LAS VEGAS — If this proves to be Leighton Vander Esch’s final game in a Boise State uniform, what a way to go out.
The junior linebacker from Riggins already had proved himself worthy as the Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year, but to a nationwide audience watching the Las Vegas Bowl on Saturday on ABC, he made quite an introduction.
In Boise State’s 38-28 win over Oregon, leading a dominant defensive effort that held the Ducks to just 47 rushing yards, Vander Esch tied for the team lead with 12 tackles (three for loss). He added a sack and forced fumble.
Vander Esch said he has not decided whether he plans to be an early entrant in the NFL Draft, but he plans to discuss his options with coaches and family soon.
“Whatever happens, we support him. He’s been an unbelievable Bronco,” defensive coordinator Andy Avalos said. “We’d hate to see him go, but at the end of the day we’re excited about what he’s done and his opportunities, if that’s what ends up happening.
“But I know if he comes back, we’re going to have one hell of a linebacker.”
For the season, Vander Esch finished with 141 tackles, which is tied for third-most in a single season in Boise State history with Ray Santucci (1979). Only Scott Russell (164 in 1988) and Dan Williams (160 in 1980) had more.
Vander Esch’s forced fumble on Oregon running back Tony Brooks-James in the first quarter led to Boise State’s second touchdown of the game.
“He’s exactly what we thought he was,” Oregon coach Mario Cristobal said. “He’s an excellent football player, really instinctive and made a lot of plays.”
After making 16 tackles and sealing the game with an interception Dec. 2 in the Mountain West championship game, Vander Esch played some of his best ball of the season late, and that’s saying something.
“You’ve got to play your best football at the end of the season, it all shows up,” he said. “We’ve been putting 13 games together for this. ... It was a total team dominating performance. I couldn’t be more impressed with the guys around me playing together. It’s not just me, it’s the guys around me that make me better.”
Wolpin delivers amid injuries
Hampered by a lower-leg injury, starting running back Alexander Mattison had only three carries. Senior Ryan Wolpin had no trouble carrying the torch for the Broncos on the ground.
“It’s kind of a next-man-up mentality around here,” Boise State quarterback Brett Rypien said while seated next to Wolpin. “This guy right here ran his butt off tonight.”
Wolpin rushed for a game-high 71 yards and two touchdowns on 23 carries. It was his first career two-touchdown game, and both came on 1-yard runs for the Broncos’ first and last scores of the game.
“It really means the world to me, being able to finish it this way with my brothers, my teammates,” Wolpin said. “It’s real fitting for me to be able to come in here and work and finish it this way. I really appreciate it, and I’ve got to hand it all to my teammates.”
Mattison, who had rushed for 1,074 yards entering the bowl game, left in the third quarter of the Dec. 2 Mountain West championship game and had not fully practiced most of the time since. Senior tight end Jake Roh, dealing with a similar injury, did not play in his final collegiate game.
Junior cornerback Tyler Horton, who started all 13 games this season, also did not play because of an injury. Horton was a first-team All-Mountain West selection.
Happle savors first interception
Redshirt freshman safety Jordan Happle saw extensive playing time Saturday, and he made the biggest play of his young career midway through the second quarter, grabbing his first career interception at midfield.
A Portland native, Happle played against Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert in high school and also won their last meeting, when his Jesuit High team beat Herbert’s Sheldon High squad in 2015.
“It was super cool, getting to game plan against some of the guys I’d already played,” Happle said. “We were in a zone coverage, worked hard on it. Just read it, and was in the right place at the right time.”
Broncos add defensive back
In addition to the gifts from the Las Vegas Bowl, Boise State got another during bowl week in the form of a new recruit.
Defensive back Chris Mitchell, from Mission Viejo (Calif.) High, committed to the Broncos on Friday. Mitchell (6-foot, 190 pounds) also had offers from Notre Dame, Colorado State and Washington State.
Senior wide receiver/long snapper Brock Barr carried the Hammer before the game. He won the team’s annual Hammer Award earlier this month, given to the most unselfish special teams player. … Wolpin was the game’s honorary captain. … On Oregon’s first play, the Ducks took a timeout. They wound up going three-and-out and punting. … Sophomore safety Kekoa Nawahine had 12 tackles for the Broncos, giving him 108 on the season. ... Cristobal said the team had a meeting and agreed it wanted senior running back Royce Freeman to be on the sideline. Freeman, No. 6 in FBS history with 5,621 yards rushing, opted not to play in the bowl game. ... Boise State improved to 12-6 in bowl games. ... Quarterback Brett Rypien was 21-of-38 for 362 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions for the Broncos. ... The attendance was 36,432, ninth-highest in Las Vegas Bowl history.