[Ed. Note: The following article was written by my friend Mike Kuchar, who, when not writing incredibly informative articles, is the defensive coordinator at North Brunswick Township High School in New Jersey.]
It’s no secret that Boise State knows how to move the football — its 42 points per game last season led the nation — but it’s exactly how Boise moves the ball that makes them unique. I became privy to this information when I spent a week with the Virginia Tech coaching staff back in early April as they prepared for their opener against the Broncos, a September 6 bout at Fed Ex field pitting two top ten teams against each other. Indeed, the mere fact that Va Tech’s staff was breaking film down more than five months before gameday tells you something profound about how much respect Boise head coach Chris Petersen’s offense commands. I sat with Virginia Tech defensive backs coach Torrian Gray and defensive graduate assistant Steve Canter (who has since become Norfolk State’s QB coach) as they scouted Boise State’s games against Tulsa, Nevada, Fresno State and finally TCU last season. Canter was given the important but not-so-glamorous task of charting every snap that Boise took on offense last year. And after just a few minutes of watching tape with them my head began to spin, but Canter couldn’t spare to take his eyes off the screen.
To me, every play seemed like an entirely different scenario — a tiny but perfect little strategic masterpieces carved out by Petersen and his offensive staff for that situation alone. While I struggled just to follow the ball (apparently the filmer in the press box had the same problem, as the camera often got faked out along with the defensive end or safety Petersen targeted) Canter diligently worked his craft, jotting each down and distance, all the personnel used, every formation, any motion and play. It’s a process he’s engrossed himself in as a former head coach himself: he mentored Vikings receiver Percy Harvin at nearby Landsdown High School (Virginia) and won a state championship in 2004. He’s earned the respect of defensive coordinator Bud Foster, one of the best defensive minds in the game. “[Boise] tr[ies] to do a ton of different things, but there has to be a reason for what they are doing,” said Canter.
Five months and a dozen scratch pads later, I’m not sure that the Hokies have Boise all figured out yet, but knowing Foster, they’ve certainly gotten some insight on them. I took all the information from that visit and — mainly out of curiosity for my own purposes as a coach to see how a great offense works and how a great defense might prepare — to thoroughly study what Boise State does on the offensive side of the ball. Once the studying was complete, I compiled a detailed and definitive report on what makes Boise, well…Boise. And more importantly, what the Hokies must do to win.
“Maximizing personnel,” one of those football buzzwords that sounds like it was invented by Peter Drucker, is nevertheless essential to making an offense dynamic — and arguably nobody in the college game knows how to do it better than Petersen. He learned it from his days working as the offensive coordinator under previous head coach Dan Hawkins where his direction thrust little known talents RB Ian Johnson and QB Jared Zabransky onto the college football landscape in 2006. [Ed. Note: Petersen also credits former Southern Cal head coach and longtime NFL offensive coordinator Paul Hackett for his football development, along with the time he spent under Mike Bellotti at Oregon where he worked alongside Dirk Koetter and Jeff Tedford.] Boise doesn’t always have the Tarzan’s on film — they don’t bang heads with the Oklahomas and Floridas in the recruiting wars — but they don’t need to. Petersen is schooled in the art of allocation: he wants to best utilize the talent he has. For example, five-foot-nine senior running back James Avery, rushed for 1,151 yards last season for the Broncos. He’s not the fastest, but he’s elusive with an explosive burst. “He’s not the fastest guy in the world, you rarely see him get long runs” said Virginia Tech’s Gray. “But like most Boise backs he has terrific start and stop skills; he can change direction quickly and he knows how to read blocks.”
Avery is a patient, zone style back who looks for creases in defensive fronts. His skills are modeled after guys like Ian Johnson who had a stellar career running the same zone type runs. Of course, it helps when those blocks are created by an offensive line that only surrendered five sacks last season. And that success against the pass rush must be attributed to their knowing their protection assignments when picking up various blitz packages that teams throw at them at a weekly basis. In the Fiesta Bowl last season, TCU appeared to be in dial-a-blitz mode for most of the first half but still couldn’t get to Boise quarterback Kellen Moore, before largely giving up that approach as Moore never got flustered. He knew where the weakness in his protection were and found a way to escape at the right times to avoid losses.
Moore is another anomaly: not scary on paper, frightening on film. Despite being barely six-feet tall, he has tremendous presence in the pocket. He knows exactly where to escape when the pocket collapses and often finds receivers downfield simply because the defensive backs got tired of covering. He’s quick and decisive with the ball — he threw only three interceptions in 431 attempts last season. His career completion percentage has been in the mid 60%s, he finished seventh in Heisman voting and was the WAC offensive player of the year. His main target, senior Austin Pettis, had 63 catches from virtually every spot on the field: flanker, slot, split end and even out of the backfield; Petersen loves moving his chess pieces around. Referring to Pettis, Virginia Tech’s Gray said: “He’s their tallest guy at 6-3 and they move him around a ton,” adding, “In the red zone, he’s lethal.” Indeed, Pettis had 14 touchdowns last season, mainly on bootleg schemes — a Boise favorite in that part of the field.
Boise State’s linebacker coach, Jeff Choate, once told me at coaching clinic two years back, “We run plays, we don’t have an offense. It makes it difficult to defend.” At that time he was working with the running backs. Before this project, I wondered how an offense can’t be a system. Coordinators pride themselves on establishing identities: “It’s what we do” is a common mantra among the coaching profession. Urban Meyer at Florida has his spread option, Chip Kelly at Oregon has his QB run game, Steve Sarkasian at Washington has his pro-style offense that he developed at USC. Well, apparently Boise was the Seinfeld of college football — their lack of identity is their identity. Although I may not have understood it then, the method behind this apparent lack of cohesion became much clearer to me after hours of study.
Boise specializes in getting defenses out of position to make plays by utilizing the three major essentials in offensive football: numbers, leverage and grass. “Numbers” means outnumbering the defense at the point of attack — i.e. more blockers than defenders on the edge, more receivers than zone defenders, etc. “Leverage” refers to out-flanking a defense at the point of attack — i.e. you may not have numbers but the angles are on your side. “Grass” harkens to Willie Keeler’s baseball adage, “hit ‘em where they ain’t.” Run the ball where there are the fewest defenders. As it turned out, Choate was right: Boise spends more time on distracting you then developing themselves. But don’t get confused: the point is that although the Broncos have the talent to be one of the best teams in the country and could simply overrun certain opponents, their modus operandi is to be patient and to take what the defense gives them — a true reflection of Petersen, their coach. The quintessential underdog philosophy, they wear you down by picking at four and five yard gains until they pop a big one. Watching them on film, it’s never surprising they score, but to a football junkie, the methodology of how they score is a work of art. Basically, Boise uses three distinct ways to score: (1) pre-snap leverage by the use of formation, (2) post-snap misdirection and (3) calling the unexpected — the dagger after lulling you to sleep.