Judging by the stat sheet, Boise State’s players should have been hoisting the Mountain West trophy on Saturday night.
But as the adage goes, football games aren’t won on paper.
The Broncos outgained Fresno State in total yards 321 to 245 and limited the Bulldogs to 61 yards rushing. They pressured all-conference quarterback Jake Haener much of the game, sacking him three times, and also had seven tackles for loss. But in the end, it was the West Division champions on the podium in Albertsons Stadium celebrating a 28-16 win and their fourth conference title since 2012.
“We’ve come a long way since the first part of the year where a lot of people probably didn’t believe in us,” said Fresno State coach Jeff Tedford, who watched his team open the season 1-4 — including a 40-20 loss in Boise — before winning eight straight games. “There’s nothing more fitting than to end it like we did tonight.”
Boise State was riding high after winning seven of its eight final games to overcome a 2-2 start to the season and finish unbeaten in league play. The offense was so dysfunctional early in the season that coordinator Tim Plough was fired following a loss to major underdog UTEP. Four-year starting quarterback Hank Bachmeier hit the transfer portal not long after that.
The Broncos persevered and produced one of the Mountain West’s most explosive offenses heading into the title game. But that dangerous attack didn’t really produce on Saturday.
“We obviously did not accomplish what we set out to this year, but we accomplished a lot,” Boise State coach Andy Avalos said. “We accomplished a whole lot of things in terns of growing our program and growing our family.”
Boise State found success when running the ball but wasn’t able to do enough of it. The combination of George Holani, Ashton Jeanty and Elelyon Noa averaged 5.3 yards a carry in the first half, but the Broncos’ game plan seemed to revolve around the passing attack.
Quarterback Taylen Green completed 17-of-38 passes for 175 yards and threw a 52-yard touchdown pass to Davis Koetter in the fourth quarter. It was more passes than Green attempted in any of his previous eight starts, and he also had two interceptions.
“When the defense is playing with certain numbers in the box, they’re going to give you space, but we have to execute,” Avalos said. “It comes down to us making sure we put our guys in position to read the things they need to, to execute the plays being given to us by the defense.”
With the offense struggling to find its rhythm, the Broncos (9-4, 8-1 Mountain West) weren’t able to overcome the turnovers and a pair of special teams blunders on Saturday.
Green’s interceptions came after not being picked off since Boise State’s win at Air Force on Oct. 22. Fresno State (9-4, 8-1 MW) capitalized with touchdowns after both.
“(Fresno State) did a good job of giving us different looks on different down and distances,” Green said. “Our job was to adjust to it. We’re just going to go back to practice, get better and learn from it.”
Fresno State cornerback Cam Lockridge snagged both interceptions and earned Defensive MVP honors for the game. Bulldogs running back Jordan Mims (25 carries, 83 yards) capped both of the drives that ensued with short touchdown runs. His second gave Fresno State a 28-9 lead with 9:47 left in regulation.
“Our defense played excellent, special teams did their job and the offense didn’t turn the football over, which was big,” Tedford said. “Anytime you don’t turn the football over, you stand a chance, but I thought it was complementary football.”
Boise State, known in the past for its dominance on special teams, couldn’t get out of its own way Saturday.
Fresno State scored its first touchdown of the game when wide receiver Nikko Remigio, who had already returned a kickoff 47 yards, brought back a punt 70 yards to give the Bulldogs a 7-3 lead in the second quarter. It was the fourth special teams touchdown the Broncos had given up this season.
Another special teams gaffe kept a late scoring drive alive for Fresno State. The Bulldogs were forced to punt from their own territory in the fourth quarter, but Broncos cornerback Jaylen Clark was called for roughing the punter, which gave them a first down.
“We’ve got to be aggressive and get some momentum on our side, too, but we have to execute with the proper fundamentals and techniques,” Avalos said. “We needed to do a better job executing to help put ourselves in a better situation.”
Five plays after Clark’s penalty, Haener found wide receiver Zane Pope on a 22-yard touchdown, giving the Bulldogs a 21-9 lead.
Haener, who didn’t play in the Bulldogs’ regular-season game at Boise State, completed 17-of-27 passes for 184 yards on Saturday and was named Offensive MVP.
“I remember saying at the beginning of the week that I want it to be hard, and I want it to be challenging,” Haener said. “Those guys on defense presented a really big challenge and made it really difficult for us all night.”
All of Boise State’s points came from the foot of kicker Jonah Dalmas until Koetter’s touchdown in the fourth quarter. Dalmas went 3-for-3 on field goals, including a 47-yarder that cut Fresno State’s lead to 14-6 at halftime.
It might take Boise State a little while to get over their second loss in the Mountain West championship game since 2020, but the Broncos have one more game to play. They will find out their bowl destination on Sunday afternoon.
“We’ve just got to move on to the next one,” said Holani, who led the Broncos with 74 rushing yards. “Just knowing we have another opportunity to play is exciting.”
Fresno State will represent the conference in the Jimmy Kimmel L.A. Bowl, which is where the Mountain West champ goes.