Fresno State and Boise State will go at it again Saturday, this time for the Mountain West Conference championship and this time on that (choose your adjective) blue turf at Albertsons Stadium.
The Bulldogs won last week’s first meeting 28-17, executing offense, defense and on special teams at a much higher level than the Broncos, who went into that game riding a seven-game winning streak and rolling up more than 46 points and 520 yards per game over their past four. It had been awhile since Fresno State had seen Boise State on the football field – 2014 – but clearly it is not the same bully that for a time there routinely beat up the Bulldogs by scores like 61-10 and 51-0 and 57-7.
The tough part for the Bulldogs is doing it a second time and on the road – Boise State is 107-7 at home since 2000, its .939 winning percentage the best in the nation.
But in dissecting what went right and what went wrong just last week, the Bulldogs and the Broncos both will find some things that will play to their favor, some things to explore and exploit with a big trophy and rings on the line.
Here are three things to watch …
1. Mobile, agile
Marcus McMaryion was sharp last week, throwing for a career high 332 yards including five plays of 20 or more yards and four of 30 or more yards, the big one the 81-yard touchdown strike to KeeSean Johnson in the fourth quarter.
McMaryion got the Bulldogs into the right plays, made good decisions with the football and was 7 of 11 on third down, an area he had struggled this season.
Also, his passing efficiency rating was 159.68, which was not a season-high but was very good considering the opponent. Boise State had not allowed a higher efficiency rating in a conference game since 2015 when Air Force had a 206.48 in beating the Broncos 37-30. Since, an opponent has been in the 150s only twice in 18 games.
In the rematch, don’t discount McMaryion’s ability to do some damage with his legs, especially if the Bulldogs are in the red zone.
Fresno State was 3 for 3 in its red zone trips last week (two touchdowns and a field goal). Its red zone touchdown percentage going into the game was only .548, ninth-best in the conference.
McMaryion had a 13-yard scramble inside the Boise State 20 on the Bulldogs’ first series, but also had some issues running an old-fashioned option two plays later when he made an errant pitch that got knocked around and eventually went out of bounds.
There also was a third-and-1 from the Boise State 5-yard line at the end of the first half where McMaryion had oodles of time, but in the compressed field didn’t have an open receiver. He ended up firing incomplete, but moving right or left might have been enough for a receiver to wriggle free or for the Bulldogs’ quarterback to sneak into the end zone.
Surely, the coaches and their quarterback have some ideas for Saturday.
2. Do the twist
The Bulldogs’ offensive line did a solid job handling the Broncos’ twisting and stunting up front, allowing no sacks and only one tackle for loss.
That shouldn’t be a surprise anymore.
Fresno State is well-schooled, adept at making in-game adjustments and matched all of the physicality tests presented to it in conference play. The Bulldogs have faced some tough fronts, handled all of them fairly well and are first in the Mountain West and third in the nation in tackles for loss allowed, first in the conference and second in the nation in sacks allowed.
The only team ahead of the Bulldogs there is Army, which runs an option offense and has attempted only 60 passes all season, just 5.5 times per game; the Bulldogs are averaging almost 30 passes a game.
But what will Boise State throw at them in the championship rematch? For Fresno State, it figures to be a game of adjustment up front.
Boise State has two players in the top four in the conference in sacks in Curtis Weaver (8.0, tied for first) and Jabril Frazier (6.0, fourth). Both were very quiet last week, neutralized by tackles Christian Cronk and David Patterson with some assistance from backs and tight ends in pass protection.
Frazier was in on two tackles, one 5 yards down field and the other 9 yards down field. He had one quarterback hurry.
Weaver was in on just one tackle – in the first quarter.
3. Let it Rypien
The Broncos have used two quarterbacks for much of the season, and run-pass threat Montell Cozart has been productive.
But Boise State might be looking more at Brett Rypien in the championship game, which would require some adjustment by Fresno State.
The Broncos’ best drive last week wasn’t the first one when moving 75 yards in six plays to score a tying touchdown – that drive started with a gimmick trick pass play that went for 45 yards and was aided by a 15-yard face mask penalty on the Bulldogs.
Their best or most telling drives might have been ones that ended up with no points, but included a lot of Rypien, who at one point was picking apart the Bulldogs with short throws and some yardage after the catch.
There was a stretch between the first and second quarters where Rypien hit 10 throws in a row – none for significant yardage, but the chains were moving. He is the most accurate passer in the Mountain West, completing 64.6 percent, and is averaging 8.1 yards per attempt.
If Fresno State digs into its film library, it’ll see that’s how UNLV kept moving the sticks in a 26-16 upset at Bulldog Stadium. And the Rebels didn’t have a passer the caliber of Rypien; they were using Johnny Stanton, who had been playing linebacker but was moved back to QB because of injury.
All Stanton did was hit 17 of 29 passes and 10 of those completions went for a first down.
The Broncos have two receivers in Cedrick Wilson and A.J. Richardson who can make plays down the field, but those underneath throws add up, too.
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
FRESNO STATE VS. BOISE STATE
- Saturday: 4:45 p.m., Albertsons Stadium (36,387) in Boise, Idaho
- Records: Bulldogs 9-3, 7-1 Mountain West; Broncos 9-3, 7-1
- TV/radio: ESPN/KFIG (AM 940), KGST (AM 1600).
- Of note: The Bulldogs are playing in their third Mountain West Conference championship game, having beaten Utah State in 2013 and lost at Boise State in 2014. The Bulldogs have 18 players from that 2014 team on the roster and four who played in that game – wideout Da’Mari Scott, outside linebacker Justin Green, kicker Kody Kroening and defensive tackle Nate Madsen. Madsen has been ruled out of the game due to a leg injury suffered in the Bulldogs’ victory over Boise State in their final regular-season game. Boise State is 8-1 against Fresno State on its home field and has won eight in a row, all of them coming by 10 or more points. The Bulldogs’ victory was in their first trip to Boise in 1984.