The Boise State and Fresno State football teams reached the Mountain West championship game in part because of major improvements to the Broncos’ defense and Bulldogs’ offense in recent weeks.
“You can’t rely on the offense to do all the work,” Boise State junior linebacker Tyler Gray said. “We came together as a group. We needed to start faster if we wanted to win these last few games. That’s really what’s helped us.”
The Broncos’ first-team defense has allowed 26 points in the past two and a half games, since falling into a 20-0 deficit in the first half against San Diego State on Nov. 15. That works out to 10.4 points per game.
The Broncos ranked 60th in the nation in total defense (390 yards per game) and 87th in scoring defense (29.9 points per game) going into that San Diego State game.
They’re now 37th in total defense (363.5) and 72nd in scoring defense (27.6).
“As a defense, we’ve really grown and it’s really showing right now,” sophomore defensive end Kamalei Correa said.
The Boise State defense must deal with a rising Fresno State offense, which hit rock bottom in the game after the Bulldogs lost at Boise State in October. Coaches benched quarterback Brian Burrell and paid for that decision with a 45-17 home loss to Wyoming on Nov. 1.
Burrell returned to the starting lineup Nov. 8 and led the Bulldogs to three straight wins. They scored at least four offensive touchdowns in each of those games — a total they hit in just four of the first nine games. They averaged 441 yards per game during the win streak.
Burrell is 64-for-104 for 682 yards with four interceptions and eight touchdowns in the past three games. That’s a 134.32 rating, which has brought his season rating above 120.
“Having Brian come on has really been a huge factor in our success,” Fresno State coach Tim DeRuyter said. “ He plays with a determination and a gutsiness that kind of inspires the guys around him. When he does that, it raises our entire offense.”
The two improved units will clash Saturday night at Albertsons Stadium (8 p.m., CBS). When they met Oct. 17, the Broncos’ defense got the better of the matchup.
Fresno State generated 313 yards in the 37-27 loss. Three plays were responsible for most of the Bulldogs’ scoring — a 76-yard run by running back Marteze Waller, a 32-yard catch by wide receiver Josh Harper and a fumbled kickoff return by the Broncos recovered on the 5-yard line.
Burrell was 13-for-25 for 127 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Waller rushed for 164 yards and two scores.
“Any offense, the key is the quarterback,” Boise State defensive coordinator Marcel Yates said. “He’s playing well right now. He’s a different quarterback than he was against us.”
Added Boise State coach Bryan Harsin: “Their team is playing better. I think our team is playing better. You’re not in a championship game if you’re not doing things better than you were doing them five or six weeks ago.”
Boise State has distributed just over 21,000 tickets for the Mountain West championship game. That includes 4,200 student tickets.
About 800 student tickets remain available. They are free for full-time students, who can buy up to three guest tickets for $9 each.
Tickets for the general public are $40 except in the north end zone ($20).
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