubt coach Bryan Harsin and defensive coordinator Andy Avalos will have the players well prepared.

Do that–along with execution and eliminating the big play–will give Boise State the victory. Then, with any luck, the victory celebration will turn into a Mountain West conference championship prep party come Saturday night.


About Jason Haskins

Jason is a 2001 graduate of Boise State and has been an avid fan of Boise State Athletics since the late 90's. Originally from Spring Creek, NV, Jason grew up a fan of the Fred Gatlin era Nevada Wolf Pack, but immediately switched his allegiances while attending school at Boise State. He hasn't looked back since and remains a loyal supporter of Boise State. For more: jason-haskins.com

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