Carrying over their rivalry from the Western Athletic Conference, the Fresno State Bulldogs and the 24th-ranked Boise State Broncos tangle as members of the Mountain West Conference this weekend on the blue turf in Idaho.
Under the direction of the winningest active coach in Chris Petersen who is 77-7 since assuming control in 2006, the Broncos are one of the only non-BCS programs that many schools fear these days. However, the team is going through a transition in 2012 with a new starting quarterback and a large group of underclassmen that have to grow up fast in order to meet lofty expectations of the coaches and fans.
Boise State lost its season opener to Michigan State, bouncing the team out of the national rankings for the first time in years. But even winning games has provided the same result as the Broncos re-entered the AP after defeating BYU a few weeks back, but were again ushered out despite beating New Mexico. Last weekend, the team served up a 40-14 pounding on Southern Miss in non- conference play on the road and that was enough to sneak them back into the Top-25.
The Broncos have now won 45 straight games played during the month of October and have one of the most dominant home-field advantages of any team in the country over the last dozen years, posting a mark of 76-3. It also doesn't hurt that BSU has the highest conference winning percentage in the nation since 2000 at .936 (87-6).
All of the above is bad news for the Bulldogs and first-year head coach Tim DeRuyter, as they are trying to keep their strong play alive. Fresno State, which is just 1-5 in Boise over the years versus the Broncos, has managed to rattle off two straight wins and three in the last four leading up to this meeting. Last weekend, the team set down the Rams of Colorado State with a 28-7 decision during which the defense didn't allow any points until the final minute of the fourth quarter.
With a record of 2-0 in conference play, the Bulldogs enter the weekend tied with Nevada for first place in the MWC standings, while Boise State is tied for third with UNLV at 1-0.
Against the Bulldogs, BSU owns a 10-4 edge in the all-time series, thanks in part to a 57-7 thrashing of FSU last season. Boise State has ripped off six straight wins against the Bulldogs, delivering victories with a spread of at least 50 points in three of the last four encounters.
"(We're) playing a team that we haven't beaten in quite a while, in fact it hasn't been real close (recently)," admits DeRuyter. "They've done an excellent job up there in Boise and really have set the standard regardless of what league they've been in, that If you want to contend for a conference championship it has to go through Boise and our guys realize that."
As one of the top-scoring teams in the country (39.5 ppg), the Bulldogs obviously know how to put points on the board, but the difference with this group might be that the defense is also playing extremely well also. Through six games FSU ranks first in the conference and ninth in the nation in sacks with 3.3 per game and clearly the squad is also hitting opponents where it counts by forcing turnovers.
At this point the Bulldogs are second in the conference, behind Boise State, and 11th in the country with a 1.67 turnover margin per game, thanks mostly to the efforts of Phillip Thomas who leads the nation in interceptions with six. Last week versus Colorado State, Thomas not only notched another pick, he led the team with eight total tackles, made a sack and forced a fumble, all on his way to being named the MWC Defensive Player of the Week for the second time this season.
Also taking some of the credit for the 21-point win against the Rams was quarterback Derek Carr, who completed 25-of-39 passes for 217 yards and four touchdowns. Looking more and more like his brother, David, who was also a part of the Bulldogs before being selected with the top pick in the NFL Draft, Derek is one of the nation's leaders in passing scores with 18 and has tossed just three picks on 232 attempts. Averaging more than 300.0 ypg through the air, Carr is making many of his receivers quite happy on a regular basis.
In the case of Carr's counterpart for this weekend, Boise State's Joe Southwick has traveled a difficult road, having to work through the questionable decisions he has made on the field that have caused his coaches to scratch their heads.
In the last two weeks, Southwick has conquered the competition with a total of six passing touchdowns and only one interception, but before the Broncos can get too excited with the recent results, they have to understand that the opponents haven't exactly been world beaters. Having D.J. Harper (two TDs against USM) as a threat coming out of the backfield also takes some of the pressure off Southwick.
Harper leads the team in rushing with 427 yards and has scored five times on the ground, but given that he has carried the ball 94 times and the rest of his teammates have accounted for only a combined 80 attempts for 333 yards and a score, he's expected to produce.
Certainly Harper can shoulder some of the load when given the opportunity, but he is still a far cry from FSU's Robbie Rouse who recently became the school's all-time leading rusher and currently ranks 14th in the country with 118.5 ypg. Rouse has run for at least 100 yards in all but one game this year and had scored at least one touchdown in every outing up until the meeting with Colorado State when Carr took it upon himself to handle that department.
It also helps when the defense turns up the pressure, which is exactly what happened for the Broncos against Southern Miss when they forced five turnovers and were guilty of only one themselves.
"Turnovers," coach Petersen remarked after the meeting with the Golden Eagles. "I don't know how or why we keep getting them, but it makes thing different for us, and if we continue that track we are going to be in every game and have a great chance to win most."