The defining question surrounding the Boise State football program a week ago: What happens if the Broncos win the rest of their games — another major bowl berth?
The question now: What needs to happen for it to matter if the Broncos win the rest of their games?
The Broncos (5-2 overall, 2-1 MW) lost control of their own destiny in the Mountain West with a 52-26 loss last week at Utah State. The Broncos likely will be heavily favored in each of their remaining five games — like Saturday, when Wyoming visits Albertsons Stadium as a 35-point underdog — but will need significant assistance to defend their conference title.
And if they don’t win the conference, the Broncos’ expected 14th straight bowl bid likely will come from the Armed Forces Bowl, Cactus Bowl, Poinsettia Bowl or New Mexico Bowl — far from the spotlight and cash of the New Year’s Six.
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Coach Bryan Harsin said his team continues to focus on winning each game rather than the big picture.
“As far as what we can accomplish, we’re not going to know till the end of the year anyway,” he said. “We sat here last year after the Air Force game and had the same conversations. We ended up being conference champs and ended up winning the Fiesta Bowl, so who knows? The ball doesn’t just bounce funny for the Broncos.”
Here’s where Boise State stands for the postseason — and which funny bounces Harsin will need:
Mountain West championship game: The Broncos must win out and have Utah State (4-2, 3-0) lose twice to win the Mountain Division and reach the title game. Utah State plays at San Diego State (4-3, 3-0) on Friday — if the Aggies win, it’s difficult to imagine them losing twice.
The championship game will be played at the home of the highest-ranked division champ. This year, the host likely will be determined by computer rankings because the conference will struggle to place a team in the College Football Playoff top 25. According to the Computer Composite posted by USA Today, Boise State remains the highest-ranked MW team. The Broncos and Aggies are well ahead of San Diego State, which has a two-game lead in the West.
New Year’s Six bowl: Yes, the Broncos rallied to make the Fiesta Bowl last year with two losses. But the outstanding nonconference performance of the American Athletic Conference this season (and its three undefeated teams) gives that league a huge edge in the competition for the Group of Five’s spot. Undefeated Toledo of the Mid-American Conference is a factor, too. The Broncos would need a chaotic finish to the season to get back into contention this year.
Other bowls: The Las Vegas Bowl gets the first choice from the Mountain West this year but also has the option of taking BYU, an attractive team that always brings a large crowd to the game. The Mountain West also has tie-ins with the Poinsettia (San Diego), Hawaii, Famous Idaho Potato, New Mexico, Arizona and Armed Forces (Fort Worth, Texas) bowls. BYU goes to Hawaii if Las Vegas passes on the Cougars.
The Mountain West also gets a spot in the Cactus Bowl (Phoenix) if the Pac-12 or Big 12 fails to fill its spot. The Big 12 spot could be in jeopardy with the conference expected to land two berths in the New Year’s Six.
Boise State, particularly if it wins out, likely would be placed based on matchup. That makes Cactus (Jan. 2) and Armed Forces (Dec. 29 vs. Big Ten) the most likely destinations.
Obscured by the eight turnovers against Utah State was the string of critical mistakes made by some of the Broncos’ best defensive players.
Senior safety Darian Thompson got suckered by play action on fourth-and-1 on the Aggies’ first touchdown, senior cornerback Donte Deayon got beaten by his man for the second touchdown and junior end Kamalei Correa tried to hold two gaps instead of the one he was responsible for and allowed quarterback Kent Myers to dash 39 yards for the fourth touchdown.
“A lot of players” tried to do more than just their assignment as the Broncos’ deficit grew, Correa said — himself included.
“We hit a peak where we said, ‘Wow, we’re pretty good,’ ” Correa said. “That game brought us back to perspective and brought us back to ground zero. We’re going back to basic, day one fundamentals. ... I really can’t explain what happened.”
Said defensive line coach Steve Caldwell: "Sometimes you've got to mess with fire before you really realize it burns. I've been doing this a long time and every once in a while those nights happen, and there's no excuse for it.”
Two positive moments stood out in the Broncos’ loss at Utah State:
• Correa sprinted across and down the field to tackle Utah State running back LaJuan Hunt at the end of a 51-yard play. Correa registered a tackle for loss on the next play.
Correa said he needs to hustle like he did on the Hunt play more often.
“I don’t know that you see that effort you saw that time right there (all the time) — I think he’s 100 percent right,” Caldwell said. “That's what we harp on all the time. That was very impressive, I told him. I thought what was more impressive was the very next play he came back and hammered the guy inside and made a 2-yard tackle for loss.”
• Senior wide receiver Shane Williams-Rhodes swiped the ball from cornerback Jalen Davis on an interception return. The Broncos scored moments later to pull within 24-10.
Williams-Rhodes used that move a couple times in middle school, he said.
“That was the only thing going through my mind: ‘How can we get the ball back?’ ” he said. “I really wasn’t even going for the tackle. I was just going for the strip. I attempted it and it worked out in my favor.”
Said Harsin: “Shane’s play in a tough game was maybe one of the most spectacular plays I’ve ever seen. I felt at that point in the game that was our one chance at life.”
The Broncos returned all five starters from last year’s offensive line and possess an exciting young tailback in sophomore Jeremy McNichols.
Yet the run game has performed at the worst level in 12 years.
The Broncos average 3.9 yards per carry. McNichols produces 4.8 per carry.
The team average is the worst for the Broncos since 2003 (3.7). McNichols’ average also is the worst by the team’s leading rusher since 2003 (4.7 by David Mikell).
The Broncos are 94th in the nation in yards per rush, tied for 106th in sacks allowed (19, which count against rushing yardage) and tied for 121st in tackles for loss allowed (54).
“We’ve got to be able to be the unit on the team that when things are going bad, when some other players are struggling, we’ve got to be able to pick it up,” junior right guard Steven Baggett said of the offensive line. “We’ve got to really focus on that and become the strength of our offense. ... You’d like to say that we have so much experience that it will just be easy and we’ll go out there and we’ll do well, but football is tough. It’s a tough sport. We’ve just got to really focus on getting in there and preparing better, that way we can really play to the level we’re expected to play to. ... Overall, I don’t think we’ve been playing very well.”
The offensive line shouldn’t shoulder all the blame, Harsin said.
“I think the O-line is doing a good job,” he said. “Are we giving up penetration? Yes. Can we be better? Absolutely. It’s a combination, too, of the O-line and running backs working together. ... (The offensive linemen) take a lot of pride in it and they put the pressure on themselves and I like that about that group, but it’s a combination.”
BSU had distributed 29,128 tickets for the Wyoming game as of Thursday morning. ... BSU has won 17 straight home games.
Chadd Cripe is in his 14th season covering Boise State football for the Idaho Statesman. He also votes in The Associated Press Top 25. He can be reached at email@example.com.