The Boise State football team picked itself up off the canvas Saturday night in an impressive comeback to beat Fresno State 17-14 in the Mountain West championship game.
Struggling for seven quarters in back-to-back games against the Bulldogs, the Broncos made big plays in all facets during the course of the win, with the offense and defense rising in the final minutes.
“Our guys did, they showed the resiliency that they’ve shown all season long, they showed the toughness that they’ve shown all season long,” Boise State coach Bryan Harsin said. “... In the fourth quarter, which is what we practice all year long, and what we’ve gotten these guys to buy into, we try to find a way to win, and that’s what we did.”
Harsin said the stadium PA played a sound, which he said is a certain kind of horn, that signals in practice the start of the fourth quarter. It had not been sounded at a game this year. Cedrick Wilson’s 59-yard catch sparked the offense with less than 8 minutes to play, leading to the go-ahead score, and Leighton Vander Esch’s interception with less than 2 minutes remaining ended it.
Here is our report card for the Broncos, who moved up to No. 25 in the College Football Playoff, AP and USA Today coaches’ polls Sunday:
Until that go-ahead drive, the Broncos could not find much success inside Fresno State territory, dating back to the first matchup. Seven times they broke past midfield, and they had a total of 10 points to show for it Saturday.
But that fateful 90-yard drive was enough, keyed by a much-needed big play that finally came. Junior quarterback Brett Rypien was solid, completing 16-of-30 passes for 246 yards without an interception. Wilson had 148 yards, while the running back combo of Alexander Mattison and Ryan Wolpin had 50 yards apiece.
“I thought we were driving the ball pretty well, but for whatever reason we couldn’t finish and get over that hump,” Rypien said. “Every time we came off the sidelines it was the same message — it’s going to pop one of these drives.”
Rypien was sacked four times, but the Broncos played turnover-free ball for the eighth time in nine games against conference foes in 2017.
Things did not look terribly rosy on two of the Bulldogs’ first three drives in the second quarter as quarterback Marcus McMaryion broke off a few runs, scoring a pair of touchdowns for a 14-10 lead.
But as the defense has shown most of the season, its second-half adjustments were a marvel. The Bulldogs, who had 224 yards in the first half, had just 85 afterward. McMaryion had 40 yards rushing in the first half, minus-7 in the second. After he threw for 332 yards the previous week, McMaryion had 172 on Saturday.
“It was unbelievable to see the laser focus we had at halftime,” junior defensive end Durrant Miles said. “The guys buy in. (Defensive coordinator Andy) Avalos came in, and he knew exactly what had to be fixed.”
Fresno State converted just 2-of-13 third downs. One pivotal stop came in the fourth quarter, when a third-and-10 pass to Jamire Jordan went for 11 yards, but cornerback Tyler Horton forced a fumble. The ball was recovered shy of the first down by Fresno State. The Bulldogs punted, and Wilson’s big play was the Broncos’ next offensive play, following a penalty.
In the second quarter, with the Bulldogs at their own 1, the defense forced a three-and-out that set up a short touchdown drive. The Bulldogs allowed two sacks after yielding seven in the first 12 games, and Vander Esch’s interception was just McMaryion’s fourth this season.
“Sooner or later we knew the defense was going to get the ball,” Vander Esch said. “It just goes back to resiliency. We have a young group and I think we hang in there really well, and sooner or later when we’re fighting play after play, things are going to go our way.”
SPECIAL TEAMS: A-minus
Quinn Skillin’s punt that was downed at the 1 in the second quarter was huge, pinning Fresno State deep, and after the defense held the Bulldogs to no yardage on three plays, Avery Williams’ 36-yard punt return gave the offense a 4-yard field. Three plays later, the Broncos went ahead 10-7.
Skillin and punter/kickoff specialist Joel Velazquez were excellent, as the Bulldogs had starting field position inside the 25-yard line seven times. Kicker Haden Hoggarth missed a 46-yard field goal on the opening drive of the third quarter but made a 31-yarder on the second drive of the game.