Friday, September 21, 2012.
This one ranked right up there with the Boise State defensive smothering of Oregon in 2009. Not statistically per se, but in terms of the situation. In that 19-8 victory over the Ducks, the Broncos got help from their defense. In last night’s 7-6 edging of BYU, the Boise State defense was on its own. The Cougars didn’t go over 100 yards in total offense until early in the fourth quarter. They hit 200 yards for the game only because of the 95-yard drive that resulted in BYU’s only points of the night. The team known for its pinball passing numbers during the Lavell Edwards era could muster only 61 yards through the air—and three interceptions.
The Boise State defense set the tone for the evening on BYU’s opening possession of the game last night. The opening play, for that matter, when Demarcus Lawrence sacked Cougar quarterback Riley Nelson. And it was the defense that won the game. Mike Atkinson had a career moment with his 36-yard interception return that accounted for the Broncos’ only touchdown. The 6-0, 306-pounder knew where he was going with the pigskin. It was reminiscent of the Broncos’ Spring Game in 2009, his freshman year. He lined up as a fullback, took a handoff, and rumbled 25 yards. We always wondered if we’d ever see that in an actual game. Last night, we kind of did.
That brings us to the Boise State offense (we had to get there sooner or later). That unit did one thing really well last night: it took care of the ball. The Broncos didn’t turn the ball over once, while the defense was grabbing five turnovers from BYU. And D.J. Harper somehow squeezed 112 yards out of 31 carries. But the offense did plenty wrong. It did not score a touchdown on the blue turf for the first time since Boise State moved to Division I-A in 1996. It was the lowest combined score in the history of the current Bronco Stadium, and the lowest combined total in a Bronco game—home or away—in 34 years, since a 7-3 loss at Cal Poly in 1978.
Finish was something the Boise State offense just could not do last night. We’re not only talking about finishing drives, but series of downs. The Broncos went for it five times on fourth down and didn’t make it once. Included was the four-and-out that will live in infamy after Ricky Tjong-A-Tjoe’s fumble recovery gave Boise State a first-and-goal at the BYU one. Quarterback Joe Southwick’s struggles were especially evident on fourth down, where he twice missed receivers and once slid a half-yard short of the first down marker on a scramble. The saving grace came on the final possession. Just when everyone had given the offense up for dead, Southwick hit tight end Holden Huff for 15 yards and a first down, allowing the Broncos to run out the clock.
BYU’s Bronco Mendenhall made one brilliant decision and a couple strange ones. The coach was golden when he lifted Nelson in the third quarter in favor of Taysom Hill, the freshman out of Highland High in Pocatello. The only player from Idaho on this year’s Cougar roster almost broke the heart of the populace in his state capital. But he didn’t, partly because of Mendenhall’s first questionable move, going for two points after BYU’s only touchdown. With your offense finally started moving the ball and the other one not, why not play for overtime? Mendenhall said he liked the momentum the Cougars had going. “I’d do it again in a second,” he said on his KSL postgame show in Salt Lake. But if Mendenhall liked the momentum that much, why didn’t he opt for an onside kick on the ensuing kickoff with 3½ minutes remaining and no timeouts left?
All over Southwest Idaho this morning, there are tens of thousands of fans hanging around water coolers, ebulliently praising their team’s defense and giving their team’s offense a wholesale ripping. But you know what? All along the Wasatch Front, the exact same thing is happening. It just depends on the perspective of fans, coaches and players. BYU linebacker Spencer Hadley on the goal-line stand from the one-yard line in the third quarter: “Let’s put it this way: I will never forget the guys who were on the field during those four plays. Something like that sticks with you forever.” Headline in the Salt Lake Tribune for Gordon Monson’s column: “Riley Nelson just isn’t a good enough quarterback for BYU.” The difference is, the water cooler in Southwest Idaho has a “W” on it.
It’s too bad the smoke got in the way of an otherwise Chamber of Commerce night for ESPN. Above the thick haze hugging the valley, the sky was clear around that orange setting sun, and the temperature was perfect. It was electric, as a record crowd of 36,864 created the noisiest atmosphere ever in Bronco Stadium. But the effect of fires near and far obliterated the mountains. This has happened before. When Boise State hosted Oregon State on ESPN on a September Thursday night in 2006, it was extremely smoky. That became an afterthought following the 240 yards and five touchdowns from Ian Johnson that pelted the Beavers 42-14.
An NFL game of interest for Boise State fans Sunday will be St. Louis at Chicago, and not just because of Bears defensive end Shea McClellin. Former BSU star Austin Pettis has returned to the Rams after a four-game PED suspension and may get right into the wide receiver rotation. “I missed these two weeks going out there and battling, so I'm just excited to get back and fight with (these guys)," Pettis told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He had a strong training camp this summer and made six catches for 63 yards and two touchdowns in preseason games. Rookies Brian Quick and Chris Givens have been the fourth and fifth wideouts in the St. Louis offense, but Pettis may leapfrog them. Not to forget Rams safety Quintin Mikell Sunday. The 10-year veteran out of Boise State has11 tackles in the first two games.
Idaho and Wyoming are looking to break out of similar 0-3 funks tomorrow in the Kibbie Dome. Both teams have lost a home game to an FCS foe with their starting quarterbacks missing. The Vandals fell 20-3 to Eastern Washington in the season opener while Dominique Blackman was suspended, and the Cowboys lost to Cal Poly 24-22 last week without the injured Brett Smith. Each squad has a loss to a MAC team as well (Idaho to Bowling Green and Wyoming to Toledo). The fact that Smith is not expected to play tomorrow could help push this one into the win column for the Vandals.
Idaho-Wyoming is one of four Mountain West vs. WAC matchups tomorrow. In its final year of football competition after 51 seasons, the WAC is hoping to make one last statement. The conference has a chance to do just that. Utah State is a 13½-point favorite at Colorado State after upsetting Utah and nearly doing the same to Wisconsin. San Jose State actually received a Top 25 vote this week and has a shot when it plays at San Diego State. And New Mexico State gets rival New Mexico at home and is a one-touchdown favorite. Could the WAC come out of the weekend with a 4-0 mark in the head-to-head battles with the MWC?
Conference games kick in tomorrow in the Mountain West. One of them is fairly easy to pick, the other is not. Air Force is favored by 10½ points at UNLV and should be able to exceed that. Nevada is getting nine points at Hawaii, but I’m not so sure about that. Beyond the Wolf Pack’s defensive woes the past two weeks, Nevada hasn’t beaten the Warriors on the road since 1948. It’s actually a span of seven games, but the Reno Gazette-Journal points out the last time the Wolf Pack topped Hawaii in Honolulu, 65-year-old coach Chris Ault was two years old. Nevada has to get over its traditional mental block of playing in Aloha Stadium. The Pack has also lost two of three times in the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl there.
This Day In Sports…September 21, 1970:
The Cleveland Browns beat the Dallas Cowboys, 31-21, in the first Monday Night Football telecast. Keith Jackson, Howard Cosell and Don Meredith called the action on ABC; Frank Gifford would replace Jackson the following year. It was the first season merging the old AFL and NFL into one league, and Cleveland was getting used to life in the AFC.
(Tom Scott hosts the Scott Slant segment Sunday nights at 10:30PM on KTVB’s Sunday Sports Extra and anchors five sports segments each weekday on 93.1 The Ticket. He also served as color commentator on KTVB’s telecasts of Boise State football for 14 seasons.)