The tightrope the Boise State football team has been walking on all season snapped Saturday night at 7,220 feet.
In the high altitude of War Memorial Stadium, the No. 13 Broncos had a mighty fall, losing 30-28 to the Wyoming Cowboys, their first win over a ranked team since Oct. 26, 2002.
The Cowboys, not to be denied, made big plays in big situations, none bigger than the game-winner by 268-pound defensive tackle Chase Appleby, who sacked quarterback Brett Rypien and forced a fumble that went out of the back of the end zone for a safety with 1 minute, 25 seconds to play.
Boise State (7-1, 3-1 Mountain West) also had two turnovers after coughing up five in a one-point win over BYU in its last game. This time, not so lucky.
“We’ve been playing with fire,” senior linebacker Ben Weaver said. “Last week, we had almost a spoof win from a five-turnover (game).”
Many of the 24,023 fans in attendance stormed the field as the Cowboys (6-2, 4-0) took over first place in the Mountain Division and became bowl eligible.
“If a win could help define a program, this one did,” Wyoming coach Craig Bohl said. “Coming in, we knew it was going to be down to a play here or there.”
For Boise State, the big question is, “Now what?”
The Broncos must hope the Cowboys stumble in the final month of the season, as they now control the Mountain Division. Wyoming finishes with Utah State and San Diego State at home, and road trips to UNLV and New Mexico.
Boise State hosts San Jose State at 8:15 p.m. Friday.
Is that enough time to fix a turnover problem?
Boise State’s four turnovers created for the season are dead-last in the Football Bowl Subdivision, and its minus-1.14 turnover margin per game was tied for 120th coming into the game. On Saturday, the Broncos turned it over twice and gained one.
“Can we take care of some of those things in the turnover game? ... We’ve said that when we’ve lost and when we’ve won, and tonight was a case of that,” Boise State coach Bryan Harsin said.
Wyoming converted one Boise State turnover into a touchdown, altering the game in the process. Trying to stretch a 21-10 lead late in the second quarter, Rypien looked for senior wide receiver Thomas Sperbeck deep down the seam. Sperbeck lost his footing, and Wyoming cornerback Rico Gafford intercepted the pass, returning it 32 yards to the Boise State 35-yard line.
Two plays later, quarterback Josh Allen hit tight end Jacob Hollister for a 28-yard touchdown with 52 seconds before halftime, and cut the lead to 21-17.
“Definitely felt like a momentum shift,” Sperbeck said.
After racking up 342 yards in the first half, the Broncos had 145 yards in the second half and got only one more score, a 33-yard touchdown pass from Sperbeck to Rypien on a trick play with 10:50 left to play.
Wyoming responded with a 10-play, 75-yard drive capped off by a 27-yard touchdown pass from Allen to receiver Tanner Gentry on third-and-13. He then found receiver Jake Maulhardt for the two-point conversion and the tie. Boise State got the ball back twice more, the last time at their own 10 with 1:38 remaining.
Instead of giving it to junior running back Jeremy McNichols (143 yards), the Broncos threw twice. The first pass was an incompletion, and the second play resulted in the fateful safety.
Harsin said, “If we had to do it again, we’d put it in (Rypien’s) hand again,” and Sperbeck said the team won’t ever be conservative. Harsin also said the blame should fall on him and his staff.
“I’ve got to do a better job. I’ll do a better job of calling plays,” he said. “That’s really what it comes down to. We had some good series in there. I’ve got to find a way to put these guys in a better position to go out there and execute.”
For all the good the Broncos had Saturday, from McNichols’ strong performance to getting their first turnover since Oct. 7, and stopping Wyoming on fourth down at the 1 in the first quarter, the bad was obvious. They were 2-of-8 on third down, Wyoming was 10-of-18. They gave up three sacks and had none.
And now they need help to secure a relevant spot in college football’s postseason.
“You always want the control in your hands,’’ Weaver said, “and it’s not anymore.’’
Three times coming into Saturday’s game, the Broncos won games by five points or less in which their opponent had the ball last, but held on. Playing with fire, the Broncos got burned, and now they will have to heal quick before Friday’s matchup with San Jose State at Albertsons Stadium.
“How we react to that is going to be big. Credit to Wyoming,” Boise State defensive end Sam McCaskill said. “They made more plays than us at the end of the game. It’s up to us how we respond.”