The Star-Tribune is taking an early look at each of Wyoming’s opponents in the order they appear on the Cowboys’ 2020 schedule. Next up is Boise State.
LARAMIE — When talking favorites heading into another season of Mountain West football, the conversation starts with a familiar one.
Boise State, one of college football’s winningest programs since the turn of the century, is fresh off another conference title. The Broncos have shared or outright won four of the last eight MW championships and two of the last three.
The Broncos came in at No. 23 in The Associated Press’ final top 25, but they didn’t finish as the highest-ranked team from their own league. That distinction went to Air Force, which finished one spot higher after beating Power Five foe Washington State in its bowl game to cap an 11-win season.
But Boise State beat Air Force along with every other conference opponent on its schedule last year on the way to an unblemished season in league play. Assuming this coming season isn’t affected by the coronavirus outbreak, Wyoming, which came as close as anybody to knocking off the Broncos in an overtime loss on the blue turf, will get another shot at Boise State on Nov. 21 at War Memorial Stadium to close out its home schedule.
It’s hard to consider anybody other than Boise State the favorite until someone knocks the Broncos off their perch, particularly in the Mountain Division, which Boise State has won three straight years. The Broncos will have some new contributors at some key positions, but for a program that arguably recruits better than any team at the Group of Five level, there’s still plenty of talent on the roster.
Even if it’s young, Boise State has experience at quarterback in Hank Bachmeier, who lived up to the hype as a high-profile recruit during his freshman season when he was healthy. Bachmeier completed nearly 63 percent of his passes for 1,879 yards and nine touchdowns in eight games, though he threw no touchdowns and three interceptions in his last two starts after coming back from a hip pointer.
Jaylon Henderson and Chase Cord also got starts at quarterback last season, but Henderson has exhausted his eligibility. Cord, who got the start in Boise State’s 20-17 win over UW, is back as Bachmeier’s main competition, but the job certainly feels like Bachmeier’s to lose following a promising debut season.
Many of Bachmeier’s top targets are returning, including Khalil Shakir (team-best 63 catches, 872 yards, 6 TDs), CT Thomas (41, 522, 5) and Octavius Evans (19, 211, 1). Tight end John Bates also is returning after catching 22 passes for 273 yards and a score, and even running back George Holani, whose 26 receptions were fifth-most on the team, is a threat in the passing game.
But Holani made his biggest impact on the ground as a true freshman. The 5-foot-11, 205-pounder ran for 1,014 yards and seven scores last year, making it 12 straight seasons the Broncos have had a 1,000-yard rusher. With fifth-year senior Robert Mahone and Andrew Van Buren also returning, Boise State should have one of the deeper backfields in the conference.
The question is who’s going to block for all of them. The Broncos are losing four starters along the offensive line, including left tackle Ezra Cleveland, a second-round pick of the Minnesota Vikings, and all-conference guard John Molchon.
John Ojukwu, the lone returning starter up front, is flipping from right tackle to fill the void left by Cleveland on the left side. Uzo Osuji, one of the handful of transfers Boise State is bringing in, should factor in immediately as a graduate transfer after playing in more than 19 games the last three seasons at Rice.
There are some key cogs to replace on defense, too, starting with the MW’s all-time sack leader, Curtis Weaver, who’s now with the NFL’s Miami Dolphins. Weaver racked up 34 sacks in three seasons, but the Broncos aren’t exactly green at his edge spot. Demetri Washington played in all 14 games last season as a redshirt freshman and is likely to be Weaver’s successor after finishing with 4.5 sacks.
The Broncos are losing three starting defensive linemen from a defense that finished last season ranked 15th nationally against the run (112.7 rushing yards allowed per game), but junior college transfer Shane Irwin and Utah transfer Jackson Cravens should help there.
Leading tackler Riley Whimpey (83 tackles); Benton Wickersham (63); and Ezekiel Noa, whose sophomore season was cut short by an ACL injury, are back at linebacker; and N.C. State graduate transfer Brock Miler should also be part of the rotation at the second level. Avery Williams; Jalen Walker; and versatile nickel Kekaula Kaniho, who had 11 tackles for loss and six pass breakups last season, are all back in the secondary, though the Broncos do have to find two new starting safeties.
Williams, the reigning MW Special Teams Player of the Year, doubles as a dangerous punt returner, returning a pair for touchdowns last season. Kicker Eric Sachse is out of eligibility after making 14 of 17 field goals last season, but punter Joel Velazquez could handle both for the Broncos this fall.
Follow UW athletics beat writer Davis Potter on Twitter at @DavisEPotter.
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