For Fresno State, the third quarter had been the one all season. It was the separator, where leads grew and they often times were able to get away. It happened against Nevada and New Mexico, at San Diego State and at Hawaii. The Bulldogs had outscored their opponents 94-34, the largest spread in any of the four quarters, and were 9-0 this season when taking a lead into the locker room at halftime.
But it was there in a 17-14 loss to Boise State in the Mountain West Conference championship game that they faltered.
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“The third quarter we had poor field position and were backed up down there quite a bit,” coach Jeff Tedford said. “I thought we flipped it in the fourth quarter with hopes that we could do something. We just didn’t capitalize enough there. We had a key penalty that put us back. Give them credit, they played really well.”
It was not just the field position, but a lack of offensive execution.
The Bulldogs had three series starting at their 29-, 13- and 10-yard line, the last one carrying them into the fourth quarter.
They rushed the football eight times for 13 yards. They passed the football six times, completing three for 37 yards.
Six first down rushing plays gained a total of 10 yards, the Bulldogs off schedule and trying to scramble on third down. Their average distance for a first: 9 yards.
The field position might have narrowed the play calls, but it didn’t put them in an untenable situation. Starting from the 13, they tried to throw on second-and-7 and quarterback Marcus McMaryion was sacked by linebacker Desmond Williams for a loss of seven yards. Starting from the 10, McMaryion put it up on a second-and-8 and hit running back Jordan Mims out of the backfield for a 15-yard gain.
The Bulldogs inability to build on a 14-10 halftime lead left them vulnerable, and the Broncos got them finally inside of 7:30 to play when quarterback Brett Rypien hit Cedrick Wilson behind the defense for a 59-yard gain.
Six plays later, they were in the end zone and had a lead.
“All said and done, you play in a game like this, you find a way to win,” Boise State coach Bryan Harsin said. “That’s really what it comes down to. At the end of the day, none of the stats matter. What matters is that you find a way to win.
“In the fourth quarter - which is what we practice all year long, and what we’ve gotten these guys to buy into - we try to find a way to win and that’s what we did.”
Twice, under 20.
The Bulldogs’ defense held a Boise State offense that was leading the Mountain West in scoring headed into the final week of the regular season to 17 points in back-to-back games, winning 28-17 before losing in the conference championship game 17-14.
The Broncos had not scored 19 points or less against a conference opponent since a 28-14 loss to Air Force in 2014, and had not scored fewer than 19 points in back-to-back games in any single season since a 2-10 year back in 1996 when losing to Utah State 39-14 and then the Bulldogs 41-7.
“We just came out and played,” said linebacker Jeffrey Allison, who led the Bulldogs with 10 tackles including five solo.
“We knew it was a big game. We wanted to stay together, get our offense a chance to get the ball and score. We just wanted to come out and compete against one of the best offenses in the nation. We just wanted to show what we could do on that side of the ball.”
By the numbers
35 – Consecutive games with at least one reception for KeeSean Johnson, a school record. Henry Ellard had caught a pass in 34 games in a row from 1979 to ’82.
2 – Explosive plays for the Bulldogs, a 22-yard pass from McMaryion to tight end Jared Rice and a 22-yard scramble by the Bulldogs’ quarterback.
It is the fewest they have had in a game since they had two in a Nov. 4 victory over BYU.
8 – Penalties against Fresno State, its most since it had 10 in an Oct. 7 victory at San Jose State.
8.2 – Yards per play on first down for Boise State, which included all four of their explosive pass plays of 20 or more yards. Rypien had passes of 22, 40, 28 and 59 yards on first down.
15.4 – Fresno State moved the chains on only 2 of its 13 third-down plays, 15.4 percent. It’s average margin to go for a first down: 8.7 yards.
3.0 – Yards per play in the second half for the Bulldogs; 85 yards on 28 plays.
40.0 – McMaryion hit on only four of 10 passes that were targeted to running backs – Dejonte O’Neal had two receptions on three targets, Jordan Mims had one catch on four targets, Ronnie Rivers had one on one target and Josh Hokit had no receptions on two targets.
3.5 – Yards per rush for the Bulldogs over the past three games; they gained 137 yards on 35 plays in the championship game, 3.9 yards per play.
15 – 10-win seasons for Boise State since becoming a FBS program in 1996.
6 – Tackles for loss for the Bulldogs, two by linebacker George Helmuth, Fresno State now has 81.0 this season, more than twice the number it has allowed (40.0).
This is the first season since 2013 that the Bulldogs have more TFLs than they have allowed. When winning the Mountain West that season, they had 108.0 tackles for loss and allowed just 58.0.
Red zone wrinkle
The red zone had not been a hot spot for Fresno State – it was eighth in the conference with a 57.5 touchdown percentage when inside an opponent’s 20-yard line.
But the Bulldogs saw opportunity there for McMaryion and it was not so much with his arm, but his feet, making plays either by design or doing a little freelancing when in the red zone. Twice in the second quarter, McMaryion and the Bulldogs turned opportunity into touchdowns.
The Bulldogs got to the Boise State 3 on a pass from McMaryion to Rice, but three running plays got them one yard, no gain and one yard.
Faced with a fourth down from there, down 3-0, Tedford passed on a field goal to tie the score and offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer put the ball in the hands of McMaryion. Da’Mari Scott went in motion right to left, and McMaryion spun off a play-action fake to running back Jordan Mims and wheeled back right.
The Broncos’ Bruno DeRose and Jabril Frazier got suckered in, and McMaryion raced by them and to the right corner of the end zone.
Fresno State, down 10-7 after a poor punt out of its end zone set up a 3-yard touchdown run by Alex Mattison, answered right back.
McMaryion got the Bulldogs into the red zone, scrambling 22 yards to the Boise State 8. DeBoer again went back to the Bulldogs’ quarterback, McMaryion scoring from there on a perfectly executed quarterback draw play.
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada