Crazy plays were the norm, one defense was stifling and, yes, there was even a punch.
Saturday’s Las Vegas Bowl was a fitting third chapter in the wild, intense matchup between the Boise State and Oregon football teams.
But like the entries before it, the Broncos were the ones celebrating at the end, capitalizing on a perfect recipe of place, antagonist and motivation.
The 38-28 win for No. 25 Boise State made the program a perfect 4-0 in the Las Vegas Bowl and 3-0 against the Ducks, and put a bold exclamation point on a resilient team.
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“Anytime we get to play on a national stage ... get to play a Power Five opponent, we obviously want to show the nation what Boise State football is all about,” junior quarterback Brett Rypien said. “It’s a huge win.”
Even if the last meeting between the two teams was 100 months earlier, the parallels were all over.
Despite being without star running back Royce Freeman, who skipped the game, Oregon (7-6) came in with some swagger, scoring more than 50 points per game when quarterback Justin Herbert plays and trying to play well for recently-hired coach Mario Cristobal in his debut. Boise State (11-3), despite being buoyed all year by its defense, was surely going to be chasing the Ducks all day.
But like that 19-8 win in 2009, the Broncos’ defense made the high-powered Ducks look flat-footed.
It took until 6 minutes, 34 seconds remained in the third quarter, on its 37th play of the game, before Oregon even crossed midfield. The No. 8 rushing offense in the nation coming into the game was held to 47 yards rushing, 221 yards below its average.
“I don’t think Oregon was able to get into any kind of rhythm throughout the game because our defense and the defensive line was getting them all out of sorts,” said Boise State coach Bryan Harsin, now 5-1 against the Pac-12. “... The quarterback is very good, but he didn’t have a chance to set his feet. He did a couple times, made a few good throws in there, but that didn’t happen very often.”
Just as Oregon was dominated in Chip Kelly’s first game as coach in 2009, Cristobal’s team never got off the ground, as the Broncos allowed only two offensive touchdowns, both coming in the fourth quarter. Boise State outgained Oregon 481-280 for the game.
“To have a performance like that against that kind of offense, it’s pretty special,” junior linebacker Leighton Vander Esch said.
The Ducks committed four turnovers in the first half, leading to 14 Boise State points, including a 53-yard interception return by freshman safety Kekaula Kaniho with 5:11 left in the second quarter for a 24-0 lead.
Kaniho, who also had a sack that forced a fumble, was among the fresh faces who stepped up in a major way. Redshirt freshman STUD end Curtis Weaver had two sacks, giving him 11 on the season (sixth-most in a single season in Boise State history), and redshirt cornerback Jalen Walker had six tackles in his first start with junior Tyler Horton out with an injury.
“It’s not always ideal, but they love their brothers and they’ll do anything they can,” defensive coordinator Andy Avalos said. “It was good to see all those guys get out there and play, and a lot of them played really, really well.”
There was no postgame fracas this time, but it got a little chippy during the game, especially after the Broncos’ quick start.
In the third quarter, on the drive that finally got Oregon inside Boise State territory, running back Tony Brooks-James threw the ball at safety Jordan Happle after he wrapped up the runner by his ankles. Instead of a third-and-4 inside the 30, it became a third-and-19, and Weaver sacked Herbert the next play to force a punt.
On the next Oregon drive, Boise State linebacker Tyson Maeva was caught by television cameras landing a punch to the helmet of Oregon wide receiver Dillon Mitchell, who turned and backhand slapped the helmet of Boise State cornerback Avery Williams. No penalties were called.
“When you let emotion get into it, something like that happens, the result is not very positive,” Cristobal said. “That’s not the reason the game went as it did, but certainly did not help it.”
Boise State helped the Ducks with a few stupefying plays late in the first quarter. The Statue of Liberty is now 2-for-3 in bowl games, after it failed mightily Saturday on a botched handoff from Rypien to running back Robert Mahone. Oregon linebacker Troy Dye ran the fumble back 86 yards for a touchdown.
Only two plays later, after a 65-yard strike to wide receiver Cedrick Wilson, Rypien was intercepted near the goal line as safety Tyree Robinson jumped the route and went 100 yards the other way with 7 seconds left in the first half.
That’s two defensive touchdowns in 30 seconds, turning a potential 31-point Boise State lead into just a 24-14 lead at the half.
“If we don’t have those issues, it’s not even close,” Harsin said. “We were sitting there like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ It was just incredible. But we believed in our guys, knew they’d make plays.”
Sure enough, it’s just what the Broncos were able to do.
Oregon’s quick-strike offense scored in 1:54 early in the fourth quarter to cut the lead to 31-21, and after the Oregon defense forced a three-and-out, the Ducks were in business near midfield. But Weaver’s second sack led to a punt, and the Broncos’ offense had to make a play on a drive that started with 7:41 left.
Enter Rypien, who had thrown two interceptions in the end zone. On a third-and-9 from his own 15, he stepped up in the pocket, bought an extra second and hit freshman receiver CT Thomas for 22 yards. With 4:20 left at the Oregon 48 and facing third-and-7, Rypien went deep, finding Wilson, the game’s MVP, for a 41-yard pass. Three plays later, Ryan Wolpin’s 1-yard run effectively ended it.
“We went in saying we were letting it all out, you don’t go conservative against a team like that,” Harsin said. “We didn’t hit every shot, but we emptied every single bullet we had, minus one funky play we didn’t get around to.”
After a 2-2 start to the season, it was a poetic finish for a defense that was more often than not sublime, an offense that found big plays when needed, and a team that was able to weather a punch — both in the figurative and literal sense.
“I’ve been around Boise State football longer than anybody,” said Harsin, a former Broncos quarterback and assistant coach. “I’ve been a part of great teams, and I can tell you this right now, you can focus on the records all you want, this football team and the type of character they have, this coaching staff, is as good as any we’ve had.”
Bryan Harsin at Boise State
Here’s how the Boise State football team has fared in four seasons under coach Bryan Harsin:
Fiesta: Beat Arizona 38-30
Poinsettia: Beat NIU 55-7
Cactus: Lost to Baylor 31-12
Las Vegas: Beat Oregon 38-28