Dried off from his postgame Powerade and ice water bath, Boise State football coach Bryan Harsin knew exactly how long ago the Broncos had last won the Mountain West championship.
“1,091 days,” he said.
Three years, in the grand scheme of things, doesn’t seem that long. But around here, three years without a conference title is an eternity.
The Broncos made it worth the wait with a 17-14 win Saturday over the Fresno State Bulldogs at Albertsons Stadium.
A team that prides itself on resilience delivered at the pivotal moments, shutting out Fresno State in the second half and scoring the go-ahead touchdown with less than 5 minutes to play.
“Talent can only get you so far ... to win a championship, you’ve got to have a little bit of that heart, that will to get it done,” Harsin said. “It’s hard to put your finger on it, exactly what that is, it’s not measurable, but these guys have got it. These coaches have it.”
When the Broncos’ offense was faltering, it got a boost from players both expected and unexpected.
Senior wide receiver Cedrick Wilson said in July: “I’ve never won a ring at any level. I want that. We have to go out and take it.” On Saturday, he took it, as his 59-yard reception from junior quarterback Brett Rypien from the Broncos’ own 5-yard line was a desperately needed spark.
With 1,000-yard running back Alexander Mattison sidelined with an injury he suffered in the third quarter, senior Ryan Wolpin finished off the drive with a 2-yard touchdown run with 4 minutes, 42 seconds remaining.
“It meant the world to me to be out there and be able to step up for my teammates,” Wolpin said. “I looked around the huddle and there wasn’t a doubt in there. My O-line looked at me, and they said, ‘Let’s go, let’s drive the rock down their throats.’ ”
Harsin said Wolpin had practiced the play maybe once, a direct snap to him that he took into the heart of the Fresno State defense for the winning points.
The game had the perfect ending when junior linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, the Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year, finished it with an interception with 1:50 to go.
“Fitting ending for his season, how much he’s done for us,” Harsin said.
Vander Esch’s fellow captain, Rypien, showed a bit of determination on his way to offensive MVP honors. He was 16-of-30 passing for 246 yards but did not turn the ball over. He’s thrown just one interception in his last 236 pass attempts.
The Broncos’ only other touchdown in the game was a Mattison 3-yard run when they started on the Bulldogs’ 4-yard line thanks to a Quinn Skillin punt that pinned them deep, a defensive stand and a long punt return by Avery Williams.
For the amount of times Boise State (10-3) shot itself in the foot the last two weeks, a prosthetic surely would be in order. The Broncos had 11 drives inside the 40-yard line in back-to-back games against the Bulldogs that resulted in 27 points before Wolpin’s go-ahead score.
“It was just a team effort ... I said to our offensive unit, ‘I don’t know how we’re going to win this game, but we’re going to do it,’ ” Rypien said. “We fought all night, kept grinding, like we’ve done all year.”
The strange situation that faced both teams, having played just a week earlier in a 28-17 win for Fresno State, almost resulted in the same outcome as the Broncos hit an invisible wall inside Bulldog territory.
But in addition to getting the big offensive play they needed so badly, the Broncos’ defense delivered.
Fresno State (9-4) had just 85 yards of offense in the second half, and had 172 passing yards total. The Bulldogs had 332 through the air in the first meeting. Coach Jeff Tedford said negative field position had an effect, but the Broncos’ big play with their backs to the wall turned the game around.
“I thought we flipped (field position) in the fourth quarter with hopes that we could do something,” Tedford said. “We just didn’t capitalize enough there.”
With fans and players gathered on the blue turf at Albertsons Stadium, it was a euphoric atmosphere. Players donned Elvis-style glasses to celebrate their expected Las Vegas Bowl invitation. Not only was the three years between titles avenged, but so was the previous week’s defeat, fresh in their minds, making it a little sweeter.
“They won the battle, but we won the war,” Harsin said.