BOISE — If Boise State defensive coordinator Jeff Schmedding could get his way, fourth down stops would be counted as a turnover for the defense.
“It’s called turnover on downs for a reason,” Schmedding said.
Currently the only official stats that go as takeaways are interceptions and fumble recoveries. And the Broncos rank No. 58 nationally with 17 turnovers forced.
But Boise State’s defense has been great on fourth down this year. It ranks No. 2 nationally with a conversion rate of just 28.57 percent, allowing just six first downs to opposing offenses in 21 attempts on fourth down.
That means Boise State’s defense has got the ball back for the offense 15 times as a result of stops on fourth down. That’s nearly as many times as the 17 interceptions and fumble recoveries they’ve secured.
“Really, we treat them like a takeaway,” Schmedding said. “If a guy fumbles for no gain, everybody says it’s a takeaway. But it’s the same thing. You’re taking the momentum away from an offense and with the explosive offenses that you play now, I mean how many plays are you taking off of a series or a game with those stops?”
The 15 fourth-down stops are the most for Boise State’s defense since they had 16 in 2014, but that came on 28 attempts. Boise State hasn’t held opponents below their current 28.57 percent conversion rate on fourth down in more than a decade.
The Broncos haven’t finished a season holding opponents below 50 percent on fourth down since the 42.86 percent mark (12 of 28) in 2014.
UNLV went for it on fourth down five times against the Broncos but only converted once. Portland State and New Mexico both went for it on fourth down two times and were stopped both times.
Florida State was 1 for 2 on fourth down against the Broncos, while Hawaii was successful just once in three attempts. Utah State was unsuccessful on its only fourth down attempt against the Broncos, while Colorado State had one conversion in two attempts.
And the Broncos made key fourth-down stops against both Air Force and Wyoming that helped them win those games. The stop against Wyoming came late in the fourth quarter and stopped the Cowboys from having a shot at kicking a game-winning field goal.
“It’s huge,” linebacker Benton Wickersham said of getting a fourth-down stop. “We talk about the turnovers and stuff and as a defense … it works that way because the offense is getting the ball right there. It’s been big for us.
“We spend a lot of time on it during those Thursday and Friday practices making sure we’re dialed in on that and locked in to stop everything we’re going to see and so far we’ve done pretty well.”
How important has Boise State’s success on fourth down been this season? The only game in which the Broncos allowed multiple fourth down conversions to their opponent was in their only loss to BYU. The Cougars converted both fourth down attempts against the Broncos, including one in the final seconds that kept Boise State from having a chance at a comeback.
“To me they are huge, absolutely huge,” Schmedding said. “You love the interceptions, you love the strip fumbles and all those things, but you stop them on a drive and now you’re getting more and more fourth down attempts across the board, you’re getting quite a few, and I’ve been really proud of our guys with how we’ve played them.
“I think we could have a couple more, but that’s how we always look at it as coaches and players. You think about the ones people did convert, but really over the course of the year we’ve done a good job with it.”
Many times this year, including the late stop against Wyoming, Boise State’s defensive players said they knew what play the opposing team was going to run due to their preparation earlier in the week. But adjusting when the offense throws a curveball has been key as well.
“You can anticipate it but they don’t have a contract that says they have to run that play,” Schmedding said. “If they run a different play we have to be able to follow our rules and our fundamentals and technique have to take over and we have to get those stops.”
It seems like a simple and obvious formula: create turnovers on defense and have success on third and fourth down and it will be tough for opposing offenses to move the ball and put up points.
But it’s proven to be true this year for the Broncos, especially on fourth down. The Broncos rank No. 2 nationally in percentage, but are No. 1 among teams with at least 20 attempts against them.
And it’s helped result in an 11-1 record and a scoring defense that ranks No. 27 nationally at just 21.5 points allowed per game.
“That’s just the money down,” safety Tyreque Jones said. “Third down and fourth down are money downs. Third down is money and fourth down is big money. If you win on those downs more than likely you’re putting your offense in a good position to go score and that’s what we want to do.”
Fourth downs will likely be key in Saturday's Mountain West title game against Hawaii. Kickoff is set for 2 p.m. at Albertsons Stadium.