Boise State linebacker Tyson Maeva exited Saturday’s must-win game against Utah State at least twice with apparent injuries. He went to the medical tent at least once.
He returned to the field both times. And on the final, meaningless snap of the game — with the Aggies hopelessly nine points behind — there was Maeva finishing the game with his teammates.
The Aggies tried a desperation lateral and Maeva pounced on the loose football. A Utah State player landed on him, and it was clear the contact hurt. Maeva couldn’t even join in the celebration of the 33-24 victory that gave the No. 21 Broncos the right to host the Mountain West championship game next Saturday against Fresno State.
He appeared to wave off teammates who approached him. He then bent over for a while and chatted with a trainer.
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It was a moment symbolic of the Broncos’ stunning November run — four wins, three of them by a total of 21 points, with two coming against ranked teams. And they accomplished all that while fighting through an epidemic of injuries that expanded to grab starting safety Kekoa Nawahine on Saturday night.
The Broncos’ mantra, repeated throughout their seven-game winning streak, is “Find a Way.”
The defining trait has been toughness.
“This team has a lot of fight,” Boise State senior quarterback Brett Rypien said. “We’ve battled through a lot this year. We haven’t really blinked an eye.”
The Broncos swept through November with a stingy defense and the hard-nosed running of junior tailback Alexander Mattison — two of the Broncos’ biggest expected strengths in the preseason that hadn’t played out that way the first two months.
Mattison carried 37 times for 200 yards and three touchdowns against Utah State, including stretches where he carried on eight and six straight plays. His 59-yard run on second-and-4 with a little more than 2 minutes left all but iced the game and his 1-yard TD run with 4 seconds remaining did.
“Our will on the team, and Alex is kind of at the head of that — they want to win so bad and they just find a way,” offensive coordinator Zak Hill said. “That’s kind of been our thing, find a way. Doesn’t matter how pretty it is or glorious or glamorous it is, let’s find a way to win and move on to the next game and go win that one.”
The Broncos have been in a must-win position since early October, when a home loss to San Diego State left them with zero margin for error in the Mountain Division race. No. 14 Utah State, playing the softer half of the West Division, was the Mountain favorite most of the past two months.
But the Broncos were able to win six in a row to set up Saturday’s showdown for the title, and they closed out the Aggies with physical defense and a battering-ram offensive approach.
“Our team just flipped our mentality to everything’s a must-win now (after San Diego State),” sophomore defensive back Kekaula Kaniho said. “We must prepare our best, we must stay focused and we must win every week.”
The Broncos’ physical and mental toughness was tested weekly. They’ve gone through 22 starters on defense. Only cornerback Avery Williams has started every game, and he played with an elbow brace for several weeks. Two of the offense’s biggest playmakers — wide receivers John Hightower and Khalil Shakir — missed a combined five games in November, with both out the last two games.
Others have played through ailments, as Maeva clearly did Saturday night.
Through it all, the Broncos have figured out how to deliver the game-clinching play — outscoring Fresno State and Utah State by a combined 27-10 in the fourth quarter and beating BYU with a goal-line stand on the final play.
“The mental toughness on this team has been something that’s been elevated,” coach Bryan Harsin said. “... They’ve shown tremendous toughness — tremendous mental toughness, too, because we haven’t backed down.”
That toughness was on display in the fourth quarter Saturday night.
The offense ran 23 plays in the quarter — and 17 of them were carries by Mattison. He and the offensive line, maligned through September and October, proved one of Harsin’s most persistent points. The most physical team, he tells his players frequently, will win the game.
The Broncos left no doubt who that was.
“This team is relentless,” Mattison said.
Chadd Cripe is the Idaho Statesman’s sports columnist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow @chaddcripe on Twitter.