Maybe Rocky Long was right after all.
Once the place where opponents’ momentum came to die, the perhaps once-mystical blue turf at Albertsons Stadium in six days has become the site of two losses for the home team.
Not since 1989 had Boise State lost two home games in a week’s span, until Air Force’s 37-30 win Friday followed up New Mexico’s 31-24 win the prior Saturday. The Broncos had lost three games on the blue in the 14 seasons prior to this one.
“It bothers me tremendously,” Boise State junior linebacker Ben Weaver said.
Outmuscled by the Falcons’ option and stunned by their deep passes, the Broncos were gashed consistently, losing to Air Force a second straight season in front of 30,332 fans in the last home game of the season.
Long, San Diego State’s veteran coach, rankled Boise State’s players, fans and coaches last November when he said “there’s no mystique” after being asked about playing at Albertsons Stadium. Even though the Aztecs lost, he’s doubled down on the comments in recent months as his team leads the Mountain West’s West Division.
There will be no chance to prove him wrong again in the Mountain West Championship, as Friday’s loss eliminated the Broncos (7-4 overall, 4-3 Mountain West) from contention.
“That’s a big thing, that goes to heart, as I sit up here right now, I’m about to be in tears,” junior safety Chanceller James said.
Boise State’s offense was rendered mostly ineffective most of the game, falling behind 34-13 with 8:27 left in the third quarter. Until freshman quarterback Brett Rypien’s 34-yard touchdown pass to junior wide receiver Thomas Sperbeck with 53 seconds remaining in the third, the Broncos had six straight scoreless drives, the first ending in a blocked field goal attempt while still leading 13-10. Air Force had 13 tackles for loss as Boise State had 378 yards of offense.
Instead, it was Air Force (8-3, 6-1) that provided the fireworks on the ground, and perhaps most surprisingly, through the air.
Senior quarterback Karson Roberts threw for 279 yards, including a 67-yard touchdown to Jalen Robinette with 6:42 left in the second quarter that gave the Falcons a 17-13 lead, one it never relinquished the rest of the way.
“We have defenders to cover the wide receivers, we didn’t forget about them by any means — it looked like we did, but we didn’t,” Boise State coach Bryan Harsin said.
Yet it was hard to imagine Boise State was the one in position to have a commanding lead, scoring 10 points in the first 80 seconds after an 83-yard touchdown run by sophomore running back Jeremy McNichols on the game’s first play from scrimmage, and a 37-yard Tyler Rausa field goal after a fumble recovery.
The Broncos seemed to twice force Air Force fumbles inside the 5-yard line on the ensuing drive, but neither was reviewed and the Falcons settled for a 19-yard field goal. On the first, Roberts ran up the middle and was stopped at the 1, seemingly fumbling, which defensive end Kamalei Correa had run back for a touchdown, but forward progress can’t be reviewed. The field goal started a 34-3 stretch for the visitors, who racked up 607 yards in the win.
“I don’t what tape they have up there that they’re looking at, but it was sure clear to me he was moving and the ball came out,” Harsin said.
All the big plays once again made the difference despite Boise State holding a 4-0 edge in the turnover battle, as the Falcons averaged 8.7 yards per play, with four passes of 38 yards or more and 328 rushing yards on 54 attempts.
“It wasn’t the best start, it’s about as bad as a start as you can have,” Roberts said. “It’s our mentality of never giving up and playing until the end. We knew there was a lot of football left so we were going to keep it up.”
Air Force nearly handed it back to the Broncos, as Rypien’s touchdown pass ended a drive begun by an interception by junior cornerback Ray Ford in the end zone. Boise State intercepted Roberts twice more in the fourth quarter, the second a throw into double coverage picked off by Weaver. The Broncos cashed it in with a 2-yard touchdown run by seldom-used sophomore quarterback Tommy Stuart to make it 34-27 with 5:35 left.
But the Falcons did what they do best, salting the game away with a nine-play, 47-yard drive that ended with Luke Strebel’s 45-yard field goal with 2:11 to play to put them up 10. Rausa added a 45-yard field goal of his own with 11 seconds left for the game’s final points.
“It was us versus them, we needed a win and they drove on us ... we should’ve stopped them,” Weaver said.
Once again, the Broncos’ offensive stalwarts shined, with McNichols rushing 20 times for 151 yards and in the process turned in the 22nd 1,000-yard season in Boise State history. He has 1,052 yards on the year. Sperbeck had seven catches for 79 yards. His 1,289 yards this season are a new school record.
“The only stat that matters to me is the win, those are good, but we didn’t win,” McNichols said.
On the other side, it was another jubilant road team savoring a rare win in Boise.
“Unbelievable feeling,” Air Force defensive back Roland Ladipo said. “To be able to come to Boise State, they’re unbelievable here. They don’t lose here. To win like that and hold them off at the end, it feels great.”
Boise State finds itself searching for answers after its first back-to-back losses at any point in a season since 2007, its first consecutive home losses since 1997 (a road loss was in between) and first time with three conference losses since 1998. The Broncos try to rebound next Friday at San Jose State in their regular season finale.
“We’ll found out about this team,” Harsin said. “... if we’re convincing guys to have to play, that’s a problem. I haven’t seen that yet, will be curious to see if that shows up this week.
“We have a lot to play for, we have a game we need to go win, two games left (including a bowl), we want to finish it the right way. We obviously don’t like that taste of losing.”