After five games, the No. 24 Broncos have gotten so good that the defense ranks among the best in the nation in creating turnovers, averaging nearly one takeaway per quarter.
So far, the young defense's knack for stripping balls and picking off opposing quarterbacks is a big reason a rebuilding Boise State (4-1, 1-0 Mountain West) is back in the AP Top 25.
Saturday's 41-14 victory at Southern Miss was a prime example. The defense picked off two passes in the first half, giving the offense a short field en route to a 24-0 lead at the half. The defense also recovered three fumbles to help preserve the win.
Coach Chris Petersen was at a loss Saturday to explain his team's thieving ways. But defensive lineman Darren Koontz attributed Boise State's 17 takeaways—tied for second best nationally with Oregon and UCLA—to a mindset that makes stripping, punching and jarring the football out of a ball carrier's arms an essential part of tackling.
"We've always paid attention to the turnover battle ... just because it's a big statistic in the outcome of a game." Koontz said. "Getting a turnover just gets everyone pumped up and gets the offense out there in a good mood. It can change the game so much, change the energy of the game."
All season long the Broncos defense has specialized in bolstering the mood of the offense. Against Michigan State and in a 7-6 victory over BYU, the interceptions returned for touchdowns offset an offense struggling to move the chains and score consistently. The defense notched five takeaways against Michigan State, five more against BYU, and two weeks ago three recovered fumbles helped stake Boise State to a 25-0 halftime lead at New Mexico.
"We know the defense has our backs," said offensive tackle Charles Leno. "But they have always been a big part of our game."
The Broncos are poised to meet their match when it comes to takeaways Saturday.
Conference rival Fresno State comes to Boise ranked tops in the nation in the turnover battle. The Bulldogs (4-2, 2-0 Mountain West) lead the nation with 18 takeaways—six fumbles and 12 interceptions in six games.
Boise State, which has also excelled at taking care of the ball on offense, is actually better than the Bulldogs in the turnover margin.
The Boise State offense and special teams suffered a blow in the Southern Miss win when receiver Mitch Burroughs went down with a wrist injury.
Burroughs has 12 catches on the season, third best on the team. But the senior is also one of Petersen's trusted punt and kick returners. Petersen said Burroughs will undergo tests Monday and said it's likely he'll be out for a while.
"We just miss him as an all-around player," Petersen said. He's "a senior who is all about the team, who does everything right on and off the field, who just wants to play and do whatever he can do and you really trust him because he knows our stuff inside and out."
Burroughs' return duties will likely be handled by Chris Potter, who has shared that role with Burroughs in the past.