Boise State and Fresno State will meet Saturday for the fourth time in 53 weeks — an unprecedented scenario in modern college football history.
The home team won the first three of those games, with the Bulldogs winning the first clash and the Broncos taking the Mountain West championship game last year and a regular-season meeting three weeks ago. If you combine those 180 minutes, you get a matchup about as close as imaginable: Fresno State leads 59-58 in points, while Boise State leads 62-59 in first downs, 1,213-1,130 in total yards, 395-343 in rushing yards and 818-787 in passing yards. Each team has committed one turnover (an interception for both).
Fresno State led entering the fourth quarter in all three games but held on just once. The Bulldogs have outscored the Broncos in the first three quarters 47-30, holding them to 10 points each time. The Broncos have dominated the fourth quarter 28-12, shutting out the Bulldogs in the two fourth quarters on the Blue.
“We’d like to be playing from a lead instead of playing from behind,” Boise State senior quarterback Brett Rypien said. “They want to finish, obviously. They haven’t been able to do that the last two times.”
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Here are three keys for No. 19 Boise State (10-2) to win its second straight Mountain West title — and a trip to either the Fiesta Bowl or Las Vegas Bowl. Kickoff is 5:45 p.m. Saturday at Albertsons Stadium (ESPN):
1. Own the fourth quarter. Boise State’s seven-game win streak includes five games that were settled in the fourth quarter, where the Broncos have played their best football. In those five games, Boise State has outscored its opponents 37-20 in the fourth — with only two of those foes finding the end zone.
“They’ve got a lot of heart,” coach Bryan Harsin said of his players.
The Broncos’ trend this season, and in recent matchups with the Bulldogs, points toward this encounter coming down to which team can execute in the closing minutes yet again. Fresno State clinched its regular-season win last year with an 81-yard touchdown pass moments after the Broncos closed within two points. Boise State set up its winning touchdown a week later with a 59-yard catch by Cedrick Wilson to fuel a 90-yard drive and clinched the Mountain West title with Leighton Vander Esch’s interception. And the Broncos closed out this year’s game with two fourth-quarter touchdowns, a fourth-down stop in their own territory and a first-down run to extinguish the game clock.
Fresno State has led 16-10, 14-10 and 17-10 entering the fourth quarter. It has won 28-17, lost 17-14 and lost 24-17.
“We’d like to start a little quicker,” Boise State offensive coordinator Zak Hill said.
2. Finish drives. In both of Boise State’s showdowns against Top 25 opponents in November, they blew a chance to take a big lead by not capitalizing on promising drives and field position.
In the Fresno State game, the Broncos missed a field goal, settled for a field goal, punted in Fresno State territory, failed on a fake field goal and threw an interception in the end zone in the first half. They generated 211 yards of offense and scored three points. Rypien said after the game that the Broncos had stopped themselves — and that was obvious when they opened the second half with three straight touchdown drives.
In the Utah State game last week, the Broncos tried three field goals (made two) and were stopped on fourth down once — 28 points worth of opportunity that devolved into six points.
No. 25 Fresno State (10-2) hasn’t allowed an opponent to score more than 30 points in its past 23 games, the longest streak in the nation. The Broncos have gotten away with squandered scoring chances in the past two meetings (they drove into Fresno State territory nine times in last year’s title game and scored 17 points), but that’s not a sustainable formula.
“We haven’t got off to a good start in the last two games we’ve played them,” Rypien said. “We’ve had opportunities to score and we haven’t done it. We understand that, and we know that we’ve got to be better. We’ve got to be more consistent, because every single drive, every single little play, is going to matter in this game.”
3. Wide receivers step up. The Broncos’ receivers haven’t been filling the highlight reel in recent weeks the way they did the first two-thirds of the season. Injuries to the electric John Hightower (missed past three games) and versatile Khalil Shakir (missed past two games) have placed extra burden on seniors Sean Modster and A.J. Richardson and sophomore CT Thomas, who will need to make challenging catches in tight spots against Fresno State’s stingy defense.
Note: It goes without saying that Boise State’s woeful special teams need to avoid any game-altering mistakes.
This week’s predictions
Boise State, a slight underdog in this matchup three weeks ago, is favored by 2.5 points. The over/under is 52.5. The Broncos are 8-4 against the spread this season, including 4-2 at home. The Bulldogs are 8-4 against the spread with three straight losses, and 4-2 on the road.
My pick (9-3 straight up, 5-7 ATS): The Broncos are playing well and Bronco Nation has turned up the intensity at Albertsons Stadium. Rypien and tailback Alexander Mattison, who blossomed into a star in November with 578 rushing yards, give the Broncos a more potent attack than Fresno State’s. Meanwhile, Boise State’s injury-depleted defense has rebuilt with young playmakers like Scale Igiehon and Zeke Noa. The Broncos’ special teams still worry me, as does Rypien’s inexplicable interception in the first meeting. But this Broncos team won’t be denied. Boise State 30, Fresno State 24
Fresno State perspective, from Robert Kuwada of The Fresno Bee (opponent view is 10-2, 6-6): Fresno State is 18-2 under Tedford when taking a lead into the fourth quarter, and those two losses are to Boise State. In both of those games the Bulldogs got a lead and played behind their defense, which makes some sense. Until blowing that 17-3 lead on Nov. 9, no Mountain West team had scored more than 17 points in a half against the Bulldogs under Tedford. But to win, Fresno State can’t bundle up the offense against the cold. In the title game last season, 79 total yards and no points on six series in the second half. In the Nov. 9 game, after pushing that lead to 14 points, 129 total yards and no points on four series. Fresno State needs that add-on score, like the 81-yard touchdown to KeeSean Johnson in the fourth quarter of the win last year. But, really, with Mattison and that run game rolling the way it has the past three games, Boise State has one more way to win than Fresno State. Boise State 27, Fresno State 21
Betting expert Lee Sterling of Paramount Sports, who appears weekly on KTIK (8-4, 6-6): “The underdog’s covered the last three games in the series. For Fresno, they can’t fall behind in this game. They did play with the lead last time and I thought they got a little too conservative. I think they’re going to take some shots. I just think Boise’s going to be too much.” Boise State 27, Fresno State 20
Chadd Cripe is the Idaho Statesman’s sports columnist. Contact him at email@example.com and follow @chaddcripe on Twitter.