The Mountain West Conference race has been sneaky good in 2021 with plenty of teams still in the mix for a spot in the conference championship game. Boise State (4-4, 2-2 MW) and Fresno State (7-2, 4-1) will meet on Saturday afternoon in a crucial contest for both teams. The Broncos and Bulldogs are no strangers to the Mountain West Conference Football Championship Game either, as they faced off in the 2018 edition, which Fresno State won 19-16. That also was the last time these teams played each other.
This season has not gone according to plan for Boise State, which will need help to claim the conference's Mountain Division, but the Broncos do enter Saturday's matchup with some momentum after defeating Colorado State on the road last weekend. It was an inauspicious start for Boise State, trailing the Rams 13-0 deep into the second quarter. But the Broncos rallied behind quarterback Hank Bachmeier (21-for-32, 253 yds., 3 TDs), and the defense clamped down, holding Colorado State to just six points over the last three quarters. Limiting the Rams' running game to just three yards per carry was huge for Boise State.
Meanwhile, Fresno State brought home the "Old Oil Can" trophy last Saturday after knocking off San Diego State 30-20 in Carson, California. It was a great night for the Bulldogs' offense, which racked up 485 yards to end the Aztecs' 29-game streak of holding teams to 450 yards or fewer. Fresno State quarterback Jake Haener threw for 306 yards and a touchdown, looking quite poised against SDSU's aggressive defense. The offensive line also did its part in both pass protection and opening up running lanes for Jordan Mims, who piled up 186 yards and two touchdowns on 29 carries. The Bulldogs' defense also got in on the act, forcing three turnovers including a pair of fumble recoveries by Kevin Atkins.
The win over San Diego State not only put Fresno State in first place in the West Division, but it also landed the Bulldogs at No. 23 in the initial College Football Playoff Rankings. A New Year's Six bowl bid certainly seems like a longshot with fellow Group of 5 representative Cinncinati currently ranked sixth overall, but it keeps Fresno State in the running for a higher-profile postseason destination, provided the Bulldogs keep winning.
Boise State at No. 23 Fresno State
Kickoff: Saturday Nov. 6 at 7 p.m. ET
Spread: Fresno State -5.5
When Boise State Has the Ball
Bachmeier must have his best game of the season this week if the Broncos are going to get a win over Fresno State. He is coming off of one of his strongest showings, and he will need to continue this level of play, particularly when it comes to maintaining possession of the football. The Bulldogs have forced the second-most turnovers among Mountain West teams with 18, including eight interceptions.
If Bachmeier is going to do some damage this week it will probably be with an assist from Khalil Shakir. Second in the conference in receiving yards (777) and top 10 in both receptions (49) and touchdown catches (four), Shakir will need to play a big role in the Boise State passing game to try and loosen up Fresno State's defense.
Running the ball has been an issue for the Broncos all season long, as the team is averaging 98.5 rushing yards per game. The only team faring worse in the conference in this department is Nevada (72.5 ypg), but the Wolf Pack have the nation's third-ranked passing attack to offset this. Boise State is fourth in the Mountain West in passing yards per game (275.5) but hasn't come up with the same number of big plays or scoring strikes as Nevada. That's why the Broncos are tied for fifth (with Air Force) in scoring offense at 29.3 points per game.
Besides creating turnovers, the Bulldogs have done a pretty good limiting their opponents on offense. Fresno State is third in the conference in scoring defense (20.8 ppg) and is giving up just 346.8 yards per game. The Bulldogs have held their ground for the most part on third down, allowing teams to convert 38.6 percent of these opportunities. With Boise State struggling to run the ball, Fresno State could really put the Broncos in a bind if the defense can consistently pressure Bachmeier. Atkins, David Perales, and Arron Mosby will lead that effort, as they have combined for 14 sacks on the year.
When Fresno State Has the Ball
It's been a much more balanced approach for the Bulldogs on offense, and it's paid off as they are No. 1 in the Mountain West at 480.4 yards per game. Haener leads the conference in passing yards with 2,888 and is right behind Nevada's Carson Strong in touchdown passes (23), completions (230), completion rate (66.9 percent), and passer efficiency rating (155.9).
He's done a good job spreading the ball around to his targets, a group that's led by Jalen Cropper. He leads the conference with 10 touchdown catches and is third with 61 receptions. Josh Kelly, Keric Wheatfall, and Zane Pope have combined for 83 catches and eight touchdowns and will give Boise State's defense plenty to deal with.
The Broncos are an uncharacteristic ninth in the Mountain West in total defense, giving up 403.1 yards per game. Teams have had plenty of success running the ball against Boise State, who is last at nearly 190 rushing yards allowed per game. Expect to see plenty of Mims and Ronnie Rivers in this game, as Fresno State's running back tandem has combined for 1,077 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground.
It won't be easy, but the Broncos have to try and force Haener into some bad throws or come up with a fumble recovery. Boise State has produced 17 takeaways this season, including eight picks, but Haener has only tossed six interceptions among his 344 pass attempts thus far. If the Broncos can clamp down on the running game it will give them a better chance of hanging around in this game, but completely shutting down this Bulldogs offense seems like a tall order.
These are two proud programs that have faced off in high-stakes matchups before. This time may not decide who wins the Mountain West, but there's still plenty on the line for both teams. Fresno State has the more balanced offense and it will show as the game gets deeper into the second half. Haener will connect on enough throws and, more importantly, avoid the costly turnover while the combination of Mims and Rivers will wear down Boise State's defense on the ground. Bachmeier does what he can with his arm to keep the Broncos in this one, but the lack of a consistent running game ends up costing them once again. The Bulldogs take another step towards a West Division title by taking care of business at home.
Prediction: Fresno State 37, Boise State 28
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