Senior nose tackle Sonatane Lui decided the moment warranted a prayer, but junior safety Kekaula Kaniho felt certain Boise State’s veteran defensive line already had done its job.
“I knew we had it,” Kaniho said.
Lui and fellow senior defensive tackle David Moa stuffed Air Force fullback Taven Birdow on fourth-and-1 at the start of the fourth quarter. It was the first of several momentum-seizing plays that spurred the No. 20 Broncos past Air Force 30-19 in the Mountain West opener for both teams Friday night at Albertsons Stadium.
“I looked to my left and I saw (Moa). I looked at Riley (Whimpey) and Chase (Hatada) on my right and I was just like ‘Alright, this is where it all comes down,’ and we fired out,” Lui said. “Coach (Bryan) Harsin always says the most physical team wins, and that’s all that was going through my head was be physical and win this down.”
After an official measurement, Birdow’s run was declared a half-yard short of the first down. The stop ended up being one of a career-high 16 tackles for Lui, who entered the game with eight tackles in total. The 16 tackles are the most for a Boise State defensive lineman in the FBS era.
“I think there’s usually like three to five game-changing plays in a game. That was certainly one of them right there,” Harsin said. “... When they spotted the ball I’m like ‘We’ve got a shot.’ ... I was saying my prayers, too, and we got the ball back and that becomes a game-changing play.”
Boise State took over on its own 47-yard line ahead 17-13 with 12:54 to go in the fourth quarter. Senior receiver John Hightower caught critical passes of 16 and 14 yards from freshman quarterback Hank Bachmeier on the eight-play drive, the second of which bounced off two Air Force defenders before Hightower got his hands on it at the Falcons’ 10.
Junior running back Robert Mahone muscled in from the 10 on the next play, giving one Air Force defender the stiff arm as free safety Jeremy Fejedelem clung to his back leg. Air Force blocked the extra-point try to keep the margin at 23-13 with 8:30 on the clock.
“I think in the second half we just went out there and tried to put the game away,” Mahone said. “Coming into the second half we knew we had to finish, and that’s what we did.”
Kaniho came up with a game-changing play of his own on Air Force’s next possession, picking off junior quarterback Donald Hammond III and returning it 50 yards to the Falcons’ 27. Five plays later, another 10-yard TD run from Mahone pushed the Broncos’ lead to 30-13. Mahone finished with 73 yards on 13 carries as the Broncos totaled 95 yards on the ground.
Bachmeier completed 19-of-26 passes for 263 yards and touchdown passes to junior receiver CT Thomas and junior tight end John Bates. Senior kicker Eric Sachse contributed a 40-yard field goal in a game where the Falcons and Broncos each collected 355 yards.
“This football team, they have a great vibe,” Harsin said. “These guys play for each other and they do it throughout the week, getting themselves ready. They come in this building, they sit together, they help each other out and they want to be successful.
“Their hard work does not go unnoticed, and it didn’t go unnoticed tonight. I am really proud to be a part of that.”
In his first start as a Bronco, Citadel transfer Khafari Buffalo made a career-high 11 tackles, and linebackers Whimpey and Ezekiel Noa added 10 tackles apiece.
The Boise State defense’s streak of three straight second-half shutouts came to an end, but a 4-0 start for the first time since 2016 isn’t a bad consolation prize. The Broncos will have a bye next week and return to action Oct. 5 at UNLV (8:30 p.m., CBS Sports Network).
“Our mindset going into each game is to be 1-0. We’re always going to keep on the little things and what got us here in the first place,” said Thomas, who had a career-best 119 receiving yards on five receptions. “Whether we’re playing Florida State at their place or on The Blue, we always try to be 1-0 that week.”