Mountain West play is here. And if Boise State is going to be a conference champion, it has to regain its mojo, beginning tonight against Colorado State in Taco Bell Arena. The Broncos’ marksmanship from three-point land has tailed off dramatically the last two games, and that’s rubbed off on other facets of their game. Can they be themselves again against the Rams? Boise State’s wheels fell off the last time out in a 23-point loss at SMU nine days ago, but that doesn’t offset what the Broncos did during the non-conference schedule, as they went 10-2 and beat Oregon on that Lexus Williams three-point buzzer-beater. The Ducks are the only common opponent between the two teams—seven days after Boise State won that 73-70 thriller, CSU fell to Oregon 95-65 on the same floor.
Don’t take that to the bank, though. The last seven meetings between Colorado State and Boise State have been decided by seven points or fewer. On New Year’s Eve last year, Chandler Hutchison saved the Broncos with a buzzer-beating bank shot three-pointer for a 74-73 win in Taco Bell Arena before Boise State won 79-76 in Fort Collins a month later. It’s been an uneven preseason for Colorado State, who is 7-6 as the Rams deal with their annual roster flux and questions in Fort Collins about the return on investment from coach Larry Eustachy’s million-dollar salary. But they‘re feeling pretty good right now coming off perhaps their best effort of the season, a 68-66 win over Long Beach State last Saturday that was capped by a 30-foot buzzer-beater from junior guard Prentiss Nixon.
Going into conference play, does the Mountain West have any better chance of gaining multiple bids into the NCAA Tournament than when the season started? Maybe. The conference appears to be improved this season, with Boise State’s nicely glued-together team a significant factor. Looks can be deceiving, though. The San Diego Union-Tribune analyzed this year’s non-conference performance versus last season’s: “A year ago, the Mountain West ranked 10th among Division I’s 32 conferences, according to the antiquated but still accepted Ratings Percentage Index, and ninth in the more respected Kenpom.com metric. This year: ninth and eighth. Record against the RPI Top 10 conferences last year: 2-19. This year: 3-19. Record against RPI teams Nos. 51-100 last year: 7-11. This year: 9-11.” Baby steps.
What the conference needs to become relevant again is to have its traditional powers be powerful. San Diego State can get there under new coach Brian Dutcher, coming off its upset of No. 12 Gonzaga. UNLV trudged through its worst season in school history last winter, finishing 11-21. But coach Marvin Menzies has that looking like an abrerration. New Mexico, a perennial power in a real basketball town, is at a crossroads as it enters Mountain West play with a 5-8 record. Nevada is still the favorite going into the conference schedule, but the Wolf Pack is not infallible. The non-conference slate for Nevada ended with a shocking 66-64 loss to San Francisco in the Las Vegas Classic last Saturday.
Otherwise today, it’s holiday catch-up. First, the Boise State quarterback situation. With the addition of junior college transfer Jaylon Henderson last Friday, the Broncos are now one high school signee short of having the numbers they want in the quarterback room. Every QB dynamic is different, and so it will be with Henderson aboard. It won’t be a Montell Cozart scenario, as in “1A and 1B,” especially considering the way Brett Rypien finished. And there are more unknowns with Henderson. He doesn’t have Big 12 tape to refer to like Cozart did, and his numbers don’t tell us much yet. Henderson threw 10 touchdown passes against one interception this season, but he completed just 53 percent of his throws and had a low pass efficiency rating of 116.8. He may be a work-in-progress for offensive coordinator Zak Hill.
The evolution of the Boise State depth chart at linebacker over the past year has been fairly unbelievable, culminating with Leighton Vander Esch’s early entry in the NFL Draft. The 2016 Cactus Bowl was played one year ago today, with the Broncos starting Ben Weaver, Darren Lee and Blake Whitlock in the loss to Baylor. Joe Martarano was out with a broken leg—and ended up leaving to pursue his baseball career at the beginning of spring football. All was new this season, with Vander Esch and Tyson Maeva anchoring the ‘backers. Maeva is back next year, as are Desmond Williams, Riley Whimpey and Benton Wickersham, among others. And many feel that LVE’s departure merely opens the door for a redshirt who starred on scout teams this year, Ezekial Noa out of the renowned Helix High program in San Diego.
Postscript on the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl: I’m still trying to figure out Josh Allen after he led Wyoming to a 37-14 rout of Central Michigan last Friday. Allen, coming off a six-week layoff, was en fuego in the first quarter, going 6-for-7 for 104 yards and three touchdowns. His 45-yard bomb to C.J. Johnson was as NFL a throw as you’d want to see from a guy who’s projected to be a first-round draft pick. Allen looked the part at that point—Denver Broncos general manager John Elway certainly had to be thinking that way as he looked on. But the Cowboys offense would not score another touchdown, and Allen was 5-for-12 for 52 yards the rest of the way. Is that partly due to his supporting cast, or is something not connecting? Only NFL analytics crunchers know for sure.
The high temperature for the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl was 38 (compared to 24 last year, with the temp in the teens while the game was played between Idaho and Colorado State). So the weather was fine this year, yet the announced attendance was only 16,512, the second-smallest crowd in the game’s 21-year history. My take: the number was probably accurate, but they must have counted differently in recent years, because there were a lot more people at Albertsons Stadium for this one than there were for Akron-Utah State, Air Force-Western Michigan and San Diego State-Buffalo. Props to Wyoming fans for representing and making noise. The fact remains—lower-level bowl games are suffering mightily at the gate these days. Hopefully, something can be done to turn the thing around.
Five games down, one to go in the Mountain West bowl season. The conference is 3-2 going into Utah’s State’s matchup against New Mexico State Friday in the Arizona Bowl. San Diego State scored often and scored quickly in the Armed Forces Bowl last Saturday . Army was on a day-long deliberate maneuver, though, and wore down the Aztecs 42-35 despite Rashaad Penny’s 221 yards and four touchdowns. SDSU—this is not a typo—ran off only 32 plays the entire game (Army had 91 snaps). And Fresno State tied a bow on the greatest comeback story in college football this season by downing Houston 33-27 in the Hawaii Bowl Christmas Eve. The Bulldogs are only the second team in history to go from double-digit losses to double-digit wins in one year.
This Day In Sports…December 27, 2012, five years ago today:
After 51 seasons, the final football game in WAC history is played as San Jose State defeats Bowling Green in the Military Bowl, 29-20. The WAC had started to splinter when Boise State moved to the Mountain West in 2011 and Fresno State, Nevada and Hawaii followed suit the following year. All-time WAC football high-water marks included BYU’s national championship in 1984, the Cougars’ Ty Detmer capturing the Heisman Trophy in 1990, and Boise State’s Fiesta Bowl victories in 2007 and 2010.
(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.)