Fresno State returns here feeling more confident in its abilities than it did two months ago, believing it is unfazed by the mystique surrounding Boise State’s blue turf and locked in on the coveted goal of winning a conference championship.
A third straight Mountain West title.
It’s a level of determination that Bulldogs coach Tim DeRuyter admits he has not always seen in his players when facing the Broncos on the Smurf Turf of Albertsons Stadium.
But he’s seen that winning look leading into Saturday night's Mountain West Championship game, crediting it in part to the Bulldogs’ showing during a trip to Boise in October.
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Fresno State found itself tied with Boise State entering the final quarter, having scored the most points by a Bulldogs team on the road against the Broncos in 30 years. That the Bulldogs went on to fall apart in the fourth quarter, lost 37-27, and fell to 1-7 all-time against the Broncos in Boise diminished but did not destroy the good feelings.
The experience of playing a close game appears to have given Fresno State (6-6) renewed faith that it can win the rematch against a Broncos team that is 10-2, ranked No. 22 nationally and in the hunt for a major postseason bowl.
Few outside the inner circle are giving the Bulldogs much of a chance. Fresno State has gone from a 17.5-point underdog to start the week to a 22-point long shot.
“Our guys are confident,” DeRuyter said. “They’ve prepared like a championship is on the line. They know that championship is right there for the taking. They’ve been here in that stadium before and they’re over it. They’re ready.
“The fact that our guys were right there, if our guys just come out and let it rip, and not worry about the past. Just, ‘Hey, this is our shot. Let’s go.’ I like our chances. If our guys start worrying about any past ghosts like we did that first year (for the current staff, in 2012), you’re not going to give yourself a chance.”
Even with a stronger sense of belief, Fresno State could use some better offensive execution, especially down the stretch in the game.
Fresno State’s late-game struggles showed up in that earlier Boise State matchup, with the Bulldogs held scoreless and with no first downs on 4 total yards in the final quarter.
It has continued, even in the Bulldogs’ current three-game winning streak. Fresno State has averaged 1.67 points and 54.3 total yards (42.7 rush, 11.7 pass) during the fourth quarter.
The numbers only get slightly better when including the entire second halves, with the Bulldogs averaging 7.3 points and 162.7 total yards (87.7 run, 75 pass).
Quarterback Brian Burrell has completed only 51% of his throws (23 of 45) for two touchdowns and thrown two interceptions while averaging 75 passing yards in the second half. The Bulldogs have converted 8 of 24 third downs.
It’s not like the team doesn’t have better numbers within its reach. Burrell, for example, has completed 68.3% of his passes (41 of 60) for six touchdowns with one interception and averaged 152.3 yards in the first half of the past three games. And the Bulldogs converted on third at a 58.1% clip (18 of 31).
“We need to finish games,” Burrell said. “We need to realize it’s a four-quarter game and step things up in the fourth. We can’t worry about the score at the half or at the end of the third quarter.
“We need to take any confidence we build early in games and keep it going and keep executing at a high level until there’s no more time on the clock.”
Boise State, on the other hand, has been a strong second-half team, outscoring opponents 156-86 after halftime in a seven-game winning streak. The Broncos have averaged 12.4 points in the fourth quarter.
But with their late-season surge comes some added pressure in this championship. In addition to its shot at reclaiming the Mountain West title, Boise State with a win could land in one of the New Year’s Six bowl games. The Broncos’ likely destination: the Fiesta Bowl.
Boise State played in a big-money bowl in the 2006-07 and 2009-10 seasons. But the Broncos also fell just short twice after late-season losses in 2010 and 2011.
“We’re not worried about anything beyond this game,” Broncos coach Bryan Harsin said. “We’re just focused on one more. Let’s take care of this game. Our goal is to beat Fresno State. Stuff after (Saturday), we have no control of. We can’t worry about.”
Fresno State players and coaches, meanwhile, say their focus is not on playing spoiler but finishing the game and their season strong and securing another conference title.
But considering all that is at stake, for both teams, a Fresno State win on the road against a nationally ranked Broncos team would go down as one of the greatest victories in school history.
“Nobody expects us to do what we’re planning on doing,” DeRuyter said. “As a competitor, you love that. You love everybody saying, ‘You can’t do it.’ And having the capability to prove people wrong, that’s strong. …
“Most people don’t like it when they’re down. Most people don’t like when they’re on the road. Most people don’t like when it’s cold. Embrace being uncomfortable and be comfortable with it, and we’ll be fine.”