Boise State football’s high expectations clash with new reality

The Boise State football team has won its past four games, two of them in places where bad things have been known to happen.

Last week, the Broncos beat BYU in one of the most thrilling finishes in Albertsons Stadium history.

The vibe coming from Bronco Nation: a mix of relief, frustration anxiety and, judging by this week’s ticket sales, a little bit of apathy.

Maybe it’s time to ease those standards just a bit — and enjoy what your team is doing. And this is the perfect time for a new approach, because November 2018 for Boise State is about wins, and only wins.

The Broncos (7-2 overall, 4-1 Mountain West) face No. 16 Fresno State on Friday night. The Bulldogs are tied for the highest-ranked opponent to play the Broncos on the Blue.

That designation likely will change in two weeks, when No. 14 Utah State comes to town.

In between, the Broncos play at New Mexico.

Win all three of those games, and the Broncos will play for the Mountain West title — and possibly a major bowl bid — at Albertsons Stadium. Doesn’t matter what the score is. Doesn’t matter how many missed tackles they have. Doesn’t matter if the offense runs hot and cold, as it does nearly every game.

Lose any one of those games, and the Broncos almost certainly will miss the championship game for the fourth time in six years of divisional play in the Mountain West. That’s just one of many reminders that the juggernaut of the WAC days that created the expectation of winning with style and ease has been succeeded by a program that must scratch and claw its way through the more challenging Mountain West.

Four weeks ago, coach Bryan Harsin seemingly had to remind everyone that the 31-27 win at Nevada was a positive result — even though it was a nailbiter to the end. San Diego State lost in Reno two weeks later.

Three weeks ago, frustration crept into my Twitter feed and email inbox as the Broncos let off the gas with a 35-0 lead over Colorado State. They won 56-28.

Two weeks ago, I listened on the airplane ride home as fans expressed happiness with the program’s first victory at Air Force’s Falcon Stadium but voiced frustration with the first half — which, at 28-28, was the most entertaining half in a Boise State game this season.

And Saturday night, reporters were asked to rip the Broncos in print for their performance in the 21-16 win against BYU. Mistakes were made, of course — but wasn’t the true story of that game an injury-riddled defense stopping BYU from scoring a touchdown on seven of its eight possessions inside the 30-yard line, including on the final snap of the game from the 2?

It’s good to have high standards. Boise State coaches and players often point out that their standards are the highest of all.

It’s not as good to have high expectations. Because when you start expecting greatness, it’s difficult to appreciate the very good.

That’s what this Boise State team is. As was last year’s, and the 2016 version, too.

None of those teams have been great. The inconsistency can be maddening — I get that, and mention it frequently.

But the Broncos’ record since the start of 2016 is 28-8 — an outstanding mark at a time when many of college football’s most-storied programs have been unable to sustain their expected level of success (Florida, Florida State, Miami, Nebraska, USC and Texas for starters). Boise State’s non-conference and bowl matchups in that stretch include seven Power Five opponents, three games vs. BYU, two vs. Sun Belt power Troy, two against other Group of Five schools and none against FCS schools.

Have the Broncos been capable of accomplishing more? Yes.

Did they win some games they probably shouldn’t have? Also yes.

With three games to go, it’s time to appreciate rather than nitpick … until the Broncos lose. Then have at it.

This week’s predictions

Boise State is a 2.5-point underdog Friday night against Fresno State — the first time in 19 years that the Broncos have been home underdogs in a conference game. The over/under is 54, a number the teams didn’t approach when they played in the regular-season finale in Fresno and Mountain West championship game in Boise last year. The home team won both games.

Fresno State in the next nine days has a chance to prove it’s better than Boise State and San Diego State, the two programs that have combined to win the past four Mountain West championship games. Fresno State beat both of them in the regular season last year.

Boise State hopes to prove that it’s still the team to beat.

“It’s a great opportunity,” Boise State senior cornerback Tyler Horton said. “Those guys have been rolling this year.”

The key matchup could be the Broncos’ battered but resilient defense against the Bulldogs’ improving offense. Linebacker Riley Whimpey will be the eighth defensive starter to miss at least one game, and his torn ACL marked the second time this year that the Broncos’ leading tackler was lost for the season.

“It’s been a humbling and great experience,” said Horton, the defensive captain who has missed two games himself. “Despite the record, despite everything else, our team’s been battling. We’ve been looking forward to practicing. I’m enjoying it.”

My pick (7-2 straight up, 3-6 ATS): The Bulldogs outscored the Broncos 42-34 on aggregate in back-to-back meetings last season — and Fresno State definitely comes into this game with more momentum. I’m a little suspect of the Bulldogs because of the weak schedule, but the metrics say this defense is fantastic regardless. That’s a problem for Boise State’s inconsistent offense, which will need quarterback Brett Rypien to play one of the best games of his career. Rypien threw 61 passes against Fresno State last year without a touchdown. Defensively, the Broncos have been absolutely ravaged by injuries — and that’ll be the difference on Friday night. Fresno State 27, Boise State 20

Fresno State perspective, from Robert Kuwada of The Fresno Bee (opponent view is 8-1, 4-5): The inclination is to go with Boise State, because that’s the way it almost always has gone. But Fresno State beat the Broncos once and was 5 minutes away from beating them again last season, and their offense is better now. They have more pieces in play than they did for either of those games, so I’d expect them to be in better position to win this game. I don’t see Fresno State running the ball with any success with its backs, but the Bulldogs will use quarterback Marcus McMaryion in the run game, they’ll use their X receiver in the run game, they’ll run some run-pass options and quick passes as an extension of the run game. Tight end Jared Rice wasn’t much of a factor when Boise State saw the Bulldogs last season — he had one or no catches in nine of the first 11 games. He’s their second-leading receiver now behind KeeSean Johnson and has had as many as 10 targets in a game, so they have to account for that. McMaryion in his second season is much more comfortable with the offense, and that shows in the third-down and red-zone numbers; both way up. I don’t see the game going over that total, but I’d think Fresno will win something like Fresno State 27, Boise State 20.

Betting expert Lee Sterling of Paramount Sports, who appears Thursdays on KTIK (7-2, 5-4): Pick will be added Thursday evening.

[Related: Sports Pass subscription offers a year of sports coverage for $30; The 208 Podcast features Dave Southorn]

College football spotlight

National game of the week — No. 2 Clemson (-20) at No. 17 Boston College, 6 p.m. Saturday, ABC: “College GameDay” goes to Boston College, which would put many visitors on upset alert. But the Tigers are the closest thing to Alabama in college football. Clemson 41, Boston College 17

Mountain West game of the week — Colorado State at Nevada (-14), 8:30 p.m. Saturday, ESPNU: Nevada suddenly is 5-4 with three struggling opponents ahead. The Wolf Pack could be an eight-win squad for the first time since 2010 if they’re able to sustain success. Nevada 47, Colorado State 27

Pac-12 game of the week — No. 10 Washington State (-6) at Colorado, 1:30 p.m. Saturday, ESPN: Here’s your weird line of the week. Seems like the Cougars should be double-digit favorites over the flailing Buffaloes. Why aren’t they? Who knows. Take the Cougars anyway. Washington State 31, Colorado 12

Chadd Cripe is the Idaho Statesman’s sports columnist. Contact him at [email protected] and follow @chaddcripe on Twitter.

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