A few more weapons on offense and a few more stops on defense might have had the Boise State Broncos sitting as Mountain West Conference champions for the third time in the last four years.
Instead, a comeback from a 16-point deficit ultimately fizzled out, with the Broncos (5-2) falling to the 25th-ranked San Jose State Spartans 34-20 on Saturday.
There was no George Holani or John Bates for Boise State. Jack Sears was also not in uniform. And standout Khalil Shakir left the game midway through the third quarter with an apparent hamstring injury.
San Jose State (7-0) earned their first-ever Mountain West championship in football. They were the more aggressive team, hitting hard all day and seemingly playing with a chip on their shoulder. And a career-day from quarterback Nick Starkel also helped.
Starkel passed for a Mountain West Championship game record 453 yards, completing passes to ten different receivers. Starkel was 32-52 and threw three touchdown passes.
The record for yards was previously held by Derek Carr, who had 404 in the 2013 title game.
Boise State’s run defense had a mostly stout game, but didn’t really find answers to keep San Jose State’s passing game at bay. A saving grace was a red zone defense that held the Spartans to four field goals instead of touchdowns in the second quarter.
Boise State’s offense had trouble getting into any sort of rhythm most of the game. The Broncos had five 3-and-outs and were forced to punt six times. Hank Bachmeier was under pressure too often, finishing 20-40 for 221 yards.
Shakir had six receptions for 85 yards before exiting the game.
It was a disappointing result for the Broncos, but the Spartans have put together a special season, one that likely holds extra emotion in defeating Boise State for the first-time in 15 tries.
Boise State Broncos first-half struggles
Jonah Dalmas was pretty much the entire offense for the Boise State Broncos in the first-half. Dalmas connected on a career-long 51-yard field goal and also hit one from 50-yards. These were Boise State’s only points prior to halftime.
Dalmas also missed from 46-yards on Boise State’s first drive of the day.
Boise State had only 109 yards of offense at the half, a number that really didn’t get better after halftime.
Plays of 10 yards or more were a thorn in Boise State’s side all game. Twenty times the Spartans did this, including their first score of the game, a 55-yard Tre Walker touchdown reception. Walker took a wide receiver screen and turned it into six thanks to a missed tackle and a key block.
Even as the Broncos gave up yardage, they were able to keep the Spartans out of the end zone in the second quarter. The quarter also saw a sack from Boise State’s Divine Obichere to end a San Jose State series.
Still, the offense struggled to even move the chains and Boise State was down 19-6 at halftime.
Second-half: better, but no success
Avery Williams continued his very special season. And in doing so, a fire returned to the Boise State Broncos.
After an improved defensive effort in the third, the Broncos were able to keep the Spartans off the scoreboard. The offense — showing signs of life — still failed to score, though, and with about three minutes left in the third, the score remained the same.
Then Williams arrived.
Williams tied an NCAA record for career return touchdowns, taking a punt back 69 yards for the score. Dalmas’ extra point made the score 19-13.
San Jose State was able to respond on their first drive of the fourth with a touchdown pass from Starkel to Isaiah Hamilton. A two-point conversation pushed the lead to 14.
Williams again had a nice return, bringing it out to the 37. After the Broncos picked up a first down thanks to an offsides penalty, Bachmeier found Riley Smith for a 40-yard gain. Bachmeier would later score on a two-yard run to again make it a one-score game.
The defense held strong, later forcing a three-and-out highlighted by a sack from Isaiah Bagnah. Bachmeier and the offense — without Shakir — struggled to make things happen.
One final drive from San Jose State, ending in a Starkel to Derrick Deese one-yard touchdown pass, sealed the game for the Spartans.
Smith ended with four receptions for 58 yards for Boise State. Andrew Van Buren had 11 carries for 26 yards.
Boise State ended up with only 224 yards on the day, with a grand total of three coming on the ground. Despite the passing yards, they played solidly against the run, allowing 45 rushing yards (1.8 yards per carry).