This seemed like the time the Boise State football team would put all its pieces together and give us an idea of how good it can be.
The Broncos had a week off to work on their flaws. They returned to their original starting lineup on the offensive line. They were playing a bad opponent in UNLV on Saturday night at Sam Boyd Stadium. And they were supported by thousands of blue-and-orange fans — many of them friends and family members of the players — to provide a little extra motivation.
Three and a half unimpressive hours later, this instead looked like the same team we saw in September with the exception of some improved special teams play — stout on defense, frustrating on offense.
The 38-13 defeat of the Rebels was the Broncos’ fifth straight win to start the season but, for a team with aspirations of playing in a New Year’s Six bowl game for the first time in five years, that’s not necessarily enough.
The Broncos need to quit misfiring, because the American Athletic Conference is in hot pursuit of the New Year’s Six bid. Cincinnati (4-1), which beat UCF on Friday, sustained its one loss to an Ohio State team that might be the nation’s best, and Memphis (5-0) and No. 24 SMU (6-0) are undefeated. All three were in the Top 25 on Sunday, chasing now-No. 14 Boise State.
When it comes time to compare resumes, a stagnant run game that is producing a hot-and-cold offensive attack would be a significant hole. The Broncos rank 81st nationally at 4.15 yards per carry.
Against UNLV, the Broncos scored six times on drives that totaled 4 minutes, 34 seconds — a sign of their quick-strike potential. They also punted eight times, got stuffed on fourth-and-1 and lost a fumble on third-and-1 — against a team that allowed 53 points to Wyoming, 30 to Northwestern and 43 to Arkansas State.
None of those teams are anywhere near the Top 25.
“That’s the one area where, if we can eliminate the sputters to be more consistent, then we’ll be a more complete team,” Boise State coach Bryan Harsin said.
That starts with the running game, the absence of which is becoming quite a head-scratcher considering the veteran offensive line and tailback tandem of junior Robert Mahone and true freshman George Holani. Those two impressed at Florida State and have had an intermittent impact since.
The Broncos rushed for 182 yards against the Rebels, but 74 of that came on three runs by wide receivers and another 46 on a long run by Holani late in the game. The run game issues were most apparent in the first half when the Broncos were stopped on third-and-1 twice and fourth-and-1 once. They picked up the other fourth-and-1, barely.
Mahone, the starter, finished with nine carries for 13 yards. It was the third time in four games that he didn’t have double-digit carries.
“UNLV stuck their face in there, and they beat us, flat out,” Harsin said of the short-yardage runs. “... When you’ve got to go half a yard, you’ve got to find a way to get half a yard.”
The Broncos also were hurt by an uncharacteristic 10 penalties for 130 yards — which contributed heavily to UNLV’s only touchdown against the starters and wiped out a kickoff return for a touchdown — and were bit again by the fumble bug, increasing their season totals to 11 fumbles and four lost.
The special teams performed better, which was an important step coming out of the bye. The protection of true freshman quarterback Hank Bachmeier was better, too.
But if the Broncos want to end the season playing against a team like Florida or Michigan, they’re going to have to stop tipping their caps to defenses from Marshall, Air Force and UNLV and start showing they can dominate.
There was one glimmer of that on Saturday night, when the Broncos took possession of the ball on their own 12-yard line with 32 seconds left in the first half. Most teams would have either taken a knee or handed the ball off with every intention of going to the locker room with a 14-0 lead.
Harsin told his offense to attack — and with three quick completions the Broncos tacked on a 52-yard field goal from Joel Velazquez.
It was a sequence right out of the golden era of Boise State football — the era when anyone who doubted whether the Broncos could play with the sport’s heavyweights was proven wrong.
“If we can get something positive going into halftime,” Harsin said, “... you’re going to have success coming out in the second half, I really believe that.”
That’s not what happened Saturday, when Bachmeier led five second-half drives. One was a touchdown drive fueled by two pass-interference penalties and a trick play. The other four ended in punts.
More sputters when you expected the offense to purr.
Chadd Cripe is the Idaho Statesman’s Assistant Editor and sports columnist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow @chaddcripe on Twitter.