Defense buys time—offense cashes in

Things did not bode well for Boise State late in the third quarter against Fresno State Saturday night in the Mountain West championship game. The Broncos’ first two drives had started on the 18 and 15-yard lines. When Boise State did get good field position at the Bulldog 47, it lost Alexander Mattison to a serious leg injury three plays later. Then it was on to the fourth quarter, and two consecutive Bronco drives began at the 10, the second one pushed back to the five by a penalty. Enter Cedrick Wilson, who gathered in a perfect 59-yard strike from Brett Rypien, followed by a tough clutch grab on a third-and-five and a pass interference penalty he drew in the end zone, and the table was set for one of the most dramatic two-yard runs in school history, the Ryan Wolpin touchdown that gave Boise State a 17-14 win and the title.

Boise State would have never been in a championship position had its defense not resolved to shore itself up at halftime. The windows closed for Fresno State quarterback Marcus McMaryion and his fleet receivers, partly because the Broncos finally penetrated the stout Bulldog offensive line. Boise State sacked McMaryion twice and pressured him a bunch. In the second half, he was just 7-of-18 for 70 yards as Fresno State was held to 85 yards total. The Bulldogs’ five second-half possessions went punt-punt-punt-punt-punt-interception. And how fitting that the pick at the end of the game came from the guy who has epitomized this unit’s identity in 2017, Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year Leighton Vander Esch.

Boise State’s offense may have looked like a shell of the one that was tearing things up through late October and most of November, but at some point, Fresno State has to get credit. The Broncos were facing the Mountain West’s top-rated defense two weeks in row while being held to just 17 points each time. The Bulldogs are the story of the year in the Mountain West, going from 1-11 last season to 9-4. The difference was the grit Boise State showed at crunch time. There was a ton of “want-to” from the blue-clad guys on the blue turf.

The record will show that 24,515 fans showed up at Albertsons Stadium Saturday night. But that was the only thing disappointing about the crowd. It was easily the loudest bunch of the season and ranks right up there with the vocal cords of any this decade. In the second half, fans were almost willing the Broncos to break the spell Fresno State seemed to have over them—and lo and behold, it happened. At the team’s award banquet yesterday, Boise State athletic director Curt Apsey and coach Bryan Harsin repeatedly mentioned the effect the crowd had on the game. Those that bought tickets and attended the game were there for a purpose—and they brought it, and they were rewarded.

As Vander Esch said during the trophy presentation Saturday night, “One to go, baby.” And that one is against Oregon in the Las Vegas Bowl. It was going to be either the Ducks or Arizona—ironically, had Chris Petersen and Washington not been bumped up to a New Year’s Six Bowl (Coach Pete’s going back to the Fiesta Bowl to face Penn State), the Broncos would have drawn Arizona. But they get the opponent they—and certainly their fans—wanted. Boise State is 2-0 against Oregon after two memorable games in 2008 and 2009. This year’s edition of the the Ducks squad is 7-5 and trying to deflect the distraction of the rumors that first-year coach Willie Taggart is the front-runner for the Florida State job vacated by Jimbo Fisher.

The Famous Idaho Potato Bowl landed first-time participants on both sides for its December 22 clash on the blue turf, as Wyoming is set to take on Central Michigan. The question for the Cowboys is: will Josh Allen be ready to return from the shoulder injury he suffered at Air Force last month? If he isn’t, it’ll be a tall task for the Pokes. The Chippewas are 8-4 and are riding a five-game winning streak. CMU brings in the top turnover-producing unit in the FBS and the nation’s leading sackmaster, All-MAC defensive end Joe Ostman, who is averaging 1.2 per game (12 total). Although the crowd won’t approach that of last year’s game between Idaho and Colorado State, Wyoming fans are going to be a-feared of a little cold weather.

All six bowl-eligible Mountain West teams found spots, as the conference was able to place San Diego State in the Armed Forces Bowl against Army. Fresno State’s consolation prize is the Hawaii Bowl, where it’ll meet Houston in an attractive Mountain West-versus-American pairing. Colorado State landed in the New Mexico Bowl against Marshall. And in one of the most intriguing matchups of the bowl season (to those paying attention, anyway) is Utah State against New Mexico State in the Arizona Bowl. This is huge for the Aggies, as they end the longest bowl drought of any active FBS team: 57 years. New Mexico State last played in the postseason in the 1960 Sun Bowl, winning 20-13 over…Utah State.

It’s a weird feeling for Idaho, but it’s a good one. The Vandals’ 22-season FBS era is over, ending with a 24-10 win over Georgia State Saturday in Atlanta. The last of the Vandals’ FBS squads will be remembered for its defense, allowing only 17.4 points per game over its final five games. Idaho yielded only 132 yards in shutting out the Panthers in the second half and collected three fumble recoveries and an interception on the day. Linebacker Tony Lashley led the way with 16 tackles, the third time this season he’s reached that mark. Lashley had 123 tackles this season, the most by a Vandal in 10 years. Idaho ends the campaign at 4-8 and now prepares for its football return to the Big Sky next year.

Boise State already has a history with Oregon this month. On the basketball court. The Broncos ended the Ducks’ 46-game home winning streak Friday night in maybe the most electric buzzer-beater in school history. Lexus Williams still had a foot in the “O” at center court at Matthew Knight Arena when he launched a shot at the horn—and it swished to give the Broncos a 73-70 victory. Chandler Hutchison got his mojo back after the concussion he suffered against Iowa State, scoring 16 of his 20 points after halftime and pulling down 10 rebounds in the resume-building victory. Then yesterday in a 77-54 victory over Portland in Taco Bell Arena, Hutchison put up the first recorded double-double in Boise State history: 23 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists. Yes, he appears to be his old self.

The Idaho Steelheads bounced back from a 4-1 battering at the hands of Tulsa Friday night to post a 2-1 victory Saturday in CenturyLink Arena. Two first-period goals by the Steelheads held up, and Philippe Desrosiers fended off the Oilers from there, clocking 36 saves while allowing just one goal in the third period. The Steelies took two out of three in their series with Tulsa and now play a rare Monday game against the Utah Grizzlies tonight in West Valley City.

This Day In Sports…December 4, 2012, five years ago today:

Paul Petrino is introduced as Idaho’s new head football coach, charged with turning around a Vandal program that had gone 3-21 in the previous two seasons and leading it through the uncertainty of independent status. The Vandals had played their final game in the WAC 10 days earlier and were without a conference home in 2013. Petrino had been an offensive coordinator at Arkansas and Louisville under both his brother Bobby and former Idaho coach John L. Smith. Petrino was on Smith’s Vandal staff from 1992-94.

(Tom Scott hosts the Scott Slant segment during the football season on KTVB’s Sunday Sports Extra and anchors five sports segments each weekday on 93.1 FM KTIK. He also served as color commentator on KTVB’s telecasts of Boise State football for 14 seasons.)