FRESNO, Calif. — Revenge may be best served cold, but if the Boise State football team is going to serve it to Fresno State, it will still be quite warm.
The Broncos knew they would be playing the Bulldogs again a week later in the Mountain West championship game when the teams squared off Saturday at Bulldog Stadium. Still, maintaining an impressive winning streak and finishing off an unbeatean conference record were on the table.
But Fresno State flipped it over in its 28-17 win, proving a remarkable turnaround was no fluke.
“That game hurts,” Boise State safety Kekoa Nawahine said. “Credit to them, they’re a good team, they made plays and we didn’t make the plays we needed.”
Boise State (9-3, 7-1 Mountain West) had its seven-game winning streak spoiled, along with a shot at its first unblemished mark in league play since 2009. The Broncos, No. 23 in the College Football Playoff rankings, threw the playbook early on at the Bulldogs (9-3, 7-1), but they hardly flinched.
After Fresno State scored on its opening drive, Boise State uncorked a 45-yard flea-flicker pass from quarterback Brett Rypien to wide receiver Cedrick Wilson. The drive finished with a tying 4-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Montell Cozart to A.J. Richardson.
The Bulldogs responded with 12 of the next 15 points, never trailing in the game. In the first quarter, the Broncos had two drives stall inside the Bulldogs’ 25-yard line, resulting in no points on a missed field goal and a turnover on downs.
“I don’t really think they stopped me personally, and I don’t think they stopped our offense,” said Wilson, who had 134 yards receiving. “I think we stopped ourselves.”
Though Boise State racked up 401 yards of offense, it was 6-of-14 on third down and failed on both fourth downs, including a sack that went for a safety with 1:17 to play. The 17 points were the Broncos’ fewest in a Mountain West game since Sept. 27, 2014, at Air Force.
“I thought we started fast, but I don’t know if we sustained much after that. We didn’t take advantage of field position,” Boise State coach Bryan Harsin said. “Overall, not good enough.”
Even when the Broncos had a glimmer of hope, the Bulldogs ripped it away.
Midway through the fourth quarter, BSU running back Alexander Mattison scored on a 1-yard run to cut Fresno’s lead to 19-17.
On the very next offensive play, 20 seconds later, Bulldogs QB Marcus McMaryion hit wide receiver KeeSean Johnson on an 81-yard touchdown strike over Nawahine and cornerback Avery Williams.
McMaryion was 23-of-36 passing for 332 yards with two touchdowns to Johnson, and added 27 yards rushing.
“That was big to give us a little bit of space because the game was going back and forth,” Fresno State coach Jeff Tedford said. “We made some big plays in the passing game, and that helped.”
It was the second pass play of more than 80 yards allowed by the Boise State defense this season. All through the second half, it seemed Boise State needed one play to turn the game around, but it never came.
“You’ve got to find a way to make a play, you have to have somebody do that. … We didn’t have the momentum,” Harsin said. “We kind of got it back, then they came right back. That takes it away in a hurry.”
The Broncos trailed 26-17 after the long touchdown. They faced a third-and-2 at their own 39-yard line when Cozart was hit for a loss of 2, and the punt unit came on.
“We had a negative play, which was really bad ... we had a couple timeouts, had we gotten more positive yards, we probably would’ve had the chance to go for it,” Harsin said. “If we won the field position battle, maybe get a turnover, maybe get something from the defense, you get a little spark.”
The Bulldogs snuffed out any spark, burning off 3:41 on the next drive and then pinning the Broncos deep. The safety sack on fourth down ended any hope.
Fresno State, which went 1-11 last year, already has achieved the greatest single-season turnaround in school history, and it ended a 21-game losing streak against ranked opponents that dated back to the 2004 MPC Computers Bowl in Boise.
Now the two teams will meet again in next Saturday’s Mountain West championship game, site to be determined. Both sides have a chance to make quick adjustments before the Broncos try to earn their first conference title since 2014.
“It’s an opportunity to come back and get a championship,” Mattison said.
Harsin hopes to take something from the week leading up to Saturday’s loss, too.
“I hope we have better focus,” Harsin said. “... Whatever we did, and this falls back on me, leading into this one, it didn’t work. Don’t think we’re going to go back with the same idea and plan.”