There are 18 seniors suiting up for Boise State for the final time tonight against Baylor in the Cactus Bowl. But it’s a junior finale that’s going to command attention in Phoenix. Jeremy McNichols finally announced the expected yesterday at the bowl press conference, declaring his intention to forego his senior year with the Broncos and enter the NFL Draft. That’s quite a ride for a guy who came to Boise State as more of a wide receiver 2½ years ago. In fact, it was with that in mind that the Broncos burned his redshirt year four games into the 2014 season, needing reinforcements at wideout when Matt Miller’s season and career ended with an injury. McNichols, of course, ended up in a hybrid role, earning the “Weapon” nickname, and became the feature back last year after Jay Ajayi did what he’s doing now.
This Boise State team is marked by distinctive senior leadership, guys like the perpetually overachieving Thomas Sperbeck, the irrepressible Ben Weaver, and the dues-paying Sam McCaskill. They know that this season will be judged on what happens tonight against the Bears. Will it be a hollow 10-3, or a hopeful 11-2? The 27-20 loss to Air Force has been following the Broncos around for more than a month. And the 30-28 defeat at Wyoming for almost two months now. “I think you take all that rage and disappointment from some of the stuff that happened during the season and put that into preparation for the bowl game,” said Sperbeck last week. And put it on the field.
Baylor has nothing to lose tonight at Chase Field. You get the feeling there’s been a paradigm shift in the Bears program. All season they’ve been burdened by the ugliness of the sexual abuse scandal that forced out their coach, athletic director and university president. There’s a rudder for the ship now with the hiring of Temple coach Matt Rhule, and a resolve by the seniors to go out with a winning season despite a six-game losing streak. There were signs of that even in the season finale at West Virginia, where Baylor nearly upset the Mountaineers before falling 24-21. Not to forget the underclassmen who will crank it up tonight in their first live audition for Rhule.
On paper, the cumulative season stats say that the Boise State offense should be impossible to stop going into tonight’s Cactus Bowl against Baylor. The Broncos have a 1,000-yard rusher, 3,000-yard passer and two 1,000-yard receivers. But all those cylinders don’t always fire at the same time. McNichols should be inspired in his swan song. But the one who needs to be on his game is quarterback Brett Rypien. When he’s good, he’s fantastic. Rypien has thrown for 3,346 yards and 23 touchdowns against six interceptions. But he’s coming off a game in which he went 9-for-23. If Rypien clicks, it will all click. The Broncos are playing against their own offensive pedigree tonight.
On defense, Boise State’s job is to stop the run with a patchwork group of linebackers, missing Tanner Vallejo and Joe Martarano. And now, they have to do it without defensive end Jabril Frazier and safety Dylan Sumner-Gardner. Frazier has an undisclosed injury, and Sumner-Gardner is, as Friday’s press release said, “at this point in time is not a member” of the team. Baylor is not only fifth in the nation in total offense, it’s 13th in rushing with an average of 250 yards. Over its last five games, Boise State has allowed 234 yards per outing and five yards per carry.
I promised I’d get back to you regarding the volume of Famous Idaho Potato Bowl records under attack last Thursday in Idaho’s 61-50 win over Colorado State. There were 25 marks broken or tied in the game—26 if you count the fact that both teams eclipsed the record for total offense. I’ve picked out five unsung and/or under-appreciated records that were broken. First, despite the record 111 points that were scored, there were zero in the first quarter. Then Vandal running back Isaiah Saunders had 33 rushing attempts, the Rams’ Olabisi Johnson had an astounding 37.9 yards per reception (seven catches for a record 265 yards), CSU’s Detrich Clark returned eight kickoffs, and last but not least, Idaho did not turn the ball over once.
Maybe there should be a cooling-off period for beat reporters and columnists immediately following college football games. Not two hours after the game, the Coloradoan’s Matt Stephens had posted a column headlined, “CSU not getting its money’s worth from Mike Bobo.” It starts off: “Bowl failure and CSU go together like Mike Bobo and inflated salaries. $1.45 million? For what?” And it goes on from there. “The expectation was never that Bobo was going to have CSU contending for New Years Six bowls in his first two seasons, but when earning as much money that he does, there’s an assumption he’ll do the job at a high level,” writes Stephens. “The coach across the sideline, Idaho’s Paul Petrino, did Thursday, and he makes less than a third of Bobo’s salary.” Stephens calls it “unfathomable disappointment.”
Five Mountain West bowls down and two to go now, with the conference showing a 3-2 record after Hawaii’s 52-35 win over Middle Tennessee in the Hawaii Bowl on Christmas Eve. The Warriors looked overmatched when the Blue Raiders busted out to a 14-0 lead midway through the first quarter. But to its credit, Hawaii began feasting on MTSU turnovers and earned itself a .500 record for the season. Elsewhere, in addition to the Cactus Bowl tonight, Washington State faces Minnesota in the Holiday Bowl. WSU coach Mike Leach announced yesterday that quarterback Luke Falk will return for his senior year. Falk will greet Boise State in Martin Stadium on September 9 next season.
Boise State’s two running back representatives in the NFL went entirely different directions Saturday. Jay Ajayi clocked his third 200-yard game of the season when he rushed for 206 in Miami’s 34-31 overtime win at Buffalo. He peeled off a 57-yard run in the OT to set up the winning field goal. Ajayi is only the fourth player in NFL history to record at least three 200-yard games in one season. On the other hand, Doug Martin didn’t even play in Tampa Bay’s 31-24 loss to New Orleans. The urge to win is thicker than blue-and-orange blood. Bucs coach Dirk Koetter, the one-time Boise State head man, dressed three backs for the Saints game, and Martin, despite being healthy, was not one of them.
Boise State is five years in as the Mountain West basketball season opens tomorrow night. The Broncos, who face Utah State in Logan, have not had a losing conference record since going 3-11 in their debut season in 2011-12. They are 43-27 in MW play, all under Leon Rice. Last season Boise State finished third in the conference with a mildly-disappointing 11-7 mark, but the Broncos were drummed out of the Mountain West Tournament with an 88-81 loss to Colorado State. The 2016-17 slate is clean, and they go into it having made noticeable progress during a 7-4 run through the preseason.
This Day In Sports…December 27, 1998:
A high point in former Capital Eagle Jake Plummer’s NFL career, when Chris Jacke hits a 52-yard field goal as time runs out to give Arizona a 16-13 win over San Diego at Sun Devil Stadium. The victory clinched the Cardinals’ first playoff berth since moving to Phoenix from St. Louis in 1988. The following week, Plummer would lead the Cards to their first playoff win in half a century with a win over the Dallas Cowboys.
(Tom Scott hosts the Scott Slant segment Sunday nights at 10:30PM on KTVB’s Sunday Sports Extra and anchors five sports segments each weekday on 93.1 The Ticket. He also served as color commentator on KTVB’s telecasts of Boise State football for 14 seasons.)