The Boise State football team was down by a point, late in the third quarter, facing third-and-goal at the San Jose State 5-yard line, in desperate need of some “mojo.”
Offensive coordinator Eliah Drinkwitz called a similar play that failed two weeks earlier. True freshman quarterback Brett Rypien rolled to his right. True sophomore tailback Jeremy McNichols released into the flat.
Rypien, under pressure, flipped a pass to McNichols, who made the catch at the 5 and still had two defenders in his way. “I knew he was going to score,” Drinkwitz said.
Sure enough, McNichols took the angle toward the pylon and eluded the first defender at the 2. Linebacker Christian Tago grabbed him from behind, but McNichols dragged him to the end zone. Touchdown.
And with that play, the two guys — roommates who are the cornerstone of the Broncos’ future — found the Broncos’ missing “mojo.”
Boise State outscored the Spartans by 18 points in the final 18 minutes Friday afternoon at Spartan Stadium — closing the regular season with a much-needed 40-23 victory that snapped a two-game slide.
“The last couple weeks, I feel like when we got down, we just never got back,” said McNichols, who rushed for a career-high 192 yards and scored three touchdowns. “When adversity hit, we never got back together. I think guys were just looking at other guys to make plays and some guys just didn’t want to be the guy to make a play.
“This week, I feel like everybody wanted to be the guy to make that play and that’s what kept the mojo going.”
The Broncos (8-4, 5-3 Mountain West) likely solidified an invitation from the Poinsettia Bowl. The game is Dec. 23 in San Diego and will have a Mid-American Conference team on the other side, perhaps Toledo (9-2).
Poinsettia Bowl selection committee member Dean Ridgway attended the game in San Jose to make sure they knew how badly they’re wanted. The Mountain West must sign off on all bowl pairings. Decisions likely will be on hold until Dec. 6.
“All we can do is put our preference in,” Ridgway said. “We’ve already let the conference know we want Boise State.”
The bowl game will present an opportunity for the Broncos to put a positive spin on an otherwise-frustrating season. And to win, they’ll need to play the way they did Friday.
“These guys found mojo and played off each other, and sometimes that’s one of the most important factors you can have,” coach Bryan Harsin said. “... That was very rewarding to be on the sideline and around that and see that energy and the smiles.”
The win didn’t come easily.
San Jose State led 10-9 at halftime — the third straight game in which Boise State has trailed at intermission. The Broncos drove into Spartans territory to open the second half but didn’t score and took the field for their second drive buried at their own 3-yard line.
Fourteen plays later, McNichols’ touchdown catch gave the Broncos a 16-10 lead.
“That drive was special,” McNichols said.
Seven players carried the ball or caught a pass on the drive — and that doesn’t include right tackle Mario Yakoo, who recovered a fumble when the ball slipped out of Rypien’s hand on a pass attempt.
The Broncos converted three third downs, including an 11-yard run by walk-on tailback Ryan Wolpin on third-and-11. Receiver Thomas Sperbeck added a 19-yard scramble on a trick play that was supposed to be a pass.
Even when things went wrong, the Broncos found a way to make the drive work.
“We get the ball (to start the second half) and drive all the way down and didn’t score,” Drinkwitz said, “and normally that’s where we panic. And the guys didn’t panic. They just relaxed and executed, and I guess we scored every possession the rest of the game.”
The emphasis in practice all week had been to finish in the fourth. The Broncos scored 24 points, rushed for 205 yards and grabbed two interceptions in the final quarter.
The performance wasn’t always pretty — defensive coordinator Marcel Yates didn’t like the 474 yards allowed to San Jose State (5-7, 4-4) — but the result was a morale-booster for a program unaccustomed to dry spells.
The Broncos hadn’t won since Halloween.
“Winning,” junior linebacker Ben Weaver said, “is a lot of fun.”