With Jake Browning making his collegiate debut in a hostile road environment, it made sense for Washington Huskies offensive coordinator Jonathan Smith to expect that Boise State might blitz the true freshman quarterback in their season opener.
As it turned out, the Broncos didn’t blitz much, and instead relied on a stout run defense to eke out a 16-13 victory.
But while UW coach Chris Petersen compares Boise State’s style to Utah State, the Huskies’ opponent in a 2 p.m. game Saturday at Husky Stadium, no such mystery surrounds the Aggies’ defensive intentions.
“If there’s one thing — they are going to come after the quarterback,” Petersen said. “That’s what they do.”
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And they’re a much better defense now than what Petersen usually saw against the Aggies when he was Boise State’s coach. The Broncos were 6-0 against Utah State during Petersen’s tenure, winning five of those games by at least 31 points (because Boise State left the WAC for the Mountain West prior to the 2011 season, and Utah State didn’t make that migration until 2013, the teams didn’t play in 2011 or 2012).
The closest outcome was also the most recent: Boise State held off Utah State, 34-23, in 2013, Petersen’s final season in Boise and Matt Wells’ first year as coach of the Aggies. USU won nine games that season and tied for 25th nationally with 34 sacks, one year after totaling 42 sacks and winning 11 games.
And they were even better last season, finishing with 49 sacks, a total that ranked third nationally behind only Washington and Utah.
It was with such success in mind, likely, that Petersen on Saturday said “Utah State and Boise State are the two better teams in the Mountain West.” He reiterated his respect for the Aggies on Monday, noting that, like Boise State, “those guys know what they’re doing. They play really fast and really hard.”
Utah State (1-1) did lose its top two sack leaders — linebacker Zach Vigil and defensive end B.J. Larsen – each of whom tallied nine sacks in 2014. But they do return Vigil’s younger brother, Nick, who had seven sacks himself last season, and Petersen and the Huskies don’t expect the Aggies’ aggressive style to be any different under first-year defensive coordinator Kevin Clune, who coached Aggies linebackers from 2009-13.
“They’re unique in their scheme, as well, in their pressure packages, and they create some havoc that way,” Smith said. “So we need to be dialed in protection. They show some different looks, so it’s been a big emphasis in practice.”
It will be an interesting test for Browning, who completed 17 of 24 passes last week for 326 yards and two touchdowns against Sacramento State. He’s not particularly mobile, though Smith said he’s been pleasantly surprised by how well Browning has been able to evade sacks so far.
He hasn’t seen a defense as aggressive or unique as Utah State, though.
“When we talk about a quarterback, you really want to throw to openness,” Smith said. “So, get your eyes to the right spot, that guy’s open, let’s throw it to him. Trying to recognize all the stuff they’ve done as he gets the ball in his hand on the snap is going to be tough. He’s just got to see who’s open and throw it to him.”
It will also be a challenge for the Huskies’ young offensive line, which struggled to create running lanes against Boise State, improved in that regard against a much weaker Sacramento State team, but through two games has not had to deal with the style and frequency of pressure the Aggies are likely to bring.
“It’s a good test for us,” third-year sophomore left tackle Coleman Shelton said. “They’re a good team. We have a lot of respect for them, and they bring a lot of blitzes, so we’re going to have to be ready, be assignment-key every play.”
SATURDAY: Utah State (1-1) at UW (1-1), 2 p.m., Pac-12 Network, 1000-AM, 97.7-FM