“We’re not happy with the way we played them last year,” Wolf Pack coach Jay Norvell said this week, referring to a 41-14 loss at Boise State last year. “We didn’t play well on any level. We want to really show them how good we can play.”
The Wolf Pack will get that chance Saturday (7:30 p.m., CBS Sports Network) when the Broncos come to Mackay Stadium for an important Mountain West matchup.
“Boise has been one of the top programs in the country the last two decades,” Norvell said. “We’re excited to see how we measure up.”
Both the Broncos and Wolf Pack will enter Saturday’s 43rd game of this 47-year-old rivalry coming off losses at home. The Pack lost 21-3 to Fresno State last Saturday while Boise State was beaten by San Diego State 19-13. Saturday’s game will be just the third in the rivalry (the Broncos lead the series 29-13) when both teams are coming off losses. The Pack won the first two times it happened, in 1983 (38-20) and 1989 (30-14), both times at Mackay Stadium.
“This is a big game,” Wolf Pack running back Kelton Moore said. “I remember watching (the Wolf Pack 34-31 overtime win over Boise State in 2010) on television late night when I was in Texas. I just remember the crowd going out on the field (after the game). I got chills seeing that. We want to create that type of feeling the rest of this season.”
“Games like this one are different,” Norvell said. “I remember (golfer) Jack Nicklaus talking about playing majors. He said they are just different. Games like this one are just different. We’re getting ready for a big game. We know it’s a big game.”
The Wolf Pack is 3-3 overall and 1-1 in the Mountain West. The Pack, which has never finished better than 4-4 in league play since joining the Mountain West in 2012, trails Hawaii (3-0 in league play), Fresno State (1-0) and San Diego State (1-0) in the race for the West Division title. Boise, 3-2 overall and 1-1 in conference, is in a similar position. Utah State and New Mexico, both 1-0 in league play, lead Boise’s Mountain Division.
“All of our goals are still ahead of us,” said Norvell, overlooking the fact the Pack’s goal of going unbeaten at home and having a winning record in each of the four quarters (every three games) of the season came to an end with the loss to Fresno State.
Boise State’s goal right now is to return to becoming a dominant team. The Broncos, which haven’t played at Mackay Stadium since a 51-46 win in 2014, have lost two of their last three games and were not one of the three teams in the Mountain West (San Diego State, Utah State and Hawaii) that received votes in this week’s Associated Press poll.
“We were exposed in the loss (to San Diego State) in certain areas,” Boise State coach Bryan Harsin said this week. “We were not good enough and we have to find the answers. I still think we have a really good team. I still think we have a lot to play for. The key for us is, ‘What are we going to do about it?’”
The Broncos’ offense generated just 229 yards and 15 first downs against San Diego State. Quarterback Brett Rypien, the Mountain West preseason Offensive Player of the Year, was just 21-of-41 for 170 yards and two interceptions. Running back Alexander Mattison scored two touchdowns but gained just 66 yards on 25 carries. San Diego State sacked Rypien four times, just two games after Oklahoma State sacked the senior quarterback seven times in a 44-21 win over the Broncos.
“I think our players understand the level we want to play at,” Harsin said. “And that (the loss to San Diego State) wasn’t it.”
The Wolf Pack failed to score a touchdown last week for the first time in a game at Mackay Stadium since a 14-6 loss to Fullerton in 1983. Backup quarterback Cristian Solano, a junior seeing the first extended playing time of his career, was forced into action because of a leg injury to starter Ty Gangi. Solano played well at times, completing 22-of-43 passes for 195 yards but also was intercepted three times. He did his best to keep drives alive, scrambling 23 times for 71 yards.
Norvell said earlier this week Gangi’s status for Saturday’s game remained questionable.
“We’re hopeful he can play,” Norvell said.
Gangi would make his 20th career start (his record is 8-11) if he’s able to play against Boise State. He was 24-of-37 for just 160 yards and three interceptions in last year’s 41-14 loss at Boise State. Solano, Norvell said, would start if Gangi is sidelined again.
“He learned a lot (from the loss to Fresno State),” said Norvell of Solano. “We’re confident he would be a lot better this week if he has to play.”
“We have full confidence in him (Solano),” said Moore, who had 106 yards and a touchdown last year against Boise.
Rypien, the Broncos’ starter since 2015, has completed 863-of-1,365 passes for 11,432 yards and 72 touchdowns in his 42-game career. He has been intercepted just eight times over the past two seasons (18 games and 347 passes) and just 24 times in his career. This will be just his second game against the Pack (the two teams did not play each other in 2015 and 2016).
He was nearly perfect in his first game against the Pack last season, though he did have to sacrifice some playing time during drives to backup quarterback Montell Cozart. Rypien completed 20-of-27 passes for 258 yards and two touchdowns last year against Nevada, helping lead the Broncos to five touchdowns and a field goal on their first six drives.
“He’s a veteran quarterback that has played a lot of big games for them,” Norvell said. “It’s unheard of to see a quarterback with that kind of experience.”
“We just have to slow him down,” Wolf Pack safety Asauni Rufus said. “I don’t think you can really stop him.”
The Broncos, Harsin said, are determine to revitalize their running game and not force Rypien to try to win every game with his arm. “You never want to become one dimensional, no matter what offense you run,” he said.
Mattison leads the Broncos on the ground this season with 347 yards and six touchdowns. Boise State has averaged 151.4 yards each game on the ground but that number is inflated because of a 400-yard effort in a one-sided 62-7 win over Connecticut in Week 2.
“We’re disappointed we’re not running the ball more effectively,” Harsin said. “We have some guys who can run it. We have guys up front who can block it. But at the same time that’s not happening consistently enough.”
Boise State, which once ran for 516 yards against the Wolf Pack in 1972 and 407 yards and five touchdowns in 2013, had just 51 yards rushing on 36 carries against San Diego State.
“When there are the times to run it, you’ve got to go get it,” Harsin said.
The Wolf Pack defense held Fresno State last week to just 30 yards rushing on 24 carries. The Pack defense also held Fresno State to just 12 first downs and 271 total yards. Over its last two games against Air Force and Fresno State, the Pack defense has allowed just 28 first downs and 521 yards combined.
The 30 yards rushing by Fresno State is the fewest by a Wolf Pack opponent since San Jose State also had 30 in 2009. Fresno’s 12 first downs are the fewest by a Pack opponent since UC Davis had 11 in 2013. The 250 yards by Air Force is the fewest the Pack has allowed since UNLV had just 110 in 2011.
“Our defensive improvement is evident the last couple weeks,” Norvell said. “We’re getting great effort to the ball. We can really build on that.”
Boise State has won 15 of its last 16 games against the Wolf Pack since 1999. Over those 16 games the Broncos have averaged just under 45 points and 500 yards a game of offense.
“A lot of us are playing with energy and passion,” said Rufus of the Pack defense. “A lot of guys are stepping up and making plays. It’s not just one or two guys.”
This will be just the 12th game in the rivalry Boise has entered coming off a loss and just the second (along with 2014) since 2000. The Wolf Pack won five of the previous 11 games.
“Their offense is very explosive,” said Harsin of the Pack. “And their defense has played real well. They held Fresno to 30 yards rushing. That’s hard to do.”
Norvell said this week he showed his team film of the Pack’s 34-31 overtime win over Boise State at Mackay Stadium in 2010.
“We showed them those highlights,” Norvell said. “It’s something we have a lot of pride in as a program. The biggest thing I take from it is the energy in that game, from the players and the people in the stadium that night. That’s the type of atmosphere we’re aspiring to have.”