The Boise State football team got its groove back Friday night at Albertsons Stadium.
A little bit of it anyway.
Whether it was winning the turnover battle, getting plenty of offensive weapons involved or trusting the ground game, the 45-31 win provided a nice salve for the No. 24 Broncos’ first loss of the season six days prior.
“I’m excited about the response we had and I’m more excited about the work we can put in after this game,” Boise State coach Bryan Harsin said.
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But it wouldn’t be a Boise State win this season without a little unease for the 31,863 fans in attendance.
San Jose State running back Malik Roberson scored on a 60-yard run, and quarterback Kenny Potter’s two-point conversion run was successful to establish what proved to be the final score with 3:29 to play.
Boise State junior running back Jeremy McNichols knocked the onside kick out of bounds and avoided another late headache.
Three weeks earlier, Colorado State recovered two consecutive onside kicks to make it a one-possession final.
“A win is a win. It’s not always going to be pretty,” senior cornerback Jonathan Moxey said.
Entering the game last out of 128 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in turnovers created, Boise State (8-1, 4-1 Mountain West) wasted no time getting its fifth takeaway of the season on sophomore safety Dylan Sumner-Gardner’s interception on the third snap from scrimmage. It created a 49-yard field, and McNichols scampered 19 yards 84 seconds later for the touchdown and a 7-0 lead.
It was just what Boise State needed, and though the scrappy Spartans were never out of it, the Broncos did not trail.
San Jose State (3-7, 2-4) twice cut the lead to one point, getting a pair of first-quarter field goals to make it 7-6, and a 12-yard touchdown pass from Potter to wide receiver Rahshead Johnson with 10 minutes before halftime that made it 14-13.
Boise State kept plugging, taking a 24-16 lead into the half as the Spartans had three first-half field goals. It then used a pair of Cedrick Wilson touchdown receptions from quarterback Brett Rypien to turn it into a 38-16 edge.
“I don’t think it’s ever a calm, I think it’s just a matter of staying poised,” Harsin said. “Whatever happens, we have to be ready for the onside kick, whatever it is. ... Our guys rose to the occasion, made some plays.”
Wilson scored on a 15-yard screen pass on the first drive of the second half, then hauled in a 36-yarder down the west sideline on the first play of the fourth quarter.
Wilson finished with a team-high six catches for 102 yards. He was one of six Broncos to catch a pass from Rypien, and one of three with more receiving yardage than senior receiver Thomas Sperbeck.
The Broncos’ all-time yardage leader had two catches for 19 yards, his fewest in either aspect in the previous 19 games.
“We’re dynamic,” Wilson said. “We just talked about it today in the locker room. We have to run to win. And that’s pretty much what we did.”
It’s exactly what the Broncos did, as McNichols put up another strong game on the ground, rushing 28 times for 158 yards and scoring two touchdowns. He ran for 192 yards last season at San Jose State. True freshman Alexander Mattison hit the century mark for the first time with exactly 100 yards on 18 carries, scoring his third touchdown of the season on a 19-yarder early in the second quarter.
The duo is the first to rush for 100-plus yards in the same game since Jay Ajayi and Grant Hedrick against New Mexico on Nov. 8, 2014.
Boise State had season-highs of 298 rushing yards and 54 rushing attempts. It was a consistently solid effort, as the longest run for the team was 29 yards — by punter Sean Wale on a fake.
“I think they learned a painful lesson last week throwing the ball a lot and several turnovers,” San Jose State coach Ron Caragher said. “I think they got back to saying, ‘Hey, we have to run the football to not have a sting like that.’ They did come out with a certain intent to try and run the football, and why not? You have a running back like McNichols and a big offensive line like that; why not take advantage of it?”
On Tuesday, Harsin offered a bit of a challenge when discussing running the ball late with the game on the line, saying, “We haven’t reached that point yet as a football team that runs the ball well enough to do that.”
The Spartans came into the game ranked 115th in the Football Bowl Subdivision in rush defense, allowing 234.2 yards per game.
“Last year when we played San Jose State, we kind of went out there and played offense. That’s how we described it, and we did that tonight. We went out there and ran the ball,” Harsin said. “... Early on, we established that.
“Two guys (with) 100 yards, that’s a pretty good night.”
It was not a performance typical of the Boise State defense, however. The Broncos allowed a season-high in points and yielded 495 yards.
Potter was a tough adversary as he kept plays alive with his mobility, throwing for 278 yards and running for 67. Roberson finished with 106 rushing yards. Though it was a solid team win, the defense was far from satisfied.
“It depends on your standard for ‘back on track,’” senior linebacker Ben Weaver said. “Defensively, I think there’s a lot that we still have to improve on. ... We got away with a win, which is really good. A lot of credit to the offense.”
Sumner-Gardner’s interception turned out to be the game’s only turnover, making it just the second time this season the Broncos had more takeaways than giveaways.
Rypien was an efficient 16-of-21 for 219 yards and three touchdowns without an interception.
The Broncos were a perfect 6-for-6 in red-zone opportunities.
The short drive after the interception proved to be by far the easiest road for the offense. Its later touchdowns came on drives of 75, 73, 75, 87 and 75 yards.
Boise State will take its piece of momentum into a long road trip when it takes on Hawaii in Honolulu next Saturday. Harsin mentioned a sign in the team’s locker room that was key this week: “all in, or in the way.”
“That doesn’t change going into next week, just because we won a game,” Harsin said.