Brian Losness, USA TODAY Sports

Hoarse And Bugging: Broncos Hang On For Win

After months of preparation, all the Boise State players and coaches could do was watch as a field goal try by Washington went wide right in the final seconds, preserving a Bronco victory.

BOISE--#23 Boise State survived a second-half rally by Washington when a late field-goal try just missed, giving the Broncos a 16-13 victory to open the 2015 football season last night in Boise.

Forgive Bronco fans for thinking they had seen this movie before:  Boise State grabs a big halftime lead (16-0), gets conservative in the second half, then holds on for dear life for a win in the final seconds.  More often than not, the Broncos have prevailed in such scenarios; a few times, such as in 2010, when Boise State squandered a 17-point halftime lead to lose 34-31 to Nevada, they have not.

Many in the crowd of 36,836 (second-largest home crowd in Bronco history) exited Albertsons Stadium hoarse, their throats sore from yelling and exalting their team for over three hours.  As they left the game happy with the win, however, several thoughts were bugging the Bronco faithful.  There was the second-half play of the Boise State offensive line and guard Mario Yakoo's admittance in fall camp that "We have to be the strength of the offense."  Boise State's second-half production netted just 80 yards, and included just five completions, two sacks and a fumble.

The aforementioned play selection in the second half was also bugging many Bronco fans.  Quarterback Ryan Finley, who was praised by his high school coach (Donnie Yantis of Paradise Valley High School in Phoenix) as being a "once in a lifetime quarterback", was rarely called upon to throw a pass except on third-and-long.  Boise State's special teams, made famous by a Statue of Liberty play in their first Fiesta Bowl win over Oklahoma in 2007 and a pass from Kyle Brotzman to tight end Kyle Efaw on a fake punt in Boise State's second Fiesta Bowl victory over TCU in 2010, deserted them on this night.  Included in tonight's Boise State's special teams effort:  the Broncos had an early PAT attempt blocked, a punt blocked, committed three costly penalties and they surrendered a 76-yard punt return for a touchdown.

The game seemed to turn when a Washington punt seemingly bounced harmlessly into the end zone with 6:52 left in the third quarter, which would have given Boise State possession on the 20-yard line with that same 16-0 lead.  But 30 yards upfield in a meaningless entanglement, Boise State's Tyler Horn was called for a personal foul, which backed the Broncos up to the 10 yard-line.

Two runs by Kelsey Young set up a third-and-long at the Bronco 14.  Anticipating a Boise State pass, the Huskies charged towards Finley, sacking him back at the 5.  Sean Wale punted 38 yards to Washington's Dante Pettis, who returned it 17 yards to give the Huskies unbelievable field position at the Bronco 26.  The Bronco defense stiffened, but Washington salvaged a 40-yard field goal from Cameron Van Winkle for their first points of the game.  

After the ensuing kickoff, Boise State again attempted two runs to set them up with another third-and-long, and Finley's pass was incomplete.  Wale once again lined up and got off a good punt (48 yards) to send Pettis back to his 24.  After a nifty move to break free, Pettis found himself all alone on the sidelines.  Pettis was off to the races for a 76-yard punt return which cut the margin to 6 at 16-10.

The Broncos mounted their one drive of the second half on a mixture of running and passing, which moved them to the Washington 32.  But Joe Mathis pounced on a fumble by Young two plays into the fourth quarter, and Boise State's once comfortable lead was now in serious jeopardy.  

The Boise State defense held after Washington had driven to their own 49.  But on Corey Durkee's short punt of 31 yards that would have given Boise State the ball on the 30, officials called an illegal block on Terrell Johnson, which again backed the Broncos up to the 12 instead.

Two more predictable runs followed by an incomplete pass from Finley, and Wale was back to punt again to Pettis.  But Washington's Jaydon Mickens didn't wait for another Pettis return--he rushed in and blocked Wale's punt to put the Huskies in business at the Bronco 26.

Boise State's defense held when a Jake Browning to Isaiah Renfro pass fell incomplete.  But five seconds after the play ended, a yellow flag flew onto the field. Jonathan Moxey was called for pass interference, and Washington had a first down at the 16.   The Bronco defense was able to hold Huskies to a 28-yard field goal and with 7:42 left, it was Boise State 16, Washington 13.

Buoyed by their comeback and the 3,500 Husky fans which had made the trip to Boise, Washington held Boise State to another three-and-out.  Wale uncorked his best punt of the night, a 50-yarder wich moved the Huskies back to the 29.  Boise State, which had been regularly rotating its defensive line, seemed fresh and forced a punt as well.  Durkee unleashed a 62-yard punt of his own into the end zone, and Boise State took over on its 20.  With 5 minutes and 26 seconds left, the Broncos could have closed out the game by executing a long drive.  The two runs and a pass worked the first time when Finley hit Shane Williams-Rhodes for a 13-yard gain, and a roughing the passer call on Washington's Travis Feeney tacked on another 15 yards.  But Boise State's strategy of two runs, a pass and a punt backfired when Johnson was called for a punt catching interference call.  

That gave Washington the ball on their 35 with 2:10 left.  Browning found Dwayne Washington out of the backfield for a 19-yard gain.  Two plays later, Browning hit Brayden Lenius for 15 yards to the Bronco 31.  Boise State's vaunted defensive line, which had gone 58 minutes and 25 seconds without a sack, finally got one by Kamalei Correa on the next play.  Browning quickly got up and gathered his team to the line of scrimmage and hit Pettis with a 17-yard pass to the 19-yard line.  A holding call on the next play brought the ball back to the 29, and another sack, this time by tackle Justin Taimatuia, was perhaps the death knoll.  Browning found Washington with an eight-yard pass to the 29.  But with 22 seconds left, rather than attempt a shot at the end zone, Browning spiked the ball, setting up Van Winkle's 46-yard field goal try that sailed just outside the right upright.  

With veteran returning starters on both lines, Boise State had hoped to dominate opponents on the line of scrimmage.  They did on defense, not so much on offense.  The Broncos held Washington to 31 rushing yards on 21 carries (1.48 yards per carry), and Washington, who hoped to have a 1000-yard season, to 14 yards on eight carries.  The Huskies gained just 181 yards of total offense.  

When the Broncos executed a 17-play, 92-yard drive on their second possession that culminated in a Jeremy McNichols seven-yard touchdown, they looked much like the Boise State offense of a year ago.  Tyler Rausa's extra point attempt was blocked, but Boise State led 6-0.  In the second quarter, Boise State finished an 11-play, 80-yard drive highlighted by Finley passes of 10 yards to Thomas Sperbeck and 19 yards to McNichols to go up 13-0.  Washington's Kevin King thwarted one drive with an interception on the Husky 13, but on its final series of the half, Boise State was able to advance the ball to the 6, when Rausa hit what proved to be the game-winning field goal with two seconds left.

But Boise State attempted just nine passes in the second half, with all but two of those coming on third down-and long.  And the Broncos' 20 rushing attempts in the second stanza netted just 32 yards.

Even though the Bronco offense generated 339 yards, the Washington defense stiffened when it had to, especially in the second half to key their comeback.  But special teams were the catalyst behind that Husky comeback--the game-changing penalty on Boise State's Tyler Horn, the blocked extra point and blocked field goal, Pettis's punt return for a touchdown, and the two penalties on Terrell Johnson.

Browning, who threw a national record 91 touchdowns last season at Folsom High School in Granite Bay, California, performed well in his debut as a true freshman, connecting on 20-of-35 passes for 150 yards.  His only mistake came early in the second quarter, when Boise State's Darian Thompson intercepted a pass.  But Washington stopped McNichols on fourth-and-one at the Washington on the 15, and the interception didn't cost Browning.  Thompson's pick gives him 15 in his career, tying him with Darrin Lyle (1988-1991) and Joe Larkin (1971-1972) for fourth place all-time at Boise State, and just three shy of third-place held by former Bronco Gabe Franklin.  Thompson is second in Mountain West Conference history behind Eric Weddle's 18.  Weddle, a star safety for Utah, was drafted in the second round of the 2007 National Football League Draft by the San Diego Chargers, and has since been named an All-Pro five times.

Mickens expressed the opinions of many of his teammates and Husky fans when he was asked what he thought of Browning:  “Very much impressed with him coming in. Especially now when he stood in the pocket and took those hits, but getting back up and still driving the ball down the field and putting us in field goal range to almost take it into overtime, that’s awesome from a true freshman.”

Thompson said the Bronco defense accepted their role in the game:  “We just relied on all of our hard work in the offseason. When we were in the huddle before we would take the field, we would say things like this are what we worked for. This is what we’re here for. We wanted the game on our shoulders and that’s how we were able to perform and do what we do."

Boise State's Finley also did well in his own debut as a starter, hitting 16-of-26 for 129 yards.  But the Broncos' game plan was lopsided towards the run, with 52 of Boise State's 79 plays being on the ground.  Bronco head coach Bryan Harsin addressed those concerns after the game:  We weren’t very good on early downs in the second half. We need to be better on the early downs or we put ourselves behind the chains. One, you’re competing against percentages, two you’re putting a lot on your quarterback to try and get you the yards." 

McNichols got the lion's share of those carries (24) for 89 yards and two touchdowns.  Young finished with 13 carries for 48 yards, and Finley had 11 carries for 30.  Time of possession proved to be a crucial factor in tonight's game, with Boise State controlling the clock for 34 minutes and 22 seconds to 25:38 for the Huskies.  

What Dwayne Washington couldn't do on the ground, he made up for it in the air, as he hauled in seven passes for 53 yards to finish as the Huskies' top receiver.

Boise State opened the season at home for the first time in six years, with the last such game being a 19-8 win over Oregon in 2009.  Without every Bronco fan and ounce of energy they expended, the home team likely would not have won.  Boise State evened the all-time series with the Huskies at 2-2 and improved their record against the Pac-12 to 8-3 since 2006.  

The game marked the return of former Bronco coach Chris Petersen, who guided Boise State to its first two Fiesta Bowl victories.  Opposing him was second-year Bronco head coach Harsin, Petersen's offensive coordinator in both of those Fiesta Bowl wins, and the head coach of Boise State's third Fiesta Bowl championship last year over #10 Arizona.

Petersen congratulated Harsin after the game and hugged Bronco players, many of whom he had recruited in living rooms across the country to bring them to Boise State, before heading to the visitor's locker room to a standing ovation of appreciation from Bronco fans for all he did in Boise.

"It’s a little different situation when you come back and play against so many of these coaches that are like brothers to us — that’s probably been the hardest,” Petersen said in a post-game news conference. “Last year and the year before we had great communication back and forth. Probably about eight months ago, the communication stopped. Hats off to the Broncos, awesome college environment, they have a really good team, play very hard, well-coached. My hat’s off to them.”

Boise State will play in front of another awesome college environment next Saturday, although this one will be in Provo, Utah, where the Broncos will meet BYU.

Bronco fans will recover from their hoarse throats.  And the Broncos will have one week to fix the things that bugged Boise State fans and coaches in their opener. 

Bronco Notes:

Darren Lee led the Broncos onto the field with The Hammer.

Offensive lineman Travis Averill and corner Raymond Ford were suspended for Boise State's season opener, and wide receivers Rick Smith and D.J. Dean missed the game because of undisclosed injuries. 

Boise State’s streak of 49-straight red-zone trips with a score ended when the Broncos turned it over on downs in the second quarter.
True freshmen CB Tyler Horton and WR Akilian Butler burned their redshirts in Friday night’s win.

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