Boise, ID (SportsNetwork.com) - Former foes in the Western Athletic Conference get together in Idaho to play in the second Mountain West Conference championship game, as the 22nd-ranked Boise State Broncos host the Fresno State Bulldogs at Albertsons Stadium.
The Bulldogs are seeking their third straight MWC title, but this is a Fresno State group that is light years away from the one that dominated the league the previous two seasons. In fact, while the Bulldogs may have won the tie- breaker for the top spot in the West Division with a record of 5-3, overall the program has only broken even after 12 regular-season bouts.
Fresno State has been on a roller-coaster ride of a campaign, losing three straight games out of the gate, then winning three, followed by a three-game slide and finally another three-game win streak thanks to a 28-21 victory over Hawaii last weekend in order to grab the division title away from San Diego State.
Meanwhile, the Broncos delivered the best league mark in the MWC in 2014 with seven wins in eight chances, the only setback being an upset loss to Air Force by a score of 28-14 in late September. Since that defeat, BSU has gone on to win seven in a row, capped off by a 50-19 thrashing of Utah State last weekend.
"Awesome to be able to win our division," BSU head coach Bryan Harsin after the victory. We're very excited for the chance to play for a championship. This is why you want to be a part of Boise State, be a part of this program, to have the chance to do this. All these guys at one point when they were being recruited were told they were gonna have the chance to play for a championship, and here it is. It's not lip service, not here. We gotta go out there and finish it."
The team is also back into the national rankings for the second straight week, rising three spots from the 25th position. Now, with Marshall having finally been defeated, Boise State stands as the one team from outside the five power conferences that figures to probably be playing on New Year's Day.
In terms of the all-time series, Boise State leads by a count of 12-5 and is a perfect 7-0 at home versus the Bulldogs since 2001, which includes a 37-27 victory earlier this season. The one loss by the Broncos in Boise over the years was a 37-21 decision back in 1984.
Also working against the Bulldogs this weekend is the fact that Boise State owns the best home winning percentage in the FBS since the start of the 2000 season, boasting a mark of .958 based on a staggering 91-4 record on the blue turf regardless of the name on the stadium.
The Bulldogs are lucky to be in this position for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that they nearly let a 28-point lead disappear against Hawaii at home last weekend. The Rainbow Warriors, who win once in a blue moon on the mainland, threw up three touchdowns in the final 13 minutes of action and nearly stunned FSU, but time ran out on the visitors.
Brian Burrell handled the quarterback duties again for Fresno State as he converted 19-of-32 passes for 162 yards and a score, but he was sacked two times and tossed a couple of interceptions. On the ground the team leaned on Marteze Waller who gained 137 yards and posted a pair of TDs on 25 attempts.
On defense, before everything nearly fell apart, Derron Smith logged not only 10 tackles but also his first interception of the season, while Tyeler Davison tallied three sacks and a forced fumble.
"Just playing hard and taking advantage of opportunity when you got it," Davison said of his opportunities, "Sacks are hard to get, sometimes you get a lot of opportunities and sometimes you miss them. We just had to take advantage of the opportunities we got, the sack opportunities we got, and make it happen, make the play."
Davison leads the Bulldogs in both sacks (seven) and tackles for loss (11.5) while placing fifth on the overall tackles list with 56 stops. At the top of the tackles chart is Kyrie Wilson who has 86, adding a pair of interceptions and two forced fumbles to his stat line.
Burrell has thrown for 2,224 yards and 21 touchdowns, with his favorite target being Josh Harper who has 49 more receptions than anyone else on the roster, leading to 941 yards and seven scores. On the ground, the offensive line opens up holes for Waller who has gained 1,269 yards and landed in the end zone 11 times.
While Waller has been a huge asset to the Fresno State offense, the Broncos have a beast in the backfield of their own in Jay Ajayi. One of the nation's top ground gainers, Ajayi ran for a career-high 229 yards and tied a program record with five touchdowns during the demolition of Wyoming.
Although he occasionally has trouble holding onto the ball, Ajayi continues to get reps from coach Harsin who has watched the running back set a single- season mark for attempts for the Broncos with 303, his 1,619 yards this season being the second-most in school history as well. Ajayi, who had 18 rushing TDs last season, has 24 this time around, third-most in a single campaign for Boise State.
In addition to Ajayi, the Broncos also have quarterback Grant Hedrick who has grown tremendously as the starter. He completed 18-of-24 passes for 191 yards and two touchdowns, although he did have trouble avoiding pressure brought on by Utah State and was sacked five times. He may have only 22 TDs, against 13 INTs over 12 starts, but Hedrick has been yet another one in a long line of accurate passers for the Broncos with his 71.5 percent completion rate.
Thanks to Ajayi and Hedrick, the Broncos have the eighth-ranked offense in the nation this week, averaging 512.1 ypg. With all of that action, it should come as no surprise that the squad is ninth in scoring (40.8 ppg), having put up no less than 37 points during this current win streak.
The defensive side of the ball for BSU has not been as strong as it has in previous years, but still the squad is allowing a modest 27.6 ppg and has been watching that number come down in each of the last three weeks. Tanner Vallejo has a team-best 73 tackles and three fumble recoveries, but making just as much of an impact is Kamalei Correa with his 9.5 sacks and 16.5 TFL, while Darian Thompson comes up with seven interceptions to go with his 56 tackles.