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Fiesta Bowl debate: Can Boise State win without Austin Pettis?

With Austin Pettis's availability in doubt for the Broncos' biggest game of the season, you have to wonder: Can Boise State win without one of their most important offensive weapons?

Read along after the jump for a debate between me and Nick that covers all points of the discussion, and feel free to share your take on the topic in the comments. If Austin Pettis can't go, what will that mean for the Broncos? If he can go, can we have a party? I'll bring the cherry 7up.

(Note: The latest on Austin Pettis is officially that he is a game-time decision. However, Coach Pete gave all Bronco fans a ray of hope when he said, "Austin's going to be right down to the wire. I think in his mind, he's playing." Thank you, Austin Pettis's mind. I will now get the first real sleep since the BCS bowl announcement.)

Nick and I tackled this topic with a friendly email-debate-turned-passive-aggressive-flame-war. It was fun. Nick took the side of "doubtfully cautious" and I took the side of "everything's gonna be alright." Will the Broncos be fine without Pettis? Can they find a way to win? Let's find out.


Kevan: The Boise State offense cannot be brought down by just one man ... unless that man is Mike Coughlin. Austin Pettis's injury is huge, but it is not a dealbreaker for the Broncos winning the Fiesta Bowl. An injury to Kellen Moore? Dealbreaker. Center-QB exchanges falling off the wagon? Dealbreaker. But the Boise State Broncos are too well-coached, too deep, and too good to let the loss of one star player bring their team to ruin. Boise State can win without Austin Pettis.



Let the record show that Pettis had zero catches against Nevada and New Mexico State, and Boise State went 2-0 in those games. A big reason why? Doug Martin, Jeremy Avery, Kellen Moore, and bad WAC defenses. Three of the four will be back for the Fiesta, which means the Boise State offense still has plenty of firepower left.

If Doug Martin and Jeremy Avery keep running like they have in the past several weeks, Boise State's offense will be fine. TCU's rush defense is No. 3 in the country, allowing only 80 yards per game, but they have not faced a dynamic backfield like Martin and Avery since they saw C.J. Spiller back in September. Look at the Mountain West Conference rushing charts. There are only two running backs who cracked 1,000 yards on the season - Eddie Wide from Utah with 1,032 and Harvey Unga of BYU with 1,016. The Horned Frogs shut down Wide, but they let Unga rush for 123 yards on 21 carries - a steady, bruising performance that featured a long run of only 16.

If Pettis can't go, that will put the onus on the Bronco running game, an onus that Doug Martin will bust through like a coupon mom through a Sunday paper and one that Jeremy Avery will run around like a Coach Pete press conference. And don't even think about stacking the box with eight defenders. Titus Young is fast, Kellen Moore is good, and the Broncos already know their way to the Fiesta Bowl end zones.

The Bronco offense has options with Pettis out, not the least of which is Martin and Avery. If the running game gets going, Boise State can win.

Nick, agreed?


Nick: Yes, if the Bronco offense can get the running game going, Boise State's chances for winning increase drastically. That's a huge "if". Looking back on last year's game, Boise State had 28 total rushing yards -- 20 of which came on Ian Johnson's TD run. On top of that, Boise State's running game has not been as consistent as we all would like (unless you only look at Doug Martin carries, but I digress).



If I were TCU, I would be gameplanning for Boise State the same way TCU did last year. That is, to stop the run, force Boise State into a passing game, and unleash Jerry Hughes. That places the onus on Boise State's passing game.

Kellen Moore has been amazing this year, but he couldn't do it on his own. The main player to help him out this year has been Austin Pettis. Pettis single-handedly seemed to solve Boise State's red zone woes, he was always able to get past he sticks for a big first down catch, and he caught anything that was within five feet of him. Kellen Moore is at his best when he is in the pocket with plenty of time to throw. He is at his worst when he is throwing off his back foot. Austin Pettis has been able to to bail out Kellen many times this year by his amazing hands and body control. If he's not able to go and be a viable option for Kellen, I'm worried.

In short, with Austin Pettis playing, Boise State has more room for error. Without him, Kellen Moore will have to be perfect on all his throws. That's a tall task when he has to worry about pressure from TCU's defense, especially on known passing downs. Yes, Boise State can beat TCU without Austin Pettis if they are able to run the ball and contain Jerry Hughes. Will they be able to do those two things? I'm having my doubts.


Kevan: First off, I'm not comfortable with our using the word "onus" so much. It's a little too Dustin-Lapray-meets-proctologist for my taste.

Now, I thought you might hide behind the "Boise State can't run on TCU" argument, which is fine. Boise State does not need to run the ball to win against TCU. They do, however, need to protect Kellen Moore.

The Broncos made a subtle shift in offensive philosophy this season, changing from a run-first team to a pass-first team. They did not do so because Austin Pettis was playing wide receiver. The Broncos made the change because the entire offensive personnel fits the pass-first system better. Kellen Moore throws like an angel sent from God's 7-on-7 angel passing camp. The offensive line pass blocks as if Kellen Moore has leprosy. The backs, wide receivers, and tight ends could have squatter's rights in the open zones of any secondary.

Boise State's offense succeeds as a sum of its parts, not due to any one individual. Look it up. I started a Wikipedia entry.

As with any sum, there are addends, and the biggest addend for the Fiesta Bowl is the one you alluded to: Boise State's pass blocking against TCU's pass rush. Will the Broncos keep Moore as clean as a Dr. James Dobson roast? I have faith. The line has done its job this season against some pretty fierce pass rushes in Oregon, San Jose State, Louisiana Tech, and Nevada. Nate Potter owned Jerry Hughes last season except for one play. I worry more about the pressure up the middle because, as you said, Kellen Moore throwing off his back foot is a recipe for catastrophe.

Note that all of the above has very little to do with Austin Pettis. Note also that I did not use the word "onus." (Shoot!) The lesson here is that the Broncos have players at key positions who can make the difference in the game.

I believe that if Kellen Moore is left alone to his own devices, he could throw passes that anyone could catch, including Titus Young, Kirby Moore, Mitch Burroughs, Tom Scott, a wax statue of Jeff Caves, Loque, and the Idaho Powerball mascot. The Idaho Powerball mascot, Nick. His arms don't even reach each other!



Kellen Moore at his best would supersede the lack of a running game, and it would make the Broncos very tough to beat, no matter who is catching passes.

That said, I take it you have some disparaging things to say about Boise State's wide receiver depth.


Nick: Me hide behind the "Boise State can't run on TCU" argument? I believe that was just me responding to your argument that I'll sum up best by using your words -- "If Pettis can't go, that will put the onus on the Bronco running game." And, yes, that was you breaking out the word "onus" first. I guess that's what I get for letting you lead.

And, yes the Bronco offense's success is due to the sum of its parts, not any individual. However, when you subtract a rather substantial piece from that sum, it drops significantly. If Kellen were possibly out for the Fiesta Bowl, would you be throwing up synergy cliches? I doubt it. In fact, judging by the long list of people Kellen Moore could throw perfect passes to that you noted, I know you wouldn't be throwing out those cliches.

And, really? The Powerball mascot? That guy's massive. How could Moore not hit him? And he's made of foam, so I bet the ball would just be absorbed. He doesn't even need hands. They're merely decoration.

So, can we agree that as much as we'd like to throw out phrases like "reload" and think that the Boise State offense is a giant machine and when one part breaks, we just replace it and move on, some injuries hurt more that others. Aside from Kellen Moore going down, Austin Pettis is second on my list as most devastating.

Now, onto the "disparaging" remarks that you are expecting. I don't have anything against Mitch Burroughs, Chris Potter, or Kirby Moore. The fact is that Young and Pettis have separated themselves from the rest of the crop this year. Titus is a legit deep threat with the occasional screen and end around. Pettis has been a more typical possession receiver and, as much as I hate using the word, "clutch" player. He makes plays. If he's unable to go, hopefully the young guys don't blink in the spotlight.


Kevan: How dare you use my words against me. I had no idea we would be stooping to accountability in this debate.

As tempted as I am to turn this debate into a discussion of Powerball anatomy, I will refrain. Let me instead respond to your surprisingly polite assessment of Boise State's WR depth. Young and Pettis had indeed separated themselves from the rest of Boise State's receivers, much like Randy Moss and Wes Welker of the New England Patriots (in this scenario, Mitch Burroughs would be Isaiah Stanback). The question I'll hope you skip over is this: Can Young be as effective when Pettis is gone?

Let's assume the answer is yes because assumptions are pretty good debate tactics if I remember right. Tyler Shoemaker will be back healthy by bowl time, which will make him a prime target in the slot. A healthy Shoemaker would allow Kirby Moore to move outside and into Pettis's old spot. Possession receiver solved. It's like a 50-piece Looney Tunes jigsaw puzzle, it's so easy.



And let's not forget the role that the Boise State defense can play in making up for Pettis's absence. If I were to say that the Bronco defense will hold the Horned Frogs to 14 points, wouldn't you take that in a second? Given all the different ways the Broncos have to score (offense, special teams, defense, Bronco stock), you'd have to like BSU's chances. Ultimately, the team with the most points at the end of the game wins. And if the Bronco defense comes to play, the loss of Pettis will be minimized.


Nick: Can I borrow your copy of "Most common football cliches" when you're done? Of course the team with the most points at the end wins. I'd be more prone to this argument if Boise State would have actually beaten TCU last year. Horned Frog fans would have been especially irked had they lost after outgaining Boise State 472 - 250 total yards, but I digress.

Seeing how this argument is about Pettis's injury and its impact to Boise State's chances of winning and since he plays on offense, I assume this argument boils down to Boise State's offense versus TCU's defense. That's at least how I'm going to play it.

Titus Young and Austin Pettis have done their best impression of Randy Moss of Wes Welker if this were 2007, Randy Moss caught screen passes and Wes Welker were about a foot taller. You do bring up a good point that we have failed to address so far: How would the absence of Austin Pettis impact Titus Young? Normally, I would think that TCU would put more emphasis on covering Young and force the other receivers to make plays. However, with our collection of good TEs and Moore's penchant for distributing the ball, I'm really not too worried about this.




Kevan: Strange you say that because I think that TCU would be smart to not put more emphasis on covering Titus Young based on the fact that he has yet to prove he can be the No. 1 receiver that Pettis was. Did we just switch sides in this debate and not even know it? You're high on TEs and Kellen Moore being able to pick up the slack and I'm low on Young's potential as a go-to receiver? I'm so confused, or as my book of modern football cliches says: "Playoffs?!"

Let's get myself back on track. If the Pettis debate comes down to Boise State's offense versus TCU's defense, then let's get to the nitty-gritty of how his absence will specifically impact the game. Will TCU put 8 men in the box? They better not because Kellen Moore will make them pay. Will they double Titus Young? They better not because Kellen Moore will find an open man. Will they blitz unmercilessly? Not unless they want Kellen Moore to shred them.

The Horned Frogs have no strategical advantage with Pettis out of the game. Wow, that was a broad statement.


Nick: Let me clarify my previous statements. With Pettis out, Kellen Moore will find other receivers. He's proven he can do that when he completed 17 passes against Nevada to 9 different receivers. My worries aren't whether Kellen can find other receivers, but the type of routes he finds them on and whether or not his receivers make the catch - particularly in the red zone.

Also, you forgot one thing in your rundown of TCU's defensive strategy. TCU has shown that they can get pressure with their front four. If Kellen is forced to throw quickly to a covered receiver, I'd feel much better if that was Pettis rather than Kirby Moore, Chris Potter, or Mitch Burroughs. The margin for error shrinks dramatically.

So yes, the Horned Frogs do have a strategical advantage with Pettis out. Get pressure with their front four, keep an eye out for a Titus Young screen, and force Boise State's young WRs to get open quickly when Kellen Moore needs them to.


Kevan: So I guess TCU's strategical advantage would be "base defense"?

Bottom line for me is that I believe the coaching staff will have figured something out by bowl time, and it will be far better than what we saw against NMSU. Kellen Moore is still Kellen Moore, the Bronco backs are playing better than they have all year, and the offensive line is hitting its stride. The Broncos will miss Austin Pettis, but all is not lost without him.


Nick: If your front four is good enough to play a base defense, then there's definitely no shame in it.

I'm not saying that the Broncos can't win without Pettis, just that the degree of difficulty just rose quite a few notches. I have faith in Chris Petersen and the rest of the Boise State coaching staff to do their homework and find matchups that they can exploit (in my perfect world -- Doug Martin on any play). However, with Pettis questionable, Boise State is definitely in the bottom quarter of my confidence points.


Kevan: It's almost as if the question has changed from "Can Boise State win without Austin Pettis" to "Can Boise State block TCU's defensive line." Judging by what I've seen from the Broncos' front five in recent weeks, I think they can. The extra time in the pocket will allow Kellen Moore to find his B team receivers, Doug Martin and Jeremy Avery will keep the defense honest by running effectively, and my 34 confidence points will vault me into the Bowl Pick 'Em lead.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to return my book of football cliches to Rod Gilmore.

Your turn

Do you think that Boise State can win without Austin Pettis? How will his loss impact the offense? Will the offense have enough left to outperform the vaunted TCU "D"? Share your thoughts in the comments.