With 85 seconds to play Friday night, the entire Boise State football team congregated during a timeout.
Trailing 17-3 just 20 minutes earlier, the Broncos held a 24-17 lead over No. 16 Fresno State and had the Bulldogs facing a fourth-and-11 at the Boise State 29-yard line.
“We were just talking about heart ... someone was going to have to make a big-time play,” Boise State sophomore cornerback Avery Williams said.
Williams was the one who made that play, breaking up Marcus McMaryion’s pass inside the red zone to seal the win for Boise State over the Bulldogs. It was the Broncos’ first win over a ranked team in November.
Heart, guts, testicular fortitude, call it what you will — Boise State showed it before the 33,118 in attendance at Albertsons Stadium well before and into Williams’ breakup.
The Broncos (8-2 overall, 5-1 Mountain West) scored the final 21 points of the game, overcoming a three-point first half against a team that had outscored its previous Mountain West foes 184-36. They showed that the conference crown won’t be taken easily.
“It was good to see guys go out there and rise to the occasion ... in a game like this and find a way to win,” Boise State coach Bryan Harsin said, adding, “tonight was about the fourth quarter.”
There was no doubt this one was not going to be decided until the final seconds, like when the Bulldogs (8-2, 5-1) visited Boise last December for the Mountain West championship, a 17-14 Boise State win.
As if the Broncos needed much more motivation than the need to win to stay in the race to repeat as champions, they were the underdogs — Fresno State was favored by 2 1/2 points. It was the first time that was the case on the Blue since the 2005 MPC Computers Bowl and the first time in a regular-season game since Sept. 8, 2001.
“To be an underdog on the Blue, that’s never a good feeling, especially when we haven’t been in a long time — I think a lot of guys in that locker room took that personally,” Boise State senior quarterback Brett Rypien said.
With the way junior running back Alexander Mattison complemented Rypien on Friday, he ran with a head of steam that seemed to be inspired by more than just a rushing attack that had been subpar all season and faced a top-notch defense.
Mattison had a career-high 30 carries for a season-high 144 yards, scoring a pair of a touchdowns. It was the most the Bulldogs have allowed to a rusher this season, and he was just the second back to cross the 100-yard plateau.
“It was just a mentality ... fast and physical is something we emphasize every week, every day, and that’s something we got done today,” Mattison said.
The Broncos scored on three consecutive drives to answer Fresno State’s touchdown that opened the second half for its 17-3 lead. Mattison scored on the first two, the first capping a 12-play, 70-yard drive, and the second ending an 11-play, 59-yard drive that tied it up.
Mattison posted his third 100-yard game of the season in the win, and in turn inspired even the guys on the other side of the ball. Junior linebacker Tyson Maeva said even when Fresno State had jumped to its two-touchdown lead, hope was not lost.
“Especially with the way Alex was playing, he was running like I’ve never seen him run before, with his hair on fire, lighting people up,” Maeva said.
The defense did what it had done just six days prior against BYU and made a late stand. Maeva had a sack to force the fourth-and-11, the Broncos’ third sack of the game against an offensive line that had allowed just five all season.
The Broncos forced two punts after the Bulldogs’ third-quarter touchdown, and scored after both, with Rypien providing the game-winner on a 49-yard touchdown strike to freshman wide receiver Khalil Shakir with 9:22 left to play.
Even after a poor first half, Rypien said he knew the offense had the resilience to bounce back — the Broncos had five first-half drives, all of them ending in Fresno State territory, four at or inside the 33-yard line. On those, they missed a field goal, failed on a fake field goal and threw an interception.
“I don’t feel like they had stopped us, we were playing well for the most part, and we just needed to finish the drives, and we were able to do that,” Rypien said. “... We came out in the second half, and we knew it was a do-or-die situation.”
Fresno State was 0-for-5 on third down in the second half and had a 50-yard field goal blocked by Williams with 7:09 to play, trying to cut into the 24-17 lead. Bulldogs coach Jeff Tedford said “their fans did an awesome job” as Fresno State had four penalties in the first 5 minutes, including three offsides flags. And when the Broncos got momentum and the crowd back into it, they had the win in their sights.
“They’re a good team, and good teams don’t stop fighting,” McMaryion said. “At the end of the day we knew it was going to be a four-quarter game and they kept fighting, kept clawing no matter what the score was and we knew that was going to be the case.”
As soon as the game finished, Boise State senior STUD end Jabril Frazier sprinted to the Bulldogs’ sideline and grabbed the silver Milk Can trophy the Bulldogs had possessed since their win over the Broncos in Fresno to end the 2017 regular season.
With so much riding on Friday’s game, a tangible reward was the perfect representation of a 2018 season still very much alive.
“It meant everything,” Williams said. “They got the Milk Can last year, we felt we deserved it. They came to the Blue, and we had to protect it.”