On a night when Boise State tailback Alexander Mattison was the best player on the snow-covered blue turf, the Boise State football coaches turned to senior quarterback Brett Rypien for two of the most important plays of a championship game.
If they’d gone with Mattison instead, those might have been the Broncos sprinting around the Albertsons Stadium field in celebration Saturday night — picking up a Mountain West trophy and a trip to Las Vegas. Fresno State prevailed 19-16 in overtime.
Mattison was too good not to trust in those key situations. Rypien, on the other hand, was out of sync with his receivers from the first drive.
“(Mattison) had a big load tonight, and he did a hell of a job,” coach Bryan Harsin said. “... We have no shot if he’s not running the way that he did.”
Mattison, in fact, accounted for 200 of the Broncos’ 350 offensive yards.
He gained those 200 yards on 40 carries. Rypien passed or carried on 43 plays — for 131 yards.
The rain, snow and ice made throwing the ball a challenge — as did Fresno State’s defense. And in a scene not unfamiliar to Boise State fans, Rypien seemed off. His early fumble when the ball slipped out of his hand set up Fresno State’s only touchdown of regulation and his only touchdown pass of the night glanced off a defender’s hands in the end zone.
“You’ve got to be able to overcome it,” Harsin said of the weather. “It changes the game a little bit, but you still have to be able to throw it. ... We were trying for some 1-on-1 opportunities that we thought were there, and they were.”
Rypien’s longest completion of the night was a 29-yarder to tight end John Bates in the fourth quarter, trailing 13-7. That led to Mattison’s 34-yard touchdown run and the already-infamous blocked PAT with 8:01 left in the game.
Boise State recovered a fumble at the Fresno State 43-yard line with 4:11 to play that could have been a decisive play. However, on first down the Broncos tried a deep shot to wide receiver John Hightower — the explosive receiver who had missed the previous three games. The pass appeared catchable but fell incomplete.
Mattison gained 1 yard on second-and-10 and Rypien threw incomplete again on third down. Throwing on first down meant Mattison got one carry instead of at least two.
In overtime, the Broncos seemed ready to ride Mattison to the end zone. He gained 5, 10, 2 and 2 yards on the first four plays, leading to third-and-goal at the Fresno State 6-yard line.
Did the Broncos consider just giving him the ball twice more?
“Yep. Absolutely,” Harsin said.
The Richardson throw wasn’t exactly what was called. Rypien was given a run/pass option and chose the throw to Richardson over another dose of Mattison at the tiring Fresno State defense (he had 86 yards in the fourth quarter and OT).
Harsin said that decision falls on the coaches as much as Rypien.
“We can make those decisions a little bit easier,” Harsin said.
Given a dry day, few would argue with Rypien and his receivers taking a shot against man coverage.
But with the field covered in ice chunks, neither quarterback was sharp. Rypien’s efficiency rating was 92.9 — the fifth sub-100 rating of his career as a four-year starter. The Broncos are 1-4 in those games.
He was 15-for-31 for 125 yards.
“I got to a point where the conditions were bad enough that it made it hard to throw it at all,” Rypien said.
Fresno State quarterback Marcus McMaryion wasn’t much better. He was 20-for-32 for 170 yards and a TD but didn’t have a turnover (117.4 rating). Some of his longer throws, he said, were called when a fresh football was in the game.
“The coaches put me in a really good position when it came to throwing the ball down the field,” McMaryion said.
Rypien is the Mountain West Offensive Player of the Year, the conference’s all-time leader in passing yards and the school’s all-time leader in 300-yard passing games. The Broncos rely on him to drive the offense.
But Rypien — who, his critics remind, has a history of the occasional poor performance — couldn’t do that Saturday night.
Mattison, the game’s offensive MVP in a losing effort, could.
“He’s a big-time running back,” Fresno State coach Jeff Tedford said. “He has a very bright future.”
Mattison, if he exits for the NFL, would leave with back-to-back 200-yard games against Top 25 opponents in his last two home games. He tied the school record with 40 carries on Saturday after rushing it 37 times the prior week.
Rypien, who will wrap his excellent career in the Broncos’ bowl game, leaves a more complicated legacy.
He has won one conference title in four years, posted a 37-12 overall record as a starter and gone 25-8 against Mountain West opponents. In 10 of those 12 losses, he threw one or zero touchdown passes — often taking the blame for the Broncos’ failures.
Rypien has been good enough often enough that the Broncos are comfortable putting the game in his hands. For much of his career, he was the best option.
But not Saturday night. Not with Mattison running like he has the past month. Not playing on a field of ice.
“He’s relentless,” Fresno State defensive end Mykal Walker said of Mattison.
The Boise State coaches should have been as well.