When the Boise State football team needed a voice, junior linebacker Leighton Vander Esch took command of the halftime meeting and delivered a message.
“We’re a second-half team. We’re about to go win this thing,” Vander Esch told his teammates.
When the Broncos needed an offensive spark, senior wide receiver Cedrick Wilson submitted a request to offensive coordinator Zak Hill. Two offensive plays later, Wilson made a 59-yard reception on that play to set up the game-winning touchdown.
And when they needed to close out their first Mountain West championship in three years, two former walk-ons stepped up: tailback Ryan Wolpin — forced into duty by injury — scored the go-ahead touchdown, and Vander Esch — who played eight-man football in Riggins — grabbed the clinching interception.
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The Broncos squeaked past No. 25 Fresno State 17-14 on Saturday night at Albertsons Stadium, winning the Mountain West championship for the first time since 2014.
This never was going to be the most dominant Boise State team. Any dreams of a major bowl berth were gone by the end of September, when the Broncos were 2-2. But the 2017 Broncos will be remembered as just the second Boise State team to win an outright conference championship in the past eight years, etching their place in history.
“I love my teammates and I’m going to do everything I possibly can for them,” Vander Esch said as he accepted the defensive MVP trophy for the game. “Working in the offseason — winter, spring, summer workouts — you guys know how hard that was, and it paid off. I love these guys. We’ve got one more, baby!”
The Broncos (10-3) will play that last game in two weeks in Las Vegas, against either Oregon or Arizona. It’s a chance for the Broncos to fill the one hole in their resume — the lack of a Power Five win.
But win or lose in Vegas, this group cemented its legacy Saturday night on the blue turf with another rousing comeback.
Every time those outside the program seemed ready to write this off as a third straight lost season, these resilient Broncos found a way to prevail.
They were staggering at the end of September and coming off one of the worst losses in program history — a blowout at home against Virginia. They came back to beat BYU and stun San Diego State on the road.
They were down 35-10 in early November at Colorado State before they came back to win in overtime.
And after being outplayed by Fresno State for seven quarters, and dealing with the loss of their top two scorers (tight end Jake Roh and tailback Alexander Mattison), they delivered the drive of the year in the middle of the fourth quarter. Officially, that march was 90 yards in seven plays. In reality, it was 95 yards because of a penalty that forced first-and-15 at their own 5-yard line.
Wilson made his request right before that drive, down 14-10. Wilson asked quarterback Brett Rypien to tell Hill by phone that he wanted to run a play that placed the Broncos’ star receiver in the slot running a deep post. Boise State wanted to call the play all night but hadn’t found the right situation. It was designed with third-and-short in mind, but being backed near the goal line created a similar situation, with the Bulldogs trying to pin the Broncos.
“I was a little bit skeptical about it at first,” Rypien said. “Usually when the receivers tell me things, we’ll go out there and it’s not the exact look we want. He called it spot-on.”
Wilson ran behind the defense — getting more open than he expected because the safety moved toward the line of scrimmage — and Rypien fired one of his best passes of the season. Wilson made the catch and nearly went the distance. He was tripped up at the end of a 59-yard gain.
Coaches told Wilson in practice that the ball would be thrown regardless of whether he was open, so his only thought was to run as fast as he could.
“You never expect it to look as wide-open as it was,” Wilson said.
It was a rare moment of ease in a season of tension, perseverance and — thanks to a group of players who wouldn’t settle for anything else — triumph.
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Chadd Cripe is the Idaho Statesman sports editor. Contact him at ccripe@ idahostatesman.com, 208-377-6398 or @chaddcripe on Twitter.