If bad things truly come in threes, it was proven Friday.
Three feet from likely forcing overtime against Air Force, the Boise State football team was stopped short on its last offensive play. The 27-20 loss was the Broncos’ third in a row against the Falcons, just the third time a team has done that to Boise State — ever.
Looking to tie the game with 2 minutes left, sophomore quarterback Brett Rypien was stuffed on a fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line, fumbling after he was stood up. Air Force recovered and salted away the game with its relentless rushing attack.
No. 19 Boise State was eliminated from Mountain West title contention, meaning the Broncos’ seniors will miss playing in the championship game for the third time in their four years.
“It’s disappointing. You can see the success from winning the conference championship. To only get that once, it’s tough to stomach,” defensive end Sam McCaskill said.
Coach Bryan Harsin said the trio of Air Force losses have all been different. There weren’t seven Boise State turnovers like the trip to Falcon Stadium two years ago, nor was there an unusual amount of throws like when Air Force had its most passing yards in 25 years in 2015.
This time, Air Force (9-3, 5-3 Mountain West) simply outplayed Boise State (10-2, 6-2). And it is no longer an anomaly, as the Broncos are 4-5 against Mountain Division teams in their last nine games.
“We certainly have to play better in those games to win our division, but those teams are getting better. I’m not going to say they aren’t, and that’s a credit to their coaches and players as well,” said Harsin, who fell to 0-3 against Air Force, but is 31-5 against everyone else at Boise State. “We want to be at the top of our division, so we have to find a way to do that.”
Whether it was going 1-for-12 on third down, completing 34.6 percent of pass attempts or rushing for 24 yards in the last 59 minutes of the game, the failure to score on that critical fourth-and-1 was a microcosm of an offense that failed to get going most of the day.
Junior running back Jeremy McNichols had a 56-yard run on the first play from scrimmage and scored from the 4 on the next play, giving Boise State a 7-0 lead 37 seconds into the game.
Air Force scored the next 17 points.
On the final possession, with first down at the Air Force 5-yard line, McNichols ran for gains of 1, 2 and 1 yards. Rypien, who converted a fourth-and-1 sneak into a 2-yard gain late in the third quarter, was unable to get push up front. He tried to move laterally but to no avail.
“The thought behind that was we had done it earlier on fourth down. It was (a yard), and we got it. So we had run that before down there a few times with McNichols and felt like we could get the push that we needed to get it in, and we didn’t,” Harsin said. “And that was the bottom line.”
Said Air Force safety Brodie Hicks, who forced the fumble: “Thank goodness they didn’t run (outside). We put all our marbles inside.”
For the game, Boise State outgained Air Force 400-359. The Broncos averaged 35.1 yards per completion, but Rypien’s first eight passes were incomplete. Only junior wide receiver Cedrick Wilson (four for 193 yards) and senior Thomas Sperbeck (five for 123) caught passes.
The Broncos had only one turnover, the Rypien fumble on the failed fourth-down run, but hurt themselves in plenty of other ways. They went down 17-7 in the second quarter when Brett Baldwin blocked Sean Wale’s punt and Tyler Weaver ran it in for the 11-yard score.
With less than 5 minutes to go in the third quarter, trailing 24-10, McNichols appeared to score on a 4-yard touchdown run on third-and-goal, but tight end Jake Roh was called for holding. Boise State settled for a 31-yard Tyler Rausa field goal.
“A team’s a team, defense and offense, we’ve got to take it as that,” sophomore linebacker Leighton Vander Esch said. “We can’t put it on anybody. There’s things we can clean up on defense. We obviously could’ve played better. We played good, but we’ve got to play as a whole team.”
Failing on 11-of-12 third-down opportunities and falling behind against an option team was a fatal mix for the Broncos. Air Force had the ball for 41 minutes, 27 seconds and ran 83 plays. Boise State had possession for 18:33 and ran 51 plays.
The Broncos came into the game No. 8 in the nation converting 51.9 percent of third downs and No. 5 in scoring touchdowns in 77.3 percent of red-zone visits.
“That’s not good,” Harsin said. “We’ve been the best third-down team this season that we’ve ever been and then tonight, that was our worst performance.”
At the worst possible time, of course.
McCaskill said on the team’s pyramid of core values and goals, only one team appears on it: Air Force. The captain said “that’s tough to deal with.”
Air Force had not defeated a team ranked as highly as Boise State since beating then-No. 8 Notre Dame on Oct. 20, 1996.
But deal with it Boise State must, and it will have another week to think about the loss without any chance of playing next Saturday in the Mountain West championship. Wyoming and San Diego State are secured their spots in that game.
A bowl game awaits the Broncos, but the destination most likely won’t be known until Dec. 4.
“Coaches told us all year, one game won’t define us, so we have one more game with our seniors, try to send them out the right way,” Wilson said.
“I think everyone around them wants them to fold, and that’s just how it is,’’ Harsin said. “But that’s not going to happen, and we’re going to go try to find a way to play our best game as we finish up in the bowl game.’’