Alexander Mattison was 10 years old the last time he played in a football championship game. His team lost. He remembers it was against a team from Ontario, Calif., and even recalls the score: 17-7.
Boise State’s sophomore running back has a shot to win a much bigger prize in the Mountain West championship game against Fresno State on Saturday at Albertsons Stadium.
A handful of Mattison’s teammates were on the Broncos’ 2014 conference-winning squad, but many are looking for their first championship win of any sort. Some can’t even say they were in a title game when they were in elementary school.
“I’ve never even been to one,” senior wide receiver Cedrick Wilson said.
Said Mattison: “This is a big game for me, a big game for this team, because it’s part of our goal and we know a lot is on the line right now.”
The first goal, written in big white letters in the team’s meeting room, is “to win the MWC championship.”
Boise State has the chance to do that after falling short the past two seasons. And the chance to exact a little bit of revenge. The Broncos lost 28-17 at Fresno State last Saturday, an odd matchup in which both teams knew they would play again.
“We’re right where we were going to be either way, but this gives us a little extra motivation to go into this game being a little pissed off and having a chip,” Boise State offensive coordinator Zak Hill said.
According to the NCAA, in the 33 times teams have played in the regular season and again in the conference championship game, the team that won the first meeting is 20-13 in the title game.
The Broncos hope that, unlike most weeks, when you make adjustments off the last game but face a new opponent, the back-to-back games are a perfect laboratory experiment to make improvements.
“Luckily it’s not nine games ago, it was last week, still fresh in our minds,” Mattison said. “That helps us, obviously, in preparation.”
There won’t be any shortage of areas to fix.
“We can learn from the previous one, but again, we have to go back to our process and how we prepare,” Boise State coach Bryan Harsin said. “No two games are the same. ... Hopefully we’re playing better than the last game.”
In the first meeting, the defense allowed the Bulldogs to throw for a season-high 332 yards passing, did not have a sack and did not create a turnover. The offense amassed 401 total yards, but scored just two touchdowns, and twice had drives get inside the Fresno State 25-yard line and end with no points.
“They fly around, they’re physical, they’re confident, they play mad,” Hill said of the Bulldogs. “... That’s part of where we’re at now, feeling them out, having a better idea of what we’re facing.”
Harsin said in Fresno that he hopes the team’s focus is better during championship week, and considering the stakes, that wasn’t exactly a difficult task.
“There’s a lot on the line. Our football team is going to be remembered by this game,” sophomore safety DeAndre Pierce said. “Everybody has that enthusiasm. Coming into meetings this week, everybody was all hyped up. You could feel the energy.”
Pierce quickly recalled the Broncos’ Cactus Bowl loss, remembering the date: Dec. 27. He said the focus that day turned toward what they are playing for Saturday.
On Thursday, Harsin said “the vibe” of this season’s team has been one of the most impressive in his nearly 20 years coaching or playing at Boise State.
“Our preparation has been out of the park compared to other weeks ... our excitement and enthusiasm on the field has been turnt up,” redshirt freshman cornerback Avery Williams said.
But every team will find its edge, its clichéd chip on the shoulder. Even Fresno State, which is coming off the big win and has won eight of its past nine games. The Bulldogs cracked the College Football Playoff rankings Tuesday, checking in at No. 25, but must play on the road Saturday.
The Mountain West couldn’t wait until Tuesday, so an average of four computer rankings Sunday morning gave Boise State home-field advantage.
“Obviously, around our community there was some (disappointment),” Fresno State coach Jeff Tedford said. “I kind of prepared our team that this was going to happen, it was leaning that way.
“We’re not going to cry about where we’re playing it, how it got to that point. That’s out of our control.”
The Broncos insist they weren’t holding something back last week. That won’t even be a question this week.
“We’ve got nothing to lose now. We’re playing at home. It’s going to be special, it’s going to be awesome,” junior linebacker Leighton Vander Esch said.
Mountain West Football Championship
When: 5:45 p.m. Saturday
Where: Albertsons Stadium (36,387, FieldTurf)
TV: ESPN (Adam Amin, Dusty Dvoracek, Molly McGrath)
Radio: KBOI 670 AM/KTIK 93.1 FM (Bob Behler, Pete Cavender)
Records: BSU 9-3, 7-1; Fresno State 9-3, 7-1 (Fresno State beat Boise State 28-17 last Saturday in Fresno)
Series: Boise State leads 13-6
Vegas line: Boise State by 9 1/2
Kickoff weather: Low 40s, rain
Color scheme: Boise State fans are asked to wear blue.
Tickets: $40 in main stadium and south end zone, $20 in north end zone; student tickets free; student guest tickets $9. Available at BroncoSports.com/tickets, 208-426-4737 or at the Athletic Ticket Office on the west side of Albertsons Stadium. Boise State reported 21,500 tickets out on Friday afternoon.