BOISE — Underdogs on their home turf for the first time in 14 years, the Boise State football team sent a reminder to the rest of the Mountain West Friday night.
The conference title runs through the blue turf.
In a rematch of last year’s Mountain West title game, the Broncos rallied from a 14-point second-half deficit by scoring the final 21 points to top No. 16 Fresno State 24-17.
“We’re in a win-out situation,” Boise State quarterback Brett Rypien said. “It means a lot. We knew it would be tough. Being the underdog on the blue, that’s never a good feeling. Especially when we haven’t been in a long time, I think a lot of guys in the locker room took that personally.”
Boise State pretty much had to win Friday to keep hope of winning the Mountain Division. The Broncos still have to win their final two games against New Mexico and Utah State, but things would have been nearly impossible with a loss to the Bulldogs.
It didn’t look good either as the Broncos fell behind 17-3 early in the third quarter, but Boise State’s battered defense held the high-powered Fresno State offense scoreless the rest of the way, and the Broncos scored on three straight possessions to pull off the comeback.
Boise State also took control of the coveted Milk Can trophy with the win over their rivals. Fresno State held the trophy by winning the regular season matchup last season.
In a game that was billed as one of the biggest in Albertsons Stadium history, Boise State got 30 carries for 144 yards and two touchdowns from Alexander Mattison, as the Broncos sent a resounding statement to the rest of the league — the defending Mountain West champs aren’t done yet.
“What an awesome game," Boise State coach Bryan Harsin said. "Proud of our guys. A lot of guts. They played hard against a really good football team. Fresno State has done a heck of a job this year. We knew this was tough, we knew what we had to get done.
"We know some of the things we have gone through this season, with the guys who aren’t out there playing. The other guys stepped up and carried the flag. It happened again tonight, we had some guys down. It was good to see guys out there and rise to the occasion, and some of those guys haven’t played a tremendous amount this year, in a game like this and find a way to win. That's exactly what we did."
Fresno State appeared to take control with an impressive drive to start the third quarter, scoring on a 1-yard run from Ronnie Rivers on fourth-and-goal to go up 17-3.
But the Broncos responded with arguably their biggest drive of the season to that point, a 12-play, 70-yard drive that ended with a 7-yard touchdown run from Alexander Mattison to cut the deficit to 17-10 with 5:56 still left in the third quarter.
After Boise State forced a Fresno State punt, the Broncos used another five-plus minute drive to tie the game at 17-17 early in the fourth quarter. Another Mattison touchdown, this one from one yard out, capped an 11-play, 59-yard drive that pulled the Broncos even with 14:57 left in the game.
Boise State’s defense came up big again and forced another punt, and the Broncos made it 21 unanswered points with a 49-yard touchdown strike from Brett Rypien to true freshman Khalil Shakir on third-and-8 to take a 24-17 lead with 9:22 left in the fourth quarter.
The Broncos got two more stops on defense down the stretch, including a pass break-up on fourth down from Avery Williams in the final seconds, to secure the victory.
“We knew we’d have to take it to another level this week,” Williams said. “Fresno is a great offensive team, they are great on all three sides, but their offense is really explosive and we just focused on limiting their explosiveness.
“We knew it was going to be a four-quarter game. Fresno State is a very sound game in all three phases. We knew it was going to be a dog fight.”
Rypien completed 24 of 29 passes for 269 yards and a touchdown and Boise State put up 448 yards of offense against one of the top statistical defenses in the country to improve to 8-2 overall and 5-1 in Mountain West play. It was just the second time in the past six games that Fresno State allowed more than seven points.
The Broncos needed the second-half comeback because a rough first half in which all five of Boise State’s drives in the first half went into Fresno State territory but they scored just three points on a missed field goal, a field goal, a punt, a turnover on downs and an interception.
"I never felt like they were doing anything to really shut us down,” Rypien said. “We came out in the second half and we kind of knew it was a do-or-die situation and we stepped up and made plays. … We just had to execute a little bit better. We just battled and it feels great to get that win.”
Haden Hoggarth missed a 51-yard field goal on Boise State’s first possession of the game. He connected from 35 yards out on the Broncos’ next chance to take a 3-0 lead.
Fresno State used a controversial 38-yard pass from quarterback Marcus McMaryion to Keesean Johnson to set up a short touchdown a few plays later. Johnson ran out of bounds and came back in to make the catch, but officials let the play stand despite one official taking off his hat to signify that a player ran out of bounds. McMaryion then found Johnson for a 3-yard score to cap the drive and give the Bulldogs a 7-3 lead.
Boise State answered with a strong drive to get the ball inside the 20-yard line, but failed on a fake field goal attempt and came away with nothing. The Broncos faced fourth-and-3 from the 12 when Hoggarth lined up for a 29-yard attempt. But he instead took a pitch from holder Quinn Skillin and was tackled behind the line of scrimmage for a turnover on downs.
Fresno State’s Asa Fuller missed a 38-yard field goal on the ensuing possession and the Broncos again moved the ball into Bulldog territory late in the second quarter, but Rypien was intercepted in the end zone and Fuller made a 47-yard field goal as time expired to send the teams to the locker rooms with a 10-3 Fresno State advantage.
The Bulldogs scored quickly to open the third quarter to take the 17-3 lead. The Broncos’ season-saving comeback was just beginning.
Boise State hits the road to play at New Mexico next week before the Mountain Division title will likely be decided in the final regular season game against Utah State at home on Nov. 24.
Win that, and the Broncos could get a rematch with Fresno State back in Boise for the Mountain West Championship on Dec. 1.
"This one hurts, but unlike last year in the Mountain West Championship we can get another shot," Fresno State linebacker George Helmuth said. "So who knows? We might be back here in (three) weeks."
At this point, Boise State would gladly take it.