BOISE – Hours before Boise State’s 45-17 win over New Mexico on senior night, an improbable blue and orange sunset illuminated an overcast evening.
Its glow revealed a fleeting glimpse at the horizon, which had been shrouded by grey clouds and light fog much of the day, like a gas torch inviting observers to the future – as that same sunset circles the earth indefinitely as it spins around the sun.
Many Boise State fans missed it. Some saw it and dismissed it – a sunset that failed to dominate the sky -- too little consolation for an otherwise dreary day.
The configuration, edges of the clouds and the odd color combination gave it the appearance of a Rorscharch test – a psychological exam using ink blots on paper.
How was the sky interpreted in Boise?
Earlier in the day, a formality concluded with Utah State defeating Wyoming and pushing the Broncos out of the inaugural Mountain West conference championship game.
After its fourth 8 p.m. or later Mountain time kick-off, the Broncos gave another ordinary performance, the seniors' last on The Blue. (Boise State will not be back for the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, as one reporter asked in jest.)
The highlight was a farewell to start the game, as Joe Southwick hobbled down the field after quick throws to the perimeter for a two play touchdown drive.
Baseball cap back on, the offense led by Grant Hedrick ,struggled in the first quarter (again), before hitting on big plays which looked easy against one of the country’s worst defenses (ranked 113th).
The young Broncos defense continued its late season resurgence, although the Lobos were without their two best players (quarterback Cole Gautsche and running back Kasey Carrier), while Jay Ajayi and Matt Miller moved up the all-time rankings.
With nothing on the line, it felt empty -- an exercise in record keeping.
It felt like transcribing a dull interview. Boise State’s often are -- great student-athletes, but trained to reveal nothing.
Sometimes their coach reveals something.
It was Petersen’s allusions to an audit afterward that were most interesting, on a night when Broncos fans gathered to discuss the state of the program as much as to cheer expected touchdowns, when it was long assumed to be a send-off for a Fresno State rematch.
Expectations and reality. It’s all up for interpretation.
Chris Petersen’s View
What happened this year?
“There are a lot of lessons in this season. You can work your tail off and do a lot of things right; we came up really short in two games and in two games we didn’t play nearly well enough,” Petersen said. “There are lessons in there that’s it’s not just going to happen. We have to make it happen, scratch and claw. It always comes down to the details. It’s a detail here and a detail there. I think these guys will learn that.”
It’s not just going to happen.
Did the Broncos take their success for granted?
Petersen and players seemed to imply so after the game.
And for the second time in a week, Petersen talked about misaligned expectations. Presumably he was speaking directly to Bronco Nation.
Expectations are too high.
“You win so much you become numb to the little things,” Petersen said. “And I think as coaches we are paranoid about everything, we are worried, but the Broncos will get it done. The parity is just too great out there. Everybody has good coaches, everybody has good players, and you see that and the emotion of the game is up and down. The Fresno-San Jose game, things like that happen. It is so much harder than people on the outside think it is. It is very hard to play at a high level and stay at a high level.”
What is a successful Bronco season? And what should fans expect?
Not even Petersen seemed to know Saturday night.
“We don’t focus on the record like (the media does),” Petersen said. “That’s all you guy are in to. You win those games by one point the other way and we do that ‘we are great and battle and all that’ and when we don’t ‘we can’t get it done’. What we worry about is ‘are we playing to our potential?’ Are we getting better and do we play to our potential?”
But earlier in the Saturday’s post-game press conference, Petersen spoke of a cathartic senior talk during the week.
The topic? The Broncos record.
“It was the first time we had spoke about our record and brought it up,” Petersen said. “But they all kind of did and it was like, ‘we need to remember this and it’s not how we want to feel.’”
When asked if the Broncos had played to their potential this season, Petersen would only say they’ve been too inconsistent.
Take that as a no, but with a few caveats.
“We have had a lot of different things going like every team does and lost a lot of guys along the way and played without our senior quarterback. We can go on and on but I’m proud of how these guys battled. There are lessons in it that can be taken for granted and we will be better moving forward.”
It all seemed a bit wishy-washy. The Boise State football program, not so much sinking as it witnessing the tide rise around it, is trying to get its bearings in a quickly changing environment.
So are fans.
Three Season Ticket Holders' View
John Morphey lives in Pocatello, has had season tickets for four years and drives up for every home game.
He thinks BSU was due.
“I think we have been spoiled,” Morphey said. “I think it’s completely different and it’s about time we get a few losses. There are many programs around the nation that experience this all the time and we kind of need it once awhile. I think it was too good for quite a while.”
Every Boise State fan has an opinion about the Pistol offense; most share Morphey’s.
“I personally think we need to go back to our roots a little bit,” Morphey said.” It’s been a little too transparent and it really hasn’t worked for the most part. We need to not be so obvious.”
Paul Dickenson graduated from BSU in 2003 and has been a season ticket holder for the last three years.
All three season-ticket holders interviewed for this story identified themselves as “realistic.” Each had a message for fans who they believe have become unrealistic.
“We have come very far very fast,” Dickenson said. “I’d tell them to get their head out of the clouds. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think we should lose to San Diego State two years in a row, but we still had the best record in all of college football the last 10 years and we’ve managed to keep our coach. If you think our heads in the clouds now, if coach Pete ever left, those same fans that are bandwagoners would be happy for an 8-4 season.”
The rest of the conference has gotten better, and that isn’t about to change, Dickenson said.
“I think some of the other team in Mountain West have caught up, where it was Boise and Fresno and no one else,” Dickenson said. “The college kids see they can go to a Utah State, Wyoming, or even a Colorado State and get on ESPN. I don’t think it’s been a step back, but the Mountain West is a lot deeper than it was in the years past.”
How does Boise State move back to its original spot – its feet resting in a Jacuzzi – not the unsuspecting frog in a rising pot of boiling water?
Fans have to grow up and show up.
“I think most fans have very unrealistic expectations and if you want to be a top 10 school or a perennial top 25 school, you need to sell out $25 tickets at the end of the year against New Mexico,” Dickenson said. “When you look at any of the old programs, they are sold out before the first game. The fans got spoiled. They didn’t know how good they had it. The program might have grown too fast too soon.”
A little more than 31,000 fans showed up Saturday night at Bronco Stadium, which has a capacity of 37,000.
Jeff Johnson has purchased four season tickets for the last six years, bringing different members of his family each game.
Saturday night he was in a suite with his wife while his daughters “roughed it,” in his normal seats.
Johnson has heard plenty of things he’d rather not sitting in those seats.
“There are guys that sit behind me and get all mad because we are losing, it’s like whatever,” Johnson said. “They are still winning most of their games. How can you complain when they had had so much success and one bad year, and it’s not even that bad? There are teams that would kill to have eight wins.”
But there’s another portion of the fan base -- don’t get Johnson started on them.
“We should be selling out every game and we don’t,” Johnson said. “It pisses me off. I think it is just fair-weather fans. They are definitely jumping off. It’s weak. They should be selling this stadium out every year, every game. If we’re not sold out they’re not going to expand (the stadium).”
Johnson knows things will get better.
He remembers the doomsayers after Jared Zabransky graduated in 2007, fresh off one of the most memorable games in college football history (the improbable 2007 Fiesta Bowl victory over Oklahoma).
“Now I just ignore them,” Johnson said. “They don’t know what they are talking about.”
But are things different this time?
Getting Statistics to Speak
There are plenty of ways to cherry pick statistics to bolster an argument.
Often nuanced, contextualized statistics only muddy an argument, making it less palatable for consumption.
Much of how the Broncos – as well as fans, those inside the program, and pundits/writers/analysts outside the program – see the program’s future is through the prism of offensive production.
Many believe the quality of the new system will have the most influence in how good the Broncos can be in the future.
How good is the new offense?
The Broncos have increased their point and yardage production from last year (points up by nearly 10 points a game, yardage up by about 80 yards a game), as BSU ranks in the top 20 in both yardage and points.
Not as high as they’ve been before, mind you.
And they’ve always played a weak schedule of defenses, at least relative to other conference and top offenses.
But it’s hard to imagine a team playing a weaker schedule of defenses than Boise State has in 2013.
Eight of the Broncos 12 opponents rank 93rd or worse in total defense and four rank 110th or worse.
Should that change how Broncos fans perceive the offenses’ yardage and points production?
Here’s one way to look at it.
Add up the Broncos’ yardage total for the season and compare it the average yardage total given up by BSU opponents this year.
The Broncos offense has averaged 470 yards a game.
The Broncos’ 12 opponents have combined to give up an average of 400 yards a game.
In other words, the Broncos have only managed put up an average of 70 more yards per game than their opponent normally yield.
Not great, but the regular season’s end showed a troubling trend.
In the last three games, each of which Grant Hedrick, the presumptive leader in next year’s quarterback battle, has played the bulk of, BSU put up fewer yards than its opponent normally yields.