It won’t go down as one of the most impressive wins on the blue turf at Albertsons Stadium, but it was an important one for the Boise State Broncos.
After dropping their last two home games the previous season, a streak not seen in the previous 18 years, the Broncos got back on track Saturday against the Washington State Cougars, but not before making it very interesting.
The Broncos never trailed in a 31-28 victory, yet never felt comfortable. After a 35-point win to open the season at Louisiana, the Cougars provided a far more demanding foe.
“We did not face adversity in our first game ... we got a chance to see that tonight,” Boise State coach Bryan Harsin said.
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Boise State sure did face some adversity, some of it self-inflicted.
Trailing by 17 with 12 minutes to play, the Cougars stormed back to get within three in the final minutes, even getting the ball back on an interception with less than a minute to go.
However, senior cornerback Raymond Ford knocked down a deep pass attempt near the 10-yard line as the game ended, sealing the close victory on the final play of the game as Washington State quarterback Luke Falk heaved a ball from midfield.
“That’s what you love about college football right there,” Boise State senior linebacker Ben Weaver said. “That is fun. When the game’s down to the wire like that, you’re protecting your house, you’re protecting your record, you’re protecting the guys before you.”
It wasn’t quite as fun for the crowd of 36,163, the fourth-largest in stadium history, as an almost certain win was put into doubt in the final minute. Boise State quarterback Brett Rypien was intercepted in the end zone on a third-and-17 pass with 53 seconds left. Junior running back Jeremy McNichols had rushed for 45 yards on the drive, so the pass was a bit of a surprise.
Harsin, who took over as offensive playcaller this season, knew criticism was coming.
“With me, certainly, I second-guess like everybody else does,” Harsin said. “It’s always awesome when it works. Throw a touchdown, it’s like ‘you’re the man.’ Then you get a pick, ‘you should second-guess that.’ We’ll correct it.
“We’re not ever going to change that gunslinger mentality.”
It was Rypien’s second interception in the waning minutes. Safety Shalom Luani picked him off, for the second time in the game, with less than 5 minutes to play at midfield, returning it to the Broncos’ 33-yard line. On the next play, the Cougars (0-2) cut the lead to 31-28 on a touchdown pass from Luke Falk to Gabe Marks.
The two turnovers nearly came back to haunt the Broncos (2-0), but they did just enough to get a cushion earlier in the game.
“We beat Boise State in virtually every category, except toughness,” Washington State coach Mike Leach said. “We decided Boise State was tougher than us, anduntil the fourth quarter, we didn’t do anything to change that. We have to be a tougher football team, and right now, we’re not. The toughness level on our team is pathetic right now.”
Boise State never trailed, getting on the board first thanks to an 85-yard interception return for a touchdown by sophomore cornerback Tyler Horton on a Falk pass as the Cougars were threatening on their opening drive. The defense allowed 480 yards passing on 71 attempts, but stopped three fourth downs in the second half and were not helped on two eventual touchdown drives that began inside the 35-yard line.
“We know we’re going to get in those times, and the guys on that defense, we look for times like that,” Horton said.
Falk threw for 480 yards on 55-of-71 passing, averaging 8.7 yards per completion. Rypien was 19-of-35 for 299 yards with a touchdown and three interceptions, facing the alma mater of his uncle Mark Rypien, a two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback.
The Broncos’ offense didn’t take the field until 7:37 remained in the first quarter, and it did so with a 7-0 lead. The Broncos further grasped the momentum from Horton’s score, driving 88 yards in 12 plays, capping it off with a 1-yard touchdown run by McNichols for a 14-0 lead.
“I thought our defense improved. I still think they were intimidated by Boise State, which there’s no excuse for that,” Leach said.
But as would be the theme all evening, the Cougars were down, but never out.
As Boise State tried to stretch the lead, Luani intercepted Rypien at the Cougars’ 47-yard line, returning it 28 yards deep into Boise State territory. Six plays later, Falk threw the first of two touchdown passes to running back Jamal Morrow, cutting the lead in half with 42 seconds left in the second quarter.
Luani, who was suspended for the Cougars’ season-opening loss against Eastern Washington after an August incident in which he allegedly broke a man’s nose outside a pizza restaurant, was reinstated this week. He led Washington State with four interceptions last season.
A quick five-play, 59-yard drive by the Broncos led to a 31-yard Tyler Rausa field goal and a 17-7 halftime edge. They tacked onto it with a much-needed 47-yard touchdown pass from Rypien to senior receiver Thomas Sperbeck with 8:20 left in third quarter. The previous five drives had resulted in a total of three points.
The pass was helped by the simple presence of McNichols, who had the offense’s other 36 yards on the drive via two rushes and a reception. Rypien hit a wide-open Sperbeck down the seam off play action, when he faked a handoff to McNichols to draw in the Cougar defense.
“It’s always nice not having to run very far to go into the end zone after you have the ball,” said Sperbeck, who had seven catches for 133 yards.
McNichols scored a pair of touchdowns in the win, extending his Mountain West-record streak of consecutive games with a rushing touchdown to 14. He ran for 116 yards on 22 carries and added three receptions for 25 yards.
Boise State has a bye next week, then will travel to face another Pac-12 opponent, Oregon State, on the road Sept. 24.
“We won, we’re 2-0, our defense played unbelievable ... kept us in the game tonight,” Rypien said.
The Mountain West beat two Pac-12 teams Saturday: San Diego State knocked off California 45-40 a few minutes after the Boise State game ended.
Dave Southorn: 208-377-6420, @IDS_BroncoBeat