Chadd Cripe

Boise State football faces its biggest mental test of the season on Saturday

Boise State cornerback Avery Williams picks off a pass intended for Colorado State receiver Warren Jackson last week in Fort Collins, Colo.
Boise State cornerback Avery Williams picks off a pass intended for Colorado State receiver Warren Jackson last week in Fort Collins, Colo. The Coloradoan

This was always going to be a difficult turnaround week for the Boise State football team.

And then Saturday night became Sunday morning — and a magical finish to one game quickly turned into a significant obstacle for the next.

Boise State and Colorado State played football for 4 hours, 20 minutes. The game ended at 12:55 a.m. Sunday after 111 points, 66 first downs, 1,211 yards, 179 offensive snaps and, mercifully, only one overtime.

The Broncos, who overcame a 25-point deficit to win 59-52, got home around 5:30 a.m. Sunday. By day’s end, players already were preparing their minds and bodies for another Saturday night game — this time vs. Air Force, which has beaten Boise State three straight years.

It’s also senior night, which is an emotional time and a potential distraction. The Broncos know they can win the Mountain Division with a victory. They’re ranked for the first time this season, at No. 25 in the College Football Playoff rankings. And they’ll deal with an Air Force team built to test your discipline through its option-based offense, misdirection and — for Boise State, at least — confounding defensive scheme.

“You don’t duck your head when things like this present themselves,” Boise State defensive coordinator Andy Avalos said. “You go straight at it. We all understand what we just went through and we know who we’re about to face. You talk about warriors. They’re very tough, they’re very smart, they’re very disciplined. They do an exceptional job, and we’ve had a tough time with them. We’ve got a huge challenge this week.”

In fact, this likely will be the most difficult mental challenge the Broncos face this season in preparing for a game.

It’s the often-overlooked part of college football, and one reason the sport produces some wildly inconsistent results from week to week (see Ohio State, last three weeks). The best coaches are the ones who can get their teams ready to play through any chaos, fatigue, injuries, expectations and other factors that erode focus.

Coach Bryan Harsin also mentioned that his players’ work in the classroom is starting to ramp up with exams on the way. Last week, some players stayed at the hotel to do homework on Friday night rather than attend a movie with the team.

Harsin has reduced the physical demands of practice in recent weeks to help the players stay fresh for games — a common practice late in the season.

For that to work, though, the players have to be mentally sharp, Harsin said. Last week, tackling was a major problem in the first half.

“When you go play, you can’t dial it back,” he said. “You have to play fast. It’s a fine line there.”

And the winner is ...

This is not the same level of Air Force team that has given Boise State fits the past three years. The Falcons, who were 28-12 the past three seasons, are 4-6. They’ve allowed at least 28 points in eight of their past nine games, and the exception was a 21-0 loss to Army. They’ve scored a total of 14 points in their past two games.

Combine that with Boise State’s momentum (six straight wins, 141 points in the past three games) and pent-up frustration from three straight losses in the series, and this should be the night the Broncos finally solve the Falcons. The X-factor is the Broncos’ mental toughness — and given what they overcame last week, you’d have to say they’ll fight through this week’s adversity as well.

Boise State is favored by 17  1/2 .

Boise State 44, Air Force 20

College football spotlight

National game of the week — No. 19 Michigan at No. 5 Wisconsin (-7.5), 10 a.m. Saturday, Fox: I’m not convinced the Badgers are a Top 5 team. But the Wolverines aren’t the team to prove it. Wisconsin 23, Michigan 17

Pac-12 game of the week — UCLA at No. 12 USC (-16), 6 p.m., ABC: Remember when Jim Mora was the talk of L.A. college football? Now his job is in jeopardy. USC 47, UCLA 31

Mountain West game of the week — Fresno State at Wyoming (no line), noon, no TV in Boise: If Fresno State wins, the Bulldogs clinch the West Division for themselves and the Mountain for Boise State. Wyoming QB Josh Allen is questionable. Wyoming 19, Fresno State 18

NFL spotlight

On TV: Ravens at Packers (11 a.m. Sunday, CBS), Rams at Vikings (11 a.m., Fox), Raiders vs. Patriots in Mexico City (2:25 p.m., CBS), Eagles at Cowboys (6:20 p.m., NBC), Falcons at Seahawks (6:15 p.m., ESPN).

Chadd Cripe is the Idaho Statesman sports editor. Contact him at ccripe@idahostatesman.com, 208-377-6398 or @chaddcripe on Twitter.

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