APTOPIX Air Force Boise St Football

Boise State running back Robert Mahone (34) dives into the end zone for a touchdown after breaking the tackle attempt by Air Force defensive back Jeremy Fejedelem (2) during a game Sept. 20.

LAS VEGAS — Always one to keep his team grounded and focused on the task at hand, Boise State football coach Bryan Harsin made sure this week to not let his players feel too good about themselves.

Sure the Broncos are 4-0 and climbing in the Top 25 rankings, and on paper they seem to have a lopsided matchup with a struggling UNLV team Saturday night.

But while the record may be unblemished, all involved know the play on the field has been anything but perfect. And that’s the carrot they’ve used the past two weeks as the Broncos come off an open date on the schedule and head to Las Vegas as three touchdown favorites against the Rebels.

“It’s pretty easy actually to keep it there when you start going back and looking at things we have to get better at,” Harsin said.

While the Broncos certainly did their homework on UNLV and have prepared to play them, it seems the last two weeks have been used largely to focus on themselves and the key areas they need to improve through four games.

They may not need to be perfect to beat UNLV, but the Broncos know tougher games against Hawaii and BYU are right around the corner — and the time to see improvements is now.

For starters, the Broncos would love to get the run game going. Boise State ranks No. 94 with an average of just 3.87 yards per rush, and their 153.5 yards per game average comes in at No. 74. They have just six rushing touchdowns through four games, which ranks 80th.

“We’ve kind of started off slow, but I feel like for sure we’ll pick it up,” Boise State running back Rob Mahone said. “I feel like we have a lot to improve. I think UNLV will be a great test for us and hopefully we can get that run game started.”

The offensive line is partly to blame for the struggles in the run game, and for the large number of hits freshman quarterback Hank Bachmeier has taken so far. An injury to right tackle John Ojukwu in the first half of the season opener at Florida State has forced shuffling to the group up front, but the original starting five might finally be back against the Rebels.

Offensively the Broncos also hope to capitalize in the red zone against UNLV. Boise State ranks No. 114 among 130 FBS teams with a touchdown percentage in the red zone of just 47 percent (8 of 17). That would help the Broncos with their biggest goal — score more points. They rank 62nd nationally with an average of 31.3 points per game.

On defense the Broncos are focused on a faster start. They’ve been one of the best defenses in the country in the second half, but have struggled some in the first half. They also are hoping for more takeaways. Boise State’s defense has forced just five turnovers through four games, which ranks No. 86 in the country.

“We know when we look at ourselves we haven’t played a perfect game yet,” safety Kekaula Kaniho said. “There’s a lot of things to clean up from the last four games. We need to play the best game we possibly can and we haven’t done that yet. I think that’s the main focus for us as a defense, focusing on ourselves and trying to play to the best of our ability from the start.”

The Broncos will look to play a more complete game against a UNLV team that struggles to do much well. The Rebels have a solid punter in Hayes Hicken, they don’t commit many penalties and they run the ball decently. That’s about it.

The Rebels rank near the bottom of the country in most statistical areas including scoring offense (88th, 26.0 ppg) and scoring defense (119th, 37,3 ppg). They are bad in the red zone, bad on third downs both on offense and defense and one of the worst in the country in turnover margin (123rd, -1.50 per game).

UNLV does have running back Charles Rogers, who is fourth nationally among running backs with at least 40 carries with an average of 8.6 yards per rush. As a team the Rebels rank 34th nationally with an average of 5.17 yards per rush.

Boise State’s rush defense has been solid this season, but the Broncos have challenged themselves to shut down Williams and have their best defensive performance of the season.

“We’ll never be perfect, but that’s what we’re striving for,” defensive lineman David Moa said.

With so much still to improve on the Broncos appear to have plenty of motivation to play well at Sam Boyd Stadium. And there wouldn’t seem to be any chance at a letdown with the way Harsin regularly preaches to them about staying focused on the task at hand.

“Every single week you go out there and if you’re not ready to play, somebody is going to beat you,” Harsin said. “It might not be the game itself, but you’re going to get beat on plays and guys understand the more plays we lose, the higher percentage we have of losing the game.”

Harsin reminded his team of Appalachian State going into Chapel Hill and beating North Carolina earlier this season, and San Jose State winning at Arkansas in a stunning upset last week. The same could happen to the Broncos if they sleepwalk into Las Vegas and assume they’ll win by 50 points.

“I think the reality is how quickly it can turn if you’re not prepared to play and the other team is,” Harsin said.

Boise State shouldn’t have much trouble with UNLV late Saturday night, but it’s more about how the Broncos play than the final score. Boise State hopes to take a step forward with a more complete performance as the schedule prepares to get more difficult.

The Broncos are a top-20 team, the highest-ranked Group of Five team and the favorite at this point to win the Mountain West and play in the Cotton Bowl. But don’t try talking to them about that.

“Coach Harsin does a really good job of grounding the team and nobody ever mentioned all week about being undefeated or our current ranking,” left guard John Molchon said. “I don’t even know what we’re ranked right now. It’s cool how all the guys are super focused on the next game and understanding what’s at stake and being prepared for it.”

B.J. Rains is the Boise State beat writer for the Idaho Press and a two-time winner of the NSMA Idaho Sports Writer of the Year Award. Follow him on Twitter @BJRains. 

B.J Rains has covered Boise State athletics for the Idaho Press since 2013. He is an Associated Press Top 25 men's basketball poll voter, and also contributes to KBOI-TV as a Boise State insider.

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