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On a whiteboard in the office of Boise State defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox were three short lines of writing—no more than a dozen words and numbers total. Wilcox pointed to them as he made what he believed to be the key point in the Broncos' 19--8 victory over No. 16 Oregon last Thursday night. "Three base defensive calls, that's all we gave them," Wilcox said. "There were no gimmicks. It was nothing earth-shattering. This was about lining up and competing harder than the guy across from you."
There is a tendency, when analyzing No. 14 Boise State's rise to prominence over the last eight seasons, to fixate on the offense, with its many facets, occasional trickery and talented players, such as sophomore quarterback Kellen Moore. But don't overlook the defense, which stymied Oregon's vaunted spread-option attack, holding the Ducks without a first down until midway through the third quarter and tailback LeGarrette Blount to minus-five yards rushing. If anything, it's the defense that could turn Boise State from mere BCS buster to national title contender.
Says sophomore defensive tackle Billy Winn, who had a safety in the second quarter when he blew through the line and dumped Blount a couple of yards deep in the end zone, "We let people know we can stop a good offense by playing harder and by doing what we were told."
The one giving the instructions for the past four seasons has been Wilcox, the son of Pro Football Hall of Fame linebacker Dave Wilcox. Justin Wilcox, 32, played defensive back for the Ducks in the 1990s, part of the program's Gang Green defenses, and would have preferred that his unit's success had not come at the expense of his alma mater. Wilcox's job in the off-season was to replace six starters from a unit that in 2008 gave up only 12.6 points a game, third best in the nation.
The standout on this year's defense is senior cornerback Kyle Wilson, the WAC preseason defensive player of the year who could play at any school. Among the others who excelled last week were lanky sophomore linebacker Aaron Tevis (6'3", 214 pounds), a lightly recruited player who had a big interception in the third quarter, and undersized redshirt freshman linebacker J.C. Percy (6 feet, 214), a former walk-on who forced a fumble early in the fourth quarter. Time and again the defense propped up an uncharacteristically sloppy performance by the offense, which fumbled four times, losing three. After the last of those fumbles, at the Boise 35 midway through the fourth quarter, the Broncos stopped the Ducks on downs, effectively sealing the win.
"There are a lot of kids who physically can play college football," Wilcox says, "but it is about getting the right ones, the ones who have the intangibles, who will never give up. We have some skilled players, but we have a lot of kids who just fight. Without them we'd be just another team."
A team like, say, the Ducks, a preseason dark horse for a BCS championship game berth that looked, at best, like a middle-of-the-pack Pac-10 team against Boise State. The Ducks showed their only bite after the game, when Blount punched Boise State defensive end Byron Hout (who had taunted Blount in some postgame jawing) and then tried to go after some heckling fans as he was escorted to the locker room. Soon afterward Blount apologized, but on Friday he was suspended for the season. Sadly, his outburst stole attention from the story line that mattered most: By defeating Oregon, the Broncos passed the biggest test on their schedule. All that's left between Boise State and an undefeated season and a potential BCS bowl berth are WAC opponents and nonconference foes Miami of Ohio, Bowling Green, Cal-Davis and Tulsa.
"We are just going to keep working on taking that next step and becoming a good team," Broncos coach Chris Petersen says. "We won, but we also learned that we have a ways to go. We are a work in progress." Make no mistake, however—when it comes to the Boise State defense, progress has been made. "I know everyone wants to see us win 55--50," Petersen adds, "but what's wrong with winning with defense?"
Not a thing.