Boise State started out Saturday looking as if it was ready to roll into October with a lot of momentum for the second straight season.
But there was still a lot of football to be played. And some odd things happened. The result was a 35-32 loss at Memphis that dropped the Broncos to 2-3.
Boise State led 17-0.
The Broncos had 519 total yards.
They had six drives into the Memphis red zone and scored on five of them.
Main takeaways: There might be a quarterback controversy, and we’ll get to that in a minute, but first let’s address a different coaching-decision controversy.
Nursing a 17-14 lead, Boise State went 73 yards in 11 plays and had a fourth-and-1 at the Memphis 7-yard line late in the third quarter. The drive, featuring clever runs by QB Taylen Green and running back Ashton Jeanty, was putting the Broncos in firm control of the game.
Not surprisingly, coach Andy Avalos’ team lined up to go for it. Then it took a timeout. And then the field goal unit was on. The chip shot from Jonah Dalmas would have padded the lead, but this is a team that can pick up a yard in a variety of ways. Going for it made perfect sense. The most sense. A conversion and a TD, the Broncos would be up 10 and hard to beat. They had the Tigers on their heels.
Instead, the Dalmas kick was blocked. Memphis’ Geoff Cantin-Arku scooped it and went 80 yards for a touchdown and the home team’s first lead. The entire game changed in a blink. The one empty red-zone drive made the difference.
It was a strange, conservative call from Avalos and the Broncos, who don’t seem to like being all that conservative. And it backfired.
Defensively, Boise State had problems crop up that have been there all season, giving up too many big plays in key moments and too many third-down conversions. The 59-yard touchdown pass early in the fourth quarter that gave Memphis a 28-17 lead was a killer.
Main question: Do we have a quarterback controversy in Boise?
Backup Maddux Madsen replaced Green for a first-half drive in what Boise State called a planned series. It resulted in a punt. Then Madsen re-entered with about 11 minutes remaining in the game and the Broncos down 28-17. He produced two touchdown drives to close the day in the loss, and his statistics wound up looking impressive: 11-for-14 passing, 175 yards, two touchdowns and a 2-point conversion pass.
But everything requires perspective. On the scoring drive that cut the Memphis lead to 28-25, Madsen threw a high sideline pass that was nearly intercepted. On the next play, he hooked up with Billy Bowens for a 52-yard catch-and-run that kept the Broncos in the game — mostly because Memphis defensive back Cameron Smith took a bad angle to take himself out of the play and allow Bowens to maneuver to make a nice grab.
Madsen’s final drive came in a 2-minute drill with the Tigers in a loose, prevent, zone defense because they had a double-digit lead. He threw mostly short passes to open receivers who got chunks of yardage.
Madsen shows a lot of potential and doesn’t seem to get rattled. He looked effective running a hurry-up offense that had Memphis backpedaling. But there’s a reason Green is the starting quarterback. So what’s the situation now?
Green is barely completing 50% of his passes on the season. He still misses badly on a lot of throws, but he’s also connecting on some big plays, and his running ability is a well-known strength. Thing is, the Broncos seem intent on avoiding being pigeonholed as a run-first offense, which means they need a confident quarterback. Does Saturday’s development bust Green’s confidence? Or is he lacking that confidence already, something the coaches noticed, precipitating the change to Madsen?
Main drive: Nursing a 28-25 lead after a Boise State TD, Memphis went 75 yards in 13 plays for a score to put the game away, taking 6:40 off the clock in the process. The Tigers converted on two third-down plays and scored on third-and-goal from the 1, with RB Blake Watson just barely hitting the goal line before Boise State’s Zion Washington made a great play to punch the ball loose.
Main stat: Boise State’s defense still can’t get off the field on third down enough. One week after San Diego State converted 7-of-13 third-down opportunities, Memphis went 6-of-13. Chances to end drives and force punts are too often turning into scoring drives for opponents.
Main gripe: Put the so-called Clydesdale package out to pasture. It’s not cute anymore, if it ever was. It’s largely ineffective. It got smothered on back-to-back plays at the goal line in the first quarter, and then when Green threw to wide-open defensive lineman Michael Callahan, a Memphis DB knocked the ball away easily. This short-yardage scheme, based on girth, made the team trade a TD for a field goal. You know why defensive linemen are defensive linemen? So they don’t have to block or catch passes. Enough already. The Broncos have Jeanty, a good offensive line and a fleet-footed QB. Just run the damn offense.
Up next: Boise State returns to Albertsons Stadium for the first time since a Sept. 16 win over North Dakota, hosting Mountain West foe San Jose State at 6 p.m. Saturday. The Spartans (1-4, 0-1) will be well-rested coming off their bye week, but their lone win came against FCS Cal Poly.