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December 11, 2013

First Look: Boise State

These are difficult days at Boise State.

Formerly a media darling as king of the BCS-busters, the Broncos are now transitioning to a new era in the wake of the sudden departure by Chris Petersen, who accepted a five-year, $18-million contract offer from Washington to become the Huskies new head coach.

Boise State (8-4) named top assistant and linebackers coach Bob Gregory as interim coach, and his grueling task is to diligently prepare the Bronco players in the face of challenging circumstances for the Dec. 24 Hawaii Bowl matchup against Oregon State.

"The change has been dramatic at times, but our guys have been great," Gregory said Sunday. "Our kids are resilient. The great thing is with coach (Chris) Petersen, our staff and our players, we do have a process that is in place.

"There is an unbelievable foundation and I couldn't be luckier or more fortunate. It just keeps rolling along. I'm the guy who just blows the whistle when we change the drills. Our coordinators are in place, so we'll keep it going."

Boise State has won a conference championship or bowl every year since 2002 except for 2007, and the Broncos don't want to get blanked (Fresno State won the Mountain West title) for just the second time in 12 seasons.

Another streak will be on the line at Aloha Stadium in Honolulu as well - Boise State has beaten a Pac-12 team for five straight years. Following the season opening loss to, ironically, Washington, the Broncos have one last chance to extend the streak to six years.

Gregory, asked to lead the team through the bowl game, must try to steer a shorthanded staff (running backs coach and recruiting ace Keith Bhonapha was quickly hired by Petersen, leaving Boise with eight assistants for the bowl game) through a stretch that includes bowl practice, final exams and a weeklong trip to the gorgeous Hawaiian Islands.

And something else - heaps of media gossip about who the next head coach will be. According to multiple reports, Arkansas State head coach Bryan Harsin (former BSU quarterback and offensive coordinator), Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter (former BSU head coach from 1998-2000) have expressed serious interest in the coveted position along with Gregory and Broncos offensive line coach Chris Strausser.

"There is understandably some anxiety about what's going to happen over the next few weeks," Gregory said. "I can't say enough about the kids that we have in this program. I know that they're all going to do it the right way. Our kids are not going to go over there and be distracted. They'll have time to go to the beach and have fun.

"When it's time to practice, they'll focus. They'll do that regardless. That's what they've done all year and that's what this program is all about. I don't anticipate that being any different than the way it's been. Transition is part of our profession. The ups and downs, we're kind of used to it a little bit. It's part of what we deal with."

Whoever is handed the reins in Boise has enormous size 18 shoes to fill - Petersen was 92-12 with two Fiesta Bowl wins, two undefeated seasons and two wins over Oregon in eight years as Boise State head coach.

Boise State has already practiced a couple of times in anticipation of the bowl game. However, with the coaching situation in flux, the school has shut down recruiting. Eight prospects had visits scheduled for this past weekend, but they were postponed.

"It's not fair to the coaches or recruits," Gregory said. "We can't really give those kids answers."

In addition to the speculation swirling around the Boise State program, another important question for the Broncos is the status of senior quarterback Joe Southwick, who played one series in the Nov. 30 victory over New Mexico two weekends ago.

Southwick (72.6 completion percentage; 1,654 yards and 12 TDs) suffered a broken ankle on Oct. 19 against Nevada and was replaced by Grant Hedrick, a dual threat signal-caller with 257 rushing yards, second highest on the team.

Gregory said the extent of Southwick's role in the Hawaii Bowl has not been determined, but he should make his ninth appearance of the season against the Beavers.

"Joe is probably going to play," Gregory said. "He practiced today (Sunday). Obviously, every day he's getting a little bit better. I certainly anticipate him playing. But I couldn't tell you if he'll start or the number of reps."

Contrary to myth, Boise State doesn't operate a wide-open, gimmickry offensive attack (one spectacularly memorable game-winning two-point conversion in the Fiesta Bowl doesn't make an offense). Petersen favored running between the tackles out of the spread supplemented by highly accurate throws from the quarterback.

"Nothing is going to change in the short-time before a bowl game," said Gregory, who has never been a head coach at any level. "It's going to be fun leading this group of guys."

Boise State ran the ball 525 times out of 947 offensive snaps (55.4 percent) during the regular season and leaned on running back Jay Ajayi (1,328 yards on 226 carries; only 29 lost yards) as much as anybody on the offensive side of the ball.

Junior receiver Matt Miller (77 receptions for 934 yards and 11 touchdowns) was named Boise State's offensive MVP - setting the stage for a tasty duel with the Beavers' Brandin Cooks - at the team banquet on Sunday, while Broncos defensive end Demarcus Lawrence (67 tackles, 10.5 sacks, 19.5 TFL) was named defensive MVP.

Shane Williams-Rhodes also caught 77 passes and serves as Boise State's intermediate threat in the passing game (9.1 yards per catch) and as the No. 1 punt returner (14.6 yards per return). He missed the New Mexico game with an injury.

"We have a chance to win nine games, which many teams in the country would like," Gregory said. "We're going to a great bowl game and playing a very good opponent. Our guys are fired up to play a very good, bowl-eligible Pac-12 team. It will be fun for our guys."

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