Boise State got back into the Top 25 without the help of Ian Johnson, but having the star running back would certainly improve the Broncos’ chances of remaining there.
The 21st-ranked Broncos (7-1, 4-0) could have Johnson return to their backfield as they look to remain undefeated against San Jose State (3-5, 2-2) - and in WAC home games - on Saturday.
Boise State has won six straight, including two in a row without Johnson, and moved into the poll this week for the first time since falling out after a loss in their second game of the season. The Broncos - winners of all 26 of their WAC home games and 7-0 overall against the Spartans - will move into a tie with No. 12 Hawaii for first place in the conference if they win Saturday.
Having Johnson back would be a big boost. The emotional leader on offense, Johnson was cleared to practice this week after missing time with a bruised kidney.
Boise State coach Chris Petersen said Johnson’s status is uncertain, with a lot depending on the junior’s ability to get back in game shape after two weeks off.
“Unless we have a weird setback of any sort, which we don’t anticipate, we’ll get him in the mix,” Petersen said. “We want to be smart with him. We’ve got to get his legs going, see how he holds up conditioning-wise, see how he holds up.”
Johnson leads the team with 693 yards rushing and nine touchdowns. He has been particularly effective at Bronco Stadium, running for 1,258 yards and 19 touchdowns on 198 carries in nine games.
Johnson ran for 149 yards and a touchdown in a 23-20 win at San Jose State on Nov. 11 in the teams’ last meeting.
Despite their top back’s absence, the Broncos have remained effective on the ground.
Backups Jeremy Avery and D.J. Harper combined to rush for 277 yards and four TDs in a 34-21 win at Fresno State on Friday. They combined for 132 yards rushing and a touchdown in a 45-31 victory at Louisiana Tech the previous week.
Harper and Avery are expected to remain involved even when Johnson comes back. Boise State has one of the best ground attacks in the country at 214.1 yards per game, second-best in the WAC and 14th nationally.
Peterson says much of the credit for the Broncos’ success on offense should go to the line. Boise State averages nearly 42 points per game, and Taylor Tharp has been sacked only eight times.
“We have a really good offensive line and we’ve known that now for a while,” Petersen said. “They’re getting in a groove. We certainly wouldn’t be doing what we’re doing on offense … it all starts on the offensive line.”
San Jose State, meanwhile, is coming off one of its worst offensive games of the season, losing 30-0 to Fresno State on Oct. 20.
The Spartans had a bye week to try and make corrections. They averaged 30.0 points in their previous four games, winning three.
“We got some guys healthier, but I think the biggest thing was that we got the opportunity to get away from football,” San Jose State coach Dick Tomey said. “We are mentally refreshed. So hopefully, we will come back in the last four weeks and play our best football of the season.”
Inept kicking has plagued the Spartans all year. Will Johnson missed two field goals in the first half against Fresno State, stretching San Jose State’s streak of missed field goals to nine.
Tomey abandoned his kicking game after Johnson’s second miss and San Jose State failed to convert on four straight fourth downs in Bulldogs territory. Tomey has given the kicking duties back to Jared Strubeck.
Johnson was given a chance after Strubeck made just two of nine field-goal attempts this year. Strubeck came into the season having made 66 percent (20-for-30) of his attempts.
Adam Tafralis leads the San Jose State offense, passing for 1,917 yards and 12 touchdowns with 10 interceptions. He also tops the team with 235 yards rushing.
The Spartans are averaging just 2.4 yards per rush and have scored three touchdowns on the ground. They have been outrushed 1,435-574.
San Jose State, however, is second in the conference and tied for sixth nationally with 15 interceptions.