Boise State fans won’t soon forget the Broncos dropping BYU quarterback Zach Wilson at the 4-yard line as time expired to preserve last season’s 21-16 win in Albertsons Stadium.
That’s not the play etched in Boise State football coach Bryan Harsin’s memory, though. He remembers the 59-yard screen pass that allowed the Cougars into the red zone in the first place.
“So, they had this massively explosive play on that drive, which we tackle him there, that doesn’t happen, right? The drive’s different. You’re able to play back a little bit softer,” Harsin said. “And now they get in the red zone, and any time you have a play like that, you’ve created some momentum.”
Boise State wide receiver Khalil Shakir couldn’t even watch the final play from the 2-yard line. On the sideline, he kept his back to the play and listened for the crowd’s reaction.
“I heard the crowd go quiet so I knew the play was going on, and then it just starts going wild. I turned around and the defense was running around,” Shakir, a sophomore, said. “It was the best moment I’ve had in my college career — one of the best moments.”
Last season’s was the latest in an array of crazy finishes in the rivalry. In 2016, Boise State overcame five turnovers and blocked a late field goal to hang on for a 28-27 win. In 2004, BYU missed a field goal with 19 seconds left and the Broncos won by the same score.
After a seven-year hiatus in the series, the rivals met in 2012 and former Boise State defensive tackle Mike Atkinson returned an interception 36 yards for what turned out to be the game-winning touchdown. BYU scored late in the fourth quarter and had a chance to tie it, but the Cougars opted to go for two points and came up shy in the Broncos’ 7-6 win.
The latest chapter in the rivalry will be written at 8:15 p.m. Saturday in Provo, Utah.
“I’ve got a lot of history with this team and the series that we’ve had and will continue to have, and we know playing there is difficult,” Harsin said Monday. “I would say historically, if we could not keep them that close, that would be ideal, right?”
The Cougars (2-4) have lost three straight, and the offense is scoring 22.3 points a game, which ranks No. 104 in the country, and producing 121.3 rushing yards, which ranks No. 107. On the other side of the ball, BYU gave up 243 rushing yards in Saturday’s loss to South Florida and is surrendering an average of 224.5, which comes in at No. 123 in the nation.
Injuries have taken their toll. In a loss to Toledo on Sept. 28, Wilson went down with a hand injury, which required surgery and was expected to keep him out for six to eight weeks. Before that, BYU lost leading rusher Ty’Son Williams to a torn ACL and senior linebacker Zayne Anderson after a shoulder injury that cut his 2018 season short required further surgery.
To make matters worse, freshman quarterback Jaren Hall exited his first career start on Saturday with a possible concussion. During his weekly press conference Monday, BYU coach Kalani Sitaki called him “day to day.” If Hall can’t go, the Cougars will turn to freshman Baylor Romney, who replaced Hall with a little more than 7 minutes to play against USF and led a drive that stalled at the Bulls 5-yard line.
“I think he’s comfortable with the coaching he’s received and with his mentality,” Sitaki said. “We can work with guys that have a lot of confidence, and we just need to put him in a position that works with his strengths.”
Of course, Boise State (6-0) heads into the game with its own injury concerns. Freshman quarterback Hank Bachmeier took a shot to his left hip and midsection, which knocked him out of the Broncos’ win over Hawaii. Harsin didn’t have an update on Bachmeier on Monday, other than to suggest he won’t be out for the season. If Bachmeier can’t go, Chase Cord and Jaylon Henderson likely will share the snaps after combining for four touchdown passes against the Rainbow Warriors.
Ideally, though, they won’t have to carry the load if the progress Harsin saw in the running game against Hawaii continues. Robert Mahone and George Holani found the end zone on the ground, while Holani averaged 7.1 yards per carry and added two receiving touchdowns.
“I thought if you kind of looked at the numbers and what we were able to do and how we attacked in the run game, we were improved in those areas,” Harsin said. “Do I feel like we’ve taken the next step yet? I mean, you’ve got to put some back-to-back games like that together, and that’s going to be very hard this week just because of who we’re facing.”
BYU linebacker Chaz Ah You said Monday that the Cougars’ struggles against the run have come down to a passive approach.
“As a linebacker, your job is to read the gaps and shoot them,” Ah You said. “If we’re not doing that, they’re going to get those extra yards. We need to play more on our toes ready to come downhill.”
Regardless of BYU’s record or how their stats stack up against the nation’s elite teams, the Broncos know better than to expect anything other than another photo finish. After all, Boise State went into the 2016 meeting undefeated and ranked No. 14 — same as this year — and had to hang on for a one-point win over the unranked Cougars.
“Whatever their record is, 2-4 or whatever it is, that doesn’t matter going into this game especially,” Boise State safety Kekoa Nawahine said. “Over the years, we’ve had great games against this team and it’s going to be the same thing every time.”
BOISE STATE AT BYU
When: 8:15 p.m. MT Saturday
Where: LaVell Edwards Stadium (63,470, grass), Provo, Utah
TV: ESPN2 (Clay Matvick, Ryan Leaf, Taylor McGregor)
Radio: KBOI 670 AM/KTIK 93.1 FM (Bob Behler, Pete Cavender)
Records: Boise State is 6-0 overall, 3-0 Mountain West; BYU is 2-4
Series: Boise State leads 7-2 (last meeting: Boise State won 21-16 in 2018 in Boise)
Vegas line: Boise State by 6 1/2
Weather: 61 degrees, mostly cloudy