#25 Fresno State vs. Boise State: Three Keys to a Bulldogs Win
What can the Bulldogs do to claim another win over the Broncos, to ensure Boise State doesn’t flip the script in the title game rematch?
The Bulldogs reclaimed the Milk Can, but Boise State played them close at every turn and should do so again Saturday.
MOUNTAIN WEST FOOTBALL CHAMPIONSHIP GAME: #25 Fresno State Bulldogs (9-3, 7-1 MW) vs. Boise State Broncos (9-3, 7-1 MW)
WHEN: Saturday, December 2 — 4:45 PM PT
WHERE: Albertsons Stadium; Boise, Idaho (36,387)
RADIO: The Fresno State broadcast can be found in and around Fresno on the Central Valley’s local ESPN Radio affiliates: 940 (in English) and 1600 (in Spanish) AM. The Boise State broadcast can be heard on the Broncos Sports Network, which is found on both 670 AM (KBOI) and 93.1 FM (KTIK) in and around Boise. It can also be found on satellite radio, as well: Sirius (channel 132), XM (channel 202) and internet (channel 962).
If you couldn’t imagine that the two-decade rivalry between the Fresno State Bulldogs and Boise State Broncos would ever get more contentious, then this last week has surely been a doozy.
Such are the unintended consequences of our best laid plans. After defeating the Broncos at Bulldog Stadium last Saturday, it became clear that even a head-to-head win might not be enough to, in the eyes of computer rankings which have become widely unpopular in the Central Valley these days, surmount the lead that Boise State built by virtue of having to navigate the Mountain division to seven conference wins.
All victories are created equal unless they aren’t, or something like that.
Then, ironically, Fresno State took Boise State’s place in the penultimate College Football Playoff rankings, reaching that top 25 for the first time ever. It was cold comfort, two days too late, as the conference had already determined that the Broncos would host.
So here we are, the Milk Can now secured alongside the Oil Can, the Valley Trophy and the Golden Screwdriver, the Bulldogs hitting the road one last time for a conference game in 2017. They’re already 4-0 against Mountain West foes away from Bulldog Stadium, so why not?
Before I jump into the keys for a Fresno State win, I’d like to encourage readers to revisit the preview I wrote for last week’s game because most of the things I mentioned there did play a factor in how the game turned out and will probably do so again. Brett Rypien, for instance, did have five pass plays of over 20 yards, while Alexander Mattison earned 57% of his 62 rushing yards on just three carries.
Furthermore, the Bulldogs did win the field position battle against the Broncos, by an average margin of about six yards (27.6 to 21.7), and Marcus McMaryion did complete 7-of-11 passes on third downs for five different first downs, by far his best performance of the year. Keep those things in mind along the keys below.
Three Keys for Fresno State
Can the Bulldogs have success defending short-yardage situations for one more week?
You may remember this early turning point from last week’s matchup: After marching to the Fresno State 25-yard line, the Boise State Broncos face a 3th-and-1 situation and running back Alexander Mattison is stuffed on an inside run. Head coach Bryan Harsin quickly makes the decision to try and extend the drive on fourth down, but the Bulldogs again turn them away as Brett Rypien comes up short on a quarterback sneak.
This is indicative of a subtle strength which has paid huge dividends down the stretch for Fresno State: Four times in November, an opponent has faced a 4th-and-1 situation and, four times, the defense has denied them a first down. No surprise, then, that the ‘Dogs come into the title ranked fifth in the FBS in defensive Power Success Rate (percentage of runs on third or fourth down, two yards or less to go, that achieved a first down or touchdown). If you take a look at the upper right corner of this box score, you can see the difference: Boise State converted just 40% of such situations last Saturday, while Fresno State converted 100% of the time.
As good as Fresno State has been in these high-leverage situations, it’s also the kind of thing that could flip very easily. Jake Roh, who missed last week’s game with injury, has on occasion acted as Boise State’s own Josh Hokit out of the Wildcat formation, and the Bulldogs defensive line will be without Nathan Madsen, who went down with an injury of his own. This will put pressure on Kevin Atkins and Jasad Haynes, who combined for six tackles last Saturday, to pick up some of the slack with one less man in the rotation.
Could Jared Rice make the lives of other receivers easier?
With a wealth of talented receivers for Marcus McMaryion to throw to, it makes sense that the tight end position hasn’t often figured that much into offensive game-planning, but the sophomore Rice quietly played a pivotal role in last week’s win and could do so again.
Firstly, he did a lot to help McMaryion turn the corner in passing down situations, converting two third downs into first downs, and his 36-yard catch-and-run set up Fresno State’s third-quarter touchdown. Three catches for 54 yards might not seem like much on the surface, but he owns a solid 61.9% catch rate on the season and, among Bulldogs pass-catchers with at least ten targets, has the highest yards per target (12.4) and highest Success Rate (50 percent of necessary yardage on first down, 70 percent on second down, and 100 percent on third and fourth down).
Keesean Johnson might get the all-conference accolades and Jamire Jordan might make the highlight-reel catch, but Rice, at 6-foot-5 and 228 pounds, could be the physical target up the seams that Fresno State needs to enable its receivers to make things happen out wide.
Can the secondary force Brett Rypien to rely on his secondary options?
One player that nearly turned last week’s game in Boise State’s favor by himself was Cedrick Wilson. Brett Rypien wasn’t shy about feeding his number-one receiver the ball — Wilson’s 13 targets were nine more than any other receiver had last week — and his seven-catch, 134-yard performance was his best in Mountain West play. Seeing as Austin Conway was the only other receiver to crack 100 yards against this defensive backfield (and even then, he needed roughly 48 minutes of game time to do that), figuring out how to slow #1 was surely a focal point in this week’s practices.
This is not to say that cornerbacks Anthoula Kelly and Jaron Bryant let Wilson run wild last weekend, far from it. There were at least one or two catches that, with better luck, might have been turnovers. Putting pressure on A.J. Richardson and Sean Modster to perform, however, could do wonders for the Bulldogs’ chances: Last week, the two Bronco juniors averaged a measly 7.7 yards per catch; in conference play, they have just seven catches of 20 or more yards between them, as well.
There’s a reason both of these teams rose to the top of their respective divisions, and it became clear in last week’s tilt. Through three quarters last Saturday, Boise State had an advantage in yards per play, but Fresno State had a significant advantage in moving the chains on third down; the two teams battled to a draw stopping the running game; and both quarterbacks were playing at a high level. The Broncos just happened to blink first and Fresno State seized upon it.
It won’t surprise me to see the Bulldogs and Broncos battle to another one-score decision, I expect it, but I saw enough in last week’s game to make me believe that there aren’t enough adjustments for Boise State to make that counter Fresno State’s own strengths. I still don’t think the Broncos will be able to run the football, I still don’t think they’ll be able to generate enough of a pass rush and I still don’t think they’ll be able to force the Bulldogs into any glaring miscues.
This may not be the most exciting Bulldogs team we’ll ever see, but they’re certainly good enough to give a talented Boise State team fits one more time. I think that the Red Wave will forgive future storytellers if they call these soon-to-be conference champions “history-making” instead. Fresno State 28, Boise State 24.