FRESNO STATE @ BOISE STATE
Location: Boise, Idaho (Albertsons Stadium)
Date/Time: Saturday, December 2nd at 5:45 p.m. (Mountain Time)
Streaming: WatchESPN App
Radio: Bronco Radio Network, 940 AM ESPN, 1600 AM ESPN Deportes
Head-to-head: Boise State leads the series 13-6. The Bulldogs won the most recent contest 28-17 in Fresno way back last week.
Summary: The Mountain West Championship has existed for four years, and in those four years the championship game has rarely garnered a ton of national attention. Only once has the winner advanced to a New Years 6 Bowl (2014 Boise State). The game is on national television, but hasn’t really stood out. The 2017 edition, however, has created controversy. It's tough to pin the blame of the championship game location on Mountain West officials. Hawaii playing against Brigham Young in the final week of the season meant at least one Mountain West cross-divisional game would be played that week. It's math, scheduling that couldn't be avoided last spring. One could forgive these officials for selecting Boise State @ Fresno State as the sacrificial contest. The Bulldogs were coming off a 1-11 season, and this contest on paper wouldn't be of much consequence for the conference title game. It made sense.
The thesis proved to be wrong. Fresno State shocked the conference and the country by going 9-3 overall in 2017. Sitting at 8-3 going into the "pointless" finale, the Bulldogs won 28-17. Double-digit margin victory. When the Sunday computers did their thing, the Mountain West was right: there wasn't much that Fresno could do to alter the location of the championship game, presumed to be Boise.
Then the College Football Playoff Poll came out. There they were: Fresno State at #25. Normally this poll would have determined the title game location, but an obscure rule few knew about meant the logistics of the title game would force officials to make a decision by Sunday and not wait until Tuesday.
So here we are. Fresno State will play on the road at Boise State with a #25 next to their name on the scoreboard. Next to Boise State's name: blank space. Despite beating Boise State by 11 points just the day before, Fresno State opened as a 9.5-point underdog on Sunday afternoon. If you haven't caught my drift, the Bulldogs should be plenty motivated.
Fresno State quarterback Marcus McMaryion tore Boise State to shreds. Despite a struggling run game, McMaryion finished with a season-high 332 passing yards. Before that game, he had only surpassed 200 passing yards three time the entire season. His wide receiving corps made a joke out of the Boise State secondary. Looking strictly at the stats and nothing else, you'd swear this performance was an aberration. Was Boise State holding back because and saving their best cards for next week? Can Defensive Coordinator Andy Avalos make the necessary adjustments? Boise State fans sure as hell better hope so, because KeeSean Johnson, Jared Rice, Da'Mari Scott, and Jamire Jordan made it look easy vs. the Broncos in clash 1.0.
On the other side of the ball, Boise State struggled to run the football, but did manage to get into Fresno territory frequently. Brett Rypien played fairly well. However, the red zone execution was poor. It's easy to look at that and think it will improve this week, but Fresno State has perfected the "bend but don't break" scheme in 2017. They've lived and died by it, but mostly lived. I cannot stress how huge it is that tight end Jake Roh is out with injury. Seen on a scooter during last weekend's game, Roh was often the red zone buster for the Broncos this season. With TE depth becoming thin and glue guy Jake likely missing this game, it wouldn't surprise if Boise State's red zone woes continue through Saturday.
In order to win, Boise State will need to be able to win the field position battle and successfully run the football. Mattison finishing with 63 yards again won't produce a championship trophy. Both teams play clock control football, so opportunities will be few. The Broncos will need to score when they have the chance. The Broncos will also need to readjust on defense. Full stop: last week's effort was poor. Fresno picked through the secondary easily, reminiscent of the Virginia and Colorado State games. The Broncos appeared outmatched by the Bulldogs receivers. That can't happen again if they want to win.
As for Fresno, play with an edge. They've been slighted this week despite keeping the Broncos at arm's length last week. They'll need to trust Marcus McMaryion to victimize the Bronco second and third levels again. Let the wide receivers do their thing. On defense, continue to dominate the run game and force Brett Rypien to be great. Winning the first leg, they’re inside Boise State’s collective heads. Starting strong and moving the ball through the air will create an early sense of dread for the home crowd.
Prediction: Three things stuck out in my mind from last week's game: Boise State's inability to run the ball, the hole Jake Roh leaves in the Broncos' offense, and the Bronco linebackers and defensive backs struggling to keep pace with Fresno's skill position talent. What changes this week? The answer to most is home field advantage, but Broncos fans would be remiss to not acknowledge that Albertsons Stadium hasn't provided much of an advantage as of late. Most of the Broncos underwhelming performances in recent years have come at home. It hasn't been the fortress it used to be. I'm going to give Boise State DC Andy Avalos the benefit of the doubt and say that he makes the necessary adjustments this week to eek out a win, but the eye test and numbers suggests Fresno State can (and maybe even should) win this game. For Fresno, this is a chance to change the narrative. Boise State has owned this program for years. Beating the Broncos twice and shockingly winning the Mountain West in Jeff Tedford’s first season would be ginormous for the program. For the Broncos, it’s all about finishing. They’re failed to do that under Bryan Harsin since winning the Fiesta Bowl in 2014. That said, this Boise State team returned the fewest amount of returning starters in the Mountain West coming into 2017. Win this week, and good times might be ahead.
Will Fresno State exercise demons of the past? Will Boise State choke again and fail to finish strong for the third year in a row? I can’t claim to be confident in this pick, but I’ll go with Boise State 20, Fresno State 17 in a game sure to have a few twists.