What transpired Thursday night at Albertsons Stadium felt a little strange.
Perhaps it was because the game kicked off with the sun still out. Maybe it was the all-orange uniforms.
The crowd, one of the smallest in the last decade, was treated to what used to be an unusual sight but has become routine. The Boise State offense, so potent this millennium, struggled against New Mexico, needing all the help it could get.
Yes, the 28,385 on hand were treated to a 28-14 win in both teams’ Mountain West opener, but it may not be the sort to inspire a rush at the ticket office for next Friday’s home game against Virginia.
Boise State found little consistency on offense but was helped out by its sublime defense and some standout special teams plays. The Broncos mustered 264 yards of offense — their worst output since the BYU game on Sept. 20, 2012 —and did not have a first down in the third quarter while holding a 14-7 lead.
[More game coverage: Live blog with highlights and scoring summary, Boise State’s offense lacks playmakers, see the nasty hit that knocked New Mexico’s quarterback out of the game, Cozart fills in nicely for Rypien]
“It’s frustrating, and it’s frustrating for our players,” said Boise State coach Bryan Harsin, whose team ran for 127 yards on 32 attempts. “We feel like we’re better, but it’s not showing up right now. ... We’ve got a lot of work to do to make sure that happens.”
Senior quarterback Montell Cozart got the start for Boise State (2-1 overall, 1-0 Mountain West) in place of the injured Brett Rypien. In the first half, he connected on his first eight pass attempts for 90 yards and a touchdown before his last attempt of the second quarter fell incomplete. He finished 15-of-19 passing for 137 yards and two touchdowns, adding 71 rushing yards, including a 28-yard touchdown run to cap the opening drive.
It was the second time in 30 collegiate games the Kansas transfer was the only quarterback to play.
“It means a lot, coming here from another school, a different place. It’s been a journey, kind of continue to add to the story a little bit,” Cozart said. “... I wanted to do whatever it takes to help us get to that goal up on the board, a Mountain West championship, then a bowl game. It didn’t matter if I was coming in and out with Brett, if I was the guy, I just wanted to be part of the tradition here.”
Following Cozart’s score, the method of choice to get into the end zone was Roh-ing. Senior tight end Jake Roh, that is.
Roh, hampered by a knee injury last season that limited him to 10 catches and no touchdowns, scored three times Thursday. He found the end zone on a 5-yard pass from Cozart in the second quarter that broke a 7-7 tie. He also scored twice in the fourth quarter on a 15-yard pass from Cozart and even a 6-yard touchdown run on a direct snap.
“We were giving him crap if he scores on that QB-run type thing, he’d be taking my job or Brett’s job,” Cozart said.
For Roh, he has scored four touchdowns this season after scoring four in his first three seasons, something he called “exciting.”
But don’t expect him to regularly be behind center.
“I can’t throw a ball probably more than 30 yards, so I don’t think they have to worry,” Roh said.
If the offense left some question marks, its defense provided an answer — it is legit.
Playing only about 113 hours following a strong performance on the road against pass-heavy Washington State, Boise State held last season’s No. 1 rushing team in the nation to 198 yards on the ground. The Broncos, who forced nine turnovers all of 2016, created two more Thursday against the Lobos (1-2, 0-1), giving them eight this year. Both set up the offense for short fields of 58 and 46 yards that led to touchdowns.
“Defense played lights out. They’ve been carrying us the last three games,” Cozart said.
As good as the defense was, special teams turned the tide early in the fourth quarter and shortened the field even further. As the offense, which leads the nation with 39.7 points per game since 2000, was sputtering, a pair of redshirt freshmen helped it get going again.
Punter Joel Velazquez pinned New Mexico at its own 1 on a 63-yard boot, and after the defense forced a three-and-out, returner Avery Williams’ 29-yard return got the Broncos to the Lobos’ 17. Roh’s touchdown run with 11:55 to play gave the Broncos a 21-7 edge and his 15-yard touchdown catch with 3:11 left finished off the Broncos’ scoring.
“There at the end, we got it done. ... Those guys fight and they believe we want to correct things,” Harsin said.
The teams were a combined 7-of-24 on third downs and 2-of-5 on fourth downs. Only three plays went over 25 yards.
“I’ll say this, our team keeps throwing punches, no matter what,” Roh said. “I think that’s something really good to have. Some things don’t click as well as you might like in some areas, but we’re going to keep swinging. I think that’s something special this offense and this team has that will carry us a long way down the road.”