After one of the strangest seasons in reason Fresno State memory, we end up pretty much where everyone predicted in August- with Boise State and Fresno State squaring off for the Mountain West title once again. This makes the 4th time that the two schools will meet for the Mountain West championship, with Boise currently holding a 2-1 advantage with wins in 2014 and 2017. The Bulldogs did win the most recent meeting in a snowbound overtime game in 2018, with a chance to even up the series on Saturday afternoon. Let’s preview a hotly anticipated matchup for conference supremacy.
In what has become an oddly recurring theme between these two teams, the conference title game will be a rematch from a regular season game. Boise State won both matchups in 2014, while both teams split the series in 2017 and 2018. In both of the two prior cases, the winner of the regular season matchup lost the rematch, and Boise won the first meeting of these teams this year for what it’s worth. Both of these teams are in vastly different places than they were back in October when they first met, but it does represent an interesting case of symmetry between these two rivals.
Since that first date in October, Fresno has become a much healthier team, while Boise has been hit with injuries over the last few games. The initial meeting was played when the Dogs were missing Jake Haener, Evan Williams, Josh Kelly, Leonard Payne, and about 10 others. Now, Fresno was dealt a potential loss with David Perales suffering an ankle injury just before halftime in the Wyoming game, but there is optimism that he will be able to take the field on Saturday in Boise. Josh Kelly also remains questionable for the matchup due to an aggravated ankle injury suffered earlier in the season. Tackle Dontae Bull has already been confirmed as out for the year with a broken leg, and linebacker Raymond Scott has been out for the second half of the season.
The biggest turnaround for the Bulldogs has obviously been on the offensive side of the ball. Logan Fife certainly helped to steady the ship and kept the team going including a pivotal win over San Jose State, but it truly is night and day compared to Haener. WIth Fife under center, they averaged 21.9 points, which is skewed a bit by a 41 point game against New Mexico in his final game. In contrast, the games with Haener have averaged 37.4 points per game, with a 55 point game against Hawaii and a 41 point game against Nevada two weeks ago. They were averaging 316 yards per game, with the first two games under Fife being less than 250 total yards. Ever since Jake returned against SDSU, they have averaged more than 100 yards more per game, up to 419.4 now. It’s hard to overstate just how much more competent the offense has been ever since Jake was able to return in an incredible comeback game against San Diego State.
QB Jake Haener is currently the nation’s leader in completion percentage at 73.5%, throwing for 2,400 yards, 17 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions on the year. While his numbers are down compared to last season, this is of course with him missing 4 and a half games with his high ankle sprain. The offense truly seems to be firing on all cylinders, and they will be facing a Boise defense that has become more susceptible to big plays as they have been hit by injuries. He is complemented by Jordan Mims, Fresno’s first 1,000 yard rusher in 8 years, and leading receiver Jalen Moreno-Cropper, himself only 9 yards from a 1,000 yard receiving season. Transfer receiver Nikko Remigio has been revelation in the receiving and return game, and has 700 yards of his own to go alongside 5 receiving touchdowns and a return touchdown. This offense will provide more of a challenge to Boise’s unit than they did back in the October meeting, that much is certain.
On the other side of the ball, after a rough beginning to the year, the Fresno defense has really rounded into form down the stretch. After giving up almost 30PPG during their 1-4 start, their 7 game winning streak has only been giving up 14.8PPG. Now, Boise will probably present the best offensive challenge to them, especially given Taylen Green’s ability to run the football. He has already run for more than 430 yards this year, and mobile QBs have long been an issue for Bulldog defenses, especially if David Perales is not able to play on Saturday. He could be relied on even more if George Holani is injured, although Ashton Jeanty has been an effective 1-2 punch in the backfield for the Broncos.
Comparing the schedules of the two teams, there are more than a few common opponents besides just the original matchup between the two. Both played against Oregon State, San Diego State, Nevada, and Wyoming. Both teams lost to Oregon State, although Fresno’s loss was by 3 on a last second touchdown, while Boise lost by 17 to open their season. Both teams defeated the other three opponents, with the Broncos taking the advantage against San Diego and Nevada, but Fresno State’s 30 point shutout win over Wyoming is more complete than Boise’s 20-17 victory the week before.
When it comes to previewing the game, most really do see the game as a toss-up. Our friends over at DraftKings have Boise as a 3-point favorite, and that’s generally all that is given for home field advantage. Taking that out of the equation, and this game is as even as can be. Which, if I’m honest, is about what we all thought as the season started. These two programs were predicted as the class of the conference, and they have been that as soon as they entered their conference slates. Boise emerged unscathed from their conference, while Fresno’s only loss was that October game against the Broncos. They are placing the O/U at 53.5, so a 28-25 Boise win.
I may a bit more optimistic, but I am a Fresno State reporter and fan, I’m not sure if Boise’s banged-up defense will be able to slow down a Bulldog offense that really seems to be peaking at the right moment. Taylen Green will definitely challenge Fresno’s defense just like he did the first time, but the health of George Holani and David Perales may be the true X factors in this one. I expect we’ll see an incredibly well-matched game between these two rivals, just like the three other times they met in the conference title game. I believe that Fresno State evens up the series in championship games, and takes an improbable conference trophy home.
Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details.