2022 Mountain West Football Championship: What’s Different About Fresno State, Boise State Ahead Of Their Rematch?
The Broncos had a lopsided win over the Bulldogs back in October, but things have changed headed into the Mountain West football title game.
Life comes at you fast.
In the brief history of Mountain West football’s championship game, it hasn’t been unusual for teams to meet a second time after battling in the regular season. The Boise State Broncos swept two games from the Fresno State Bulldogs at Albertsons Stadium back in October and December of 2014, San Diego State won its title game rematch with Wyoming in 2016, and then the Bulldogs and Broncos split their four games and two championship clashes in 2017 and 2018 before Boise State took two more from Hawaii in their 2019 championship run.
The sixth such rematch on Saturday afternoon will once again feature Fresno State and Boise State, roughly eight weeks after the Broncos scored a decisive 40-20 victory to secure the Milk Can trophy once again. However, there are a number of reasons to expect the second tilt between these two teams to be a little different. We break down the differences, both obvious and subtle, to explain why.
Fresno State’s Jake Haener missed the first contest with Boise State after suffering a high ankle sprain in September and the Bulldogs offense often languished without him. In terms of points per drive, the only three games where that unit averaged under 2.0 PPD were all started by backup Logan Fife; in the five contests since Haener’s return, Fresno State has averaged better than the 2.65 PPD that it has earned on the aggregate this year, which is good enough in itself to rank 32nd among FBS teams.
Boise State, meanwhile, had already turned to Taylen Green to make the second start of his young career against the Bulldogs, but there’s little doubt that he’s raised his play in the second half of the season. In five of the last six games, the redshirt freshman has averaged at least 9.5 yards per attempt while throwing just one interception… all the way back on October 22 against Air Force.
Other familiar names returning from injury
Haener is the biggest name among those who didn’t see action the first time around, but he’s not the only one. Boise State guard Ben Dooley made his first start of the season against Wyoming on November 19 while center Kekaniokoa Holomalia-Gonzalez has started every game for the last month. On Fresno State’s roster, meanwhile, wide receiver Josh Kelly has played sparingly down the stretch and star safety Evan Williams played well enough in his return to merit inclusion on the conference media’s all-Mountain West roster.
Injury absences and questions
Just like every other team in the conference, both Fresno State and Boise State have had to navigate injuries up and down the roster. The Bulldogs have lost linebacker Raymond Scott, cornerback Bralyn Lux, offensive tackle Dontae Bull, and tight end Tre Watson, among others, for the rest of the season, while the Broncos have lost defensive end George Tarlas in addition to others like wide receiver Austin Bolt and Markel Reed, which shaped the early part of their campaign.
Both teams have a lot more uncertainty than that heading into Saturday, though. Jordan Kaye and John Wustrow of the Idaho Press noted that the Broncos played their season finale against Utah State without a dozen players nursing ailments, including several starters, while running back George Holani, defensive end Ahmad Hassanein, and defensive back Tyreque Jones each got nicked up in that contest.
As for Fresno State, the biggest question revolves around defensive end David Perales, who ended the Bulldogs’ season finale on crutches and has most recently been described as “day to day“.
New contributors who emerged down the stretch
When one door closes, though, another one opens elsewhere. That’s definitely been the case for a handful of players who started to see more playing time in November and could make a statement on Saturday’s national stage.
For the home team, this group includes players like wide receiver Eric McAlister, who has all ten of his catches in the last six weeks and has averaged 23.5 yards per catch with three touchdowns, linebackers Andrew Simpson and Gabe Hunter, who have filled in for Noa and Washington over the last several weeks, and defensive end Ahmed Hassanein.
Fresno State has seen some up-and-comers contribute in the late season, as well. Cornerback Carlton Johnson made his first career start in the regular season finale against Wyoming but has four passes defended in the last three games, while offensive tackle Braylen Nelson has filled in for Bull over the last month. Running back Malik Sherrod has taken on a bigger role, as well, averaging 5.5 yards per carry over the last six games, as has freshman kicker Dylan Lynch in connecting on 6-of-7 field goal tries.
Red zone defense
This was something that Fresno State had struggled with in non-conference play back in September, allowing a touchdown to opponents on 66.7% of 18 trips inside the 20-yard line before Boise State had what was then a season-high eight red zone possessions, coming away with six points on four of them.
The Broncos have remained strong on this front all year long, allowing a touchdown 40.74% of the time, but the Bulldogs defense surged throughout Mountain West play to give up a touchdown themselves on just 36% of red zone trips, the best figure in the conference.
Havoc on special teams
One unpredictable way that both Fresno State and Boise State have found success in conference play is in generating big plays on special teams. The Broncos had already blocked a punt in their September win over New Mexico and would block a field against Nevada in November, but the Bulldogs had three themselves in conference play — one against Hawaii and two against Wyoming — and it could be a major factor for one side or the other to create a massive break for themselves in the championship.