BOISE STATE 28, FRESNO STATE 14
Eleven months of weightlifting, conditioning, practices, meetings, video review — and all the aches, pains, criticism and fanfare along the way — culminated Saturday night in the most satisfying moment for the Boise State football program in five years.
The No. 22 Broncos beat the Fresno State Bulldogs 28-14 at Albertsons Stadium to win the second annual Mountain West championship game.
The victory gave the Broncos their first outright Mountain West title and their first outright title in any conference since 2009.
And just like 2009, the Broncos (11-2) likely will celebrate with a trip to the Fiesta Bowl. Their destination will be announced at 12:45 p.m. Sunday on ESPN.
“When you work hard for something, you want to achieve your goal,” senior defensive end Beau Martin said. “To achieve that goal, it’s an unbelievable feeling.”
The Broncos claimed their spot in a major bowl in coach Bryan Harsin’s first season at the helm in place of Chris Petersen, who left last December after one of the most successful coaching tenures in college football history.
Harsin led the Broncos to eight straight victories — they haven’t lost since September — and the title that had eluded them. Boise State shared the Mountain West title in 2012, finished second in 2011 and finished second in its division in 2013.
Harsin is a former Boise State quarterback and assistant coach — and many members of his staff were one or both of those, too.
“We just gave (the players) the road map and they followed it,” said strength coach Jeff Pitman, a former Boise State offensive lineman and strength coach who returned with Harsin and is known for his grueling workouts. “They did the rest. Sometimes, it’s not a lot of fun, but it’s all worth it on days like today.”
Boise State will receive an automatic bowl bid to the Fiesta (Glendale, Ariz.), Cotton (Arlington, Texas) or Peach (Atlanta) as the highest-ranked champion of the Group of Five conferences.
Mountain West Commissioner Craig Thompson expects the Broncos to land in the Fiesta Bowl, which is set for 2 p.m. Dec. 31. The Broncos won the 2007 and 2010 Fiesta Bowls.
“That’s the only conversation I’ve had all week — so it’s 99.9 (percent),” Thompson said. “The committee is trying to sell tickets and build the games.”
Big-play D leads victory
The two biggest catches in the Boise State football team’s Mountain West championship game victory Saturday night at Albertsons Stadium were made by players who had never caught a pass in their college careers.
Broncos sophomore linebacker Tanner Vallejo returned his first interception 63 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter and senior defensive end Beau Martin snagged his first interception on a screen pass in the fourth quarter to clinch the victory.
The defense recorded three interceptions in all, didn’t allow a point in the first half and made two fourth-down stops in the 28-14 victory over Fresno State.
“The defense needs to be the most relentless unit all night, and they were tonight,” Boise State coach Bryan Harsin said.
Vallejo finished with a career-high 13 tackles, including 11 solo tackles and three tackles for loss, and was named the game’s defensive MVP. His interception return was his second touchdown of the season — a first for a Bronco defender since defensive end Shea McClellin in 2010.
Safety Corey Bell pressured Fresno State quarterback Brian Burrell into a poor throw.
“I was in the right spot at the right time,” Vallejo said, “and was going to do anything to get into the end zone.”
Martin’s interception put an end to the Bulldogs’ frantic comeback attempt. On third-and-5 at the Broncos’ 29-yard line with less than 2 minutes left, Burrell tried to throw a screen pass to the left. The left tackle was supposed to knock Martin to the ground, but Martin defeated the block and was about 10 feet from Burrell when the ball was released. Martin caught it — to his coach’s surprise.
“We had an interception by one of our D-linemen that I just found out could catch tonight for the first time to seal the game,” Harsin said.
Said Martin: “I got lucky. It happened so fast.”
That drive was one of many missed opportunities for the Bulldogs, who also failed to score after recovering an onside kick earlier in the fourth quarter. They reached Boise State territory on seven of 13 drives and finished with two touchdowns, a blocked field goal (by defensive tackle Armand Nance, who made a sack on the previous play), two interceptions and two failed fourth downs.
“Every time you get in (scoring position), you have to capitalize on it — especially against a team like Boise State,” Fresno State wide receiver Josh Harper said. “Us not capitalizing on it, it really hurt us bad.”
Off-night for the offense
Boise State failed to score 30 points for the first time during its eight-game winning streak. Fresno State, in fact, has held the Broncos to their two lowest totals during the streak — 28 on Saturday and 37 in October.
The Broncos finished with 304 yards — their second-lowest total of the season. They generated just 292 yards in September at Connecticut.
Most notably, Fresno State limited junior tailback Jay Ajayi to zero rushing yards on nine carries in the second half. Ajayi finished with 70 yards in the game — ending his streak of seven straight 100-yard games, which tied a Mountain West record.
“They just kind of loaded the box and played really physical like we’ve seen on tape,” senior quarterback Grant Hedrick said. “They did a great job shutting down our run game.”
Hedrick was nearly the entire offense. He threw for 155 yards and ran for a team-high 81 yards and two touchdowns to earn game MVP honors on offense.
“I didn’t really expect it to be like that,” Hedrick said. “They were keying a lot on Jay, and I wouldn’t blame them. So it kind of opened some things up for me.”
Offensive coordinator Mike Sanford said Fresno State nose tackle Tyeler Davison, one of the Mountain West’s best players, was “wreaking havoc” and the safeties were crashing to stop Ajayi. The answer, he said, was to throw deep more.
“I didn’t call my best game, to be honest,” Sanford said. “We should’ve pushed the ball down the field a little bit more. We did it early, we had opportunities to hit down-the-field throws, we had a couple opportunities we didn’t take advantage of. I knew going into that game, I said to our offense if we hit four or five shots down the field, it was going to be game, set, match. We hit two or three, but we certainly could’ve dialed up about four or five.”
Sanford in demand?
Sanford’s name already has surfaced as a potential candidate for offensive coordinator posts at other schools, but he said Saturday night that his alma mater was a “destination” job. Plus, his second child was born in September and he and his wife need to “catch our breath,” he said.
Sanford came to Boise State from Stanford in January.
“I want to be here, this is my destination, dream destination to coach at Boise State,” Sanford said. “Like I said a year ago, I'm obsessing over all the Internet gossip and blowing up coach Harsin. I'm very fortunate to be here and to work with these players and be part of something that's pretty special.”
Thompson defends TV bonuses
Mountain West Commisioner Craig Thompson said Saturday night that the TV-bonus system that benefits Boise State and has come under fire from some other conference cities won’t change.
Boise State negotiated the bonuses as part of the school’s decision to back out of an agreement to join the Big East/American Athletic conference.
Boise State has received $3.7 million in bonuses in the first two years of the system. Seven schools have received less than $1 million.
The bonuses were a topic when Thompson met with Boise State President Bob Kustra on Friday night.
“It’s not even an issue with the exception of a couple of newbies who are saying, ‘Who did that?’ ” Thompson said. “ ‘Well, your predecessors did that.’ We have a signed contract that’s not changing. I don’t think it’s a huge issue.”
Others notes from Thompson:
— He expects to make at least $1 million off the Mountain West championship game despite sluggish ticket sales. That would give Boise State about $170,000, Fresno State $120,000 and the other 10 conference members $71,000 each. The game has drawn the smallest crowd of the season for the host in each of the first two years, at Fresno State in 2013 and Boise State in 2014. “I get it,” Thompson said. “It’s the holiday season and 8 o’clock. I’m not surprised. These are tough games to sell.” The attendance was 26,101, the smallest crowd for a Broncos home game since Nov. 15, 2003, against UTEP (24,513).
— Fans have emailed Thompson telling him the conference shouldn’t have played a championship game and risked a Boise State loss that would cost the conference $4 million. “What if Marshall had not lost to Western Kentucky and (Boise State) needed another quality (win) to get in front of Marshall? We’re not going to cancel the game a week out,” Thompson said.
— Thompson will push the College Football Playoff to stop producing weekly rankings. “I don’t think it makes a lot of sense,” he said.
— Oklahoma State beat Oklahoma to get bowl-eligible. That closed the potential opening in the Cactus Bowl for the Mountain West and left Nevada in danger of missing a bowl. If Boise State had lost, the Wolf Pack would have stayed home, Thompson said.
Deayon strikes again
Boise State junior cornerback Donte Deayon snagged his 12th career interception — fifth this season — in the first quarter. He ranks fifth in career interceptions at Boise State in the Football Bowl Subdivision era.
Boise State senior safety Jeremy Ioane wasn’t in uniform for Saturday’s game. He did serve as a single-game captain, along with senior kicker Dan Goodale.
Ioane has played in six games this season while battling a kidney disease that will require a kidney transplant, likely next year. He played two series last week on Senior Day.
Players wore #10aneStrong T-shirts during early warm-ups. Ioane’s medical fund has topped $43,000, including $7,500 from the College Football Assistance Fund.
Reserve safety Dillon Lukehart also didn’t play. He has missed four of the past five games.
Boise State wore all-blue uniforms. The Fresno State band made the trip. Vallejo carried the Hammer. Boise State won the coin toss and deferred. Boise State linebacker Ben Weaver made a career-high 16 tackles, including 14 solos. The Broncos have scored six non-offensive touchdowns this season, the most since the Fiesta Bowl team in 2009 also scored six. Fresno State ran 87 plays to Boise State’s 49.
BSU — Grant Hedrick 20 run (Dan Goodale kick), 12:31. Key play: Hedrick threw deep for sophomore wide receiver Chaz Anderson, who was nearly tackled before the ball arrived. Anderson kept his feet and made the grab for 46 yards. The defender was flagged for pass interference. Drive: 4 plays, 77 yards, 1:11. Boise State 7, Fresno State 0
BSU — Tanner Vallejo 63 interception return (Goodale kick), 1:56. Boise State 14, Fresno State 0
BSU — Jay Ajayi 9 run (Goodale kick), 9:03. Key plays: Hedrick ran to the right for 24 yards and hit wide receiver Thomas Sperbeck for 20 yards on second-and-15. Drive: 11 plays, 72 yards, 5:15. Boise State 21, Fresno State 0
BSU — Hedrick 21 run (Goodale kick), 11:28. Key plays: Hedrick scrambled for 13 yards on third-and-5, then found tailback/wide receiver Jeremy McNichols wide open for 41 yards. Drive: 7 plays, 86 yards, 3:32. Boise State 28, Fresno State 0
FS — Josh Quezada 2 run (Kody Kroening kick), 3:18. Key plays: The Bulldogs converted five third downs, including a third-and-7 from their own 7-yard line with Greg Watson’s 14-yard catch. Quarterback Brian Burrell ran for 8 yards on a third-and-7. Drive: 19 plays, 96 yards, 8:10. Boise State 28, Fresno State 7
FS — Greg Watson 25 pass from Burrell (Kroening kick), 5:31. Key play: Burrell hit Quezada for 8 yards on fourth-and-6. Drive: 7 plays, 49 yards, 1:42. Boise State 28, Fresno State 14
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