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After committing to ground game, Boise State is in the running for Mountain West title

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Boise State nickle Kekaula Kaniho takes down New Mexico running back Bobby Wooden in the first half of the Broncos’ 37-0 win on Saturday. Boise State held the Lobos to 84 rushing yards.

Following a loss to Air Force on Oct. 16, the Boise State football team went into its bye week with a faltering offense and a porous defense, which led to a losing record through seven games for the first time in more than a decade.

About a month later, the Broncos are on the cusp of ending the regular season on a five-game winning streak and very much alive in the race for a fifth straight appearance in the Mountain West championship game.

To win the Mountain Division and play for the title, Boise State (7-4, 5-2 MW) first needs to go on the road and beat No. 22 San Diego State on Friday (10 a.m., CBS). The Broncos also need Air Force to lose its regular-season finale at home against UNLV, a game that kicks off at 1:30 p.m. on Friday.

There weren’t many people outside of Boise State’s locker room who thought the Broncos’ last game could have so much riding on it when they were 3-4 in mid-October, but this is what college football is all about, Boise State offensive coordinator Tim Plough said Monday.

“You want to play in a game like this, with things on the line against a Top 25 team on the road that a lot of people aren’t going to give you a chance to beat,” Plough said.

San Diego State has plenty to play for, too. To win the West Division title, the Aztecs (10-1, 6-1) simply need to beat Boise State. If they lose, then they need Fresno State to lose its regular-season finale at San Jose State in order to claim the West. If San Diego State loses and Fresno wins, the Bulldogs advance to the league title game.

COMMITTED TO THE GROUND GAME

The Broncos have been on a four-game winning streak since their bye week, and first-year head coach Andy Avalos said it was sparked by a straightforward commitment: running the ball on offense, stopping the run on defense.

“We’ve committed ourselves to doing certain things, and that starts with everybody under this roof,” Avalos said. “This is football and it starts with a mentality and a physicality.”

Boise State’s rushing attack was one of the worst in the country before the bye, averaging 84.4 yards through the first seven games of the season. That was due, in part, to starting running back George Holani’s struggles to get on the field because of a hamstring injury, as well as a constant shuffling of starters on the offensive line.

With Holani back in the lineup, the Broncos are averaging 190.7 yards per game rushing during their winning streak. But that is going to get tested by San Diego State. The Aztecs are giving up only 77.4 yards a game, which leads the Mountain West and ranks No. 3 in the country.

Avalos said ending the regular season with a win is going to come down to one thing: matching San Diego State’s physicality at the line of scrimmage.

“They’re a big, physical team on both sides of the ball. That’s what they do,” Avalos said. “It’s going to be our biggest test up front on both sides.”

Holani is coming off three straight 100-yard rushing performances, including a season-high 117 yards in the Broncos’ win at Fresno State. He posted 114 yards on 14 carries and Boise State put up a season-high 239 rushing yards in its 37-0 win over New Mexico on Saturday.

That effort came against the Lobos’ rather hapless defense — they have given up at least 30 points in seven games — but it’s still astronomical growth for an offense that opened the season with 20 rushing yards in a loss to UCF and posted just 22 in a home loss to Nevada.

“It’s the whole group working together consistently now,” Plough said. “We had so many moving parts early on and we were trying to do so many different things schematically with different guys in the game. After the bye week, we tried to simplify it.”

Having Holani back has played a huge role. He missed three games because of a hamstring injury suffered before the season opener, and he wasn’t cleared by the team to play without limitations until the Broncos’ game at Fresno State on Nov. 6.

Holani went into the bye week with 123 rushing yards on the season. He now has 499 and averages 5.0 yards per carry.

“All of the run game looks better when somebody like that is carrying the ball,” Plough said.

Boise State will face a 3-3-5 defense for the second week in a row, and San Diego State is led up front by 270-pound junior Cameron Thomas — a two-time first-team All-Mountain West pick who leads the conference with 18 tackles for loss this season. He’s also tied with Nevada’s Tristan Nichols for the conference lead with 9.5 sacks.

“(San Diego State’s) defense has been tremendous for a stretch, and the new coaching staff has continued on with that,” Avalos said. “It will be the one of the most talented fronts we’ll play all year, if not the most talented. They play physical, they play aggressive and they do a great job in the secondary disguising coverage shells, and you’ve got to react when the ball is snapped.”

Offensively, San Diego State ranks No. 3 in the Mountain West with 184.2 rushing yards per game. The Aztecs are led by fifth-year senior Greg Bell, who ranks No. 4 in the conference with 907 yards on the ground and leads the team with seven rushing touchdowns.

“We’ve played some really good running backs this year, but where I think Greg Bell is special is not only can he make you miss in the hole, but if you’re wrong, it’s going to go the distance,” Boise State co-defensive coordinator Spencer Danielson said. “No one is going to catch him.”

Boise State’s defense has been much improved against the run since the bye. The Broncos gave up an average of 196.3 rushing yards through the season’s first seven games. They’re surrendering just 99.5 yards over the past four.

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