The psychological fork in the road

There’ll be a big difference between a 9-4 Boise State team and an 8-5 Broncos crew, whichever it ends up being. There’ll be a big difference between a 9-4 Boise State team and an 8-5 Broncos crew, whichever it ends up being at the end of today’s Poinsettia Bowl in San Diego. The former will create positive impetus and perception and hopes for a rebound campaign in 2016. The latter will leave BSU under a cloud—two 8-5 seasons in three years (albeit with a Fiesta Bowl victory sandwiched in between). The Broncos are 8½-point favorites this afternoon, and we know how reliable point spreads have been this year. They have to guard against frustration, because Northern Illinois’ defense is bend-but-not-break, and it’s good in the red zone. Offensively, the Huskies could go chip-chip-chip-boom on a Bronco defense that has been victimized by big plays this season, especially if Ryan Graham returns at quarterback (which now seems likely).

With Tanner Vallejo left at home due to a violation of team rules, Boise State has to replace not only his production and instinct, but his leadership as well. Not good timing as the Broncos face a heady team like Northern Illinois. Well, maybe this is Joey Martarano’s time. The sophomore from Fruitland has gained steam as each of his two seasons has progressed, and he has consistently led by example by making plays. Martarano started in place of Vallejo in the Wyoming and UNLV games in October, both victories. He’s fifth on the team in tackles with 48, and 2.5 for loss. I’d say Martarano is ready for this.

Here’s the Record Watch for the Poinsettia Bowl. Thomas Sperbeck has already broken the Boise State single-season mark for receiving yards with 1,334, and today he has a good shot at topping Matt Miller’s single-season receptions record of 88. Sperbeck needs six to tie and seven to break the standard established by Miller two years ago. Shane Willams-Rhodes appeared to be on track to threaten Miller’s career record of 244 catches until suffering one of those dastardly high ankle sprains in the first series of the loss to New Mexico last month. SWR is stuck on 225 right now, but he could move past Austin Pettis into second-place on the all-time list with five catches today.

What kind of company is Boise State keeping with its 14-year streak of bowl appearances? Since 2002, Boise State’s run of 14 straight bowl games ranks just one back of the 15 consecutive appearances of Florida State, Georgia, LSU and Virginia Tech. If it weren’t for that snub in 2001, when the Broncos went 8-4, they’d have the lead with 17, having gone to the Humanitarian Bowl the previous two seasons. Clemson, Florida, Georgia Tech, Oregon and Wisconsin join Boise State as teams with 14-year streaks.

Akron coach Terry Bowden did not hold back when he took the podium at Albertsons Stadium after the Zips beat Utah State 23-21 yesterday in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. The bowl will forever be part of University of Akron lore, he said. Bowden checked off the milestones for his program: first bowl victory as a I-A school; first eight-win season as a I-A school. Then he gave an emphatic shout-out to the Akron band. “This is the fifth program I’ve taken over,” said Bowden in his postgame press conference. “We’ve had great success everywhere, and this one has been—it’s been—we’ve had a rough road to hoe, and that’s what makes it most memorable.”

Akron was very protective of its momentum in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. The Zips grabbed it on their second possession, marching 56 yards on three plays to take a 7-0 lead. Utah State had taken momentum back near the end of the first half, narrowing the Akron advantage to 10-7, and the Aggies got the ball back, marching to the Akron 28. That’s when the bowl almost got a Fat Guy Touchdown, as 6-3, 305-pound defensive tackle Rodney Coe returned a fumble 56 yards before he was dragged down on the USU 12-yard line with four seconds left. Robert Stein, the eventual bowl MVP, then kicked a 29-yard field goal to end the half. The Zips grabbed “mo” again in the third quarter after the Aggies had taken their first (and only) lead, cashing in on another Utah State fumble with a 40-yard TD drive.

Chuckie Keeton started at quarterback for Utah State but alternated with Kent Myers all day after struggling in the first quarter. Keeton was in at the end, though, to finish his six-year college career. And he almost produced a storybook ending. Keeton drove the Aggies 64 yards in 10 plays and used just a minute and a half of clock, throwing his final touchdown pass with 1:12 left. But USU was unable to execute the onside kick, and that was essentially it. Keeton’s numbers were symptomatic of a tough day on offense for the Aggies—he was 14-of-25 for just 109 yards with the one TD and an interception.

In a story about Kellen Moore’s first start for Dallas by’s Todd Archer, Cowboys coach Jason Garrett pretty much sums up Moore’s football life. The first time Garrett saw Kellen was at the 2012 Senior Bowl. “I remember the impression was only OK when throwing routes on air, better when he gets to one-on-ones, better when he gets to 7-on-7, better when he gets to 11-on-11, and I think that’s probably what his career has been all about,” Garrett said. Yes, that’s how it’s always been for Moore. “The most important trait for a quarterback, we believe, is instinct and a feel for the game and a feel for the position,” Garrett said. “So I think he has that. He’s certainly a smart guy. He’s got very good anticipation. He’s got a quick stroke. He’s accurate.” On to Buffalo.

After two seasons of utter injury-related frustration, former Boise State star Doug Martin’s magnificent comeback year has landed him back in the Pro Bowl. The Tampa Bay running back, who first made the Pro Bowl as a rookie in 2012, has rushed for 1,305 yards this season and is just nine yards behind Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson in the race for the NFL rushing title with two games to go. Martin has the most rushes of more than 20 yards in the league this season with 13. And the change of scenery from San Francisco to Arizona hasn’t affected Mike Iupati’s status as one of the NFL’s top offensive guards. The Idaho Vandal great has been named to the Pro Bowl for the fourth consecutive year.

Boise State’s game next year in the Mountain West/Missouri Valley Challenge will be, well, more challenging. The Broncos dispatched a very young Bradley team 90-70 last Sunday in Taco Bell Arena, but next December they’ll travel to Evansville, who improved to 10-2 by toppling Fresno State 85-77 the same day in Save Mart Center. In fact, the Purple Aces are now 11-2 after drubbing Alabama A&M 91-70 last night. Boise State and Evansville have met once before, in the quarterfinals of the 2011 College Basketball Invitational. The Broncos won 75-69 at Taco Bell Arena.

Other hoops notes: It was nice while it lasted, but Tyus Jones is headed back to Minnesota. Jones, the Most Outstanding Player for Duke in last season’s Final Four, has been recalled by the Timberwolves after averaging 24.7 points and five assists in six games with the Stampede. Jones went out with a bang, putting up 30 points in last Saturday’s victory at Santa Cruz. He was the 24th overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, acquired by the Wolves in a draft-day trade with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Also, the Mountain View girls fell 59-56 to Sacred Heart of Louisville yesterday for 13th place in the John Anderson Bracket of the Nike Tournament of Champions in Phoenix. Destiny Slocum led the Mavericks with 24 points.

This Day In Sports…December 23, 2007:

Having chosen the Hawaii Bowl over the hometown Humanitarian Bowl, 24th-ranked Boise State comes out flat and pays the price in a 41-38 upset loss to East Carolina. The Bronco offense was non-existent in the first half, and the Pirates built a 38-14 lead early in the third quarter behind Chris Johnson’s all-time bowl record 408 all-purpose yards. But BSU rallied, tying the game on a 47-yard fumble return by Marty Tadman with 1:25 left before ECU won it on a 34-yard Ben Hartman field goal as time expired.

(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.)