Fresno State at Boise State

Sports Xchange

November 29, 2017 at 11:46 am.

GAME SNAPSHOT
KICKOFF: Saturday, 7:45 p.m. ET
SITE: Albertsons Stadium, Boise, Idaho
TV: ESPN
SERIES: Boise State leads 13-6. The teams did not play in 2015 or 2016, but met last week in Fresno, with the Bulldogs winning 28-17.
RANKINGS: Fresno State No. 25

PLAYERS TO WATCH
Bulldogs

–QB Marcus McMaryion, a transfer from Oregon State who joined the team during fall camp, has started the past nine games. He earned MW Offensive Player of the Week honors for his performance Saturday in the win over Boise State, when he 23 of 36 passes for 332 yards, with two touchdowns and no interceptions. The last time a Fresno State player won a weekly MW award for offense: Derek Carr on Nov. 25, 2013.

–WR KeeSean Johnson has caught a pass in 34 consecutive games and will set a school record if he makes one reception on Saturday. Johnson is tied with Henry Ellard, who had a 34-game reception streak from 1979 to 1982. Johnson has 167 career receptions.

–LB Jeffrey Allison, who has twice won MW Defensive Player of the Week honors this season, has reached 103 tackles for the season. The next-highest Bulldogs tackler, linebacker Georgia Helmuth, has 76.

Broncos

–LB Leighton Vander Esch has 113 tackles this season, marking the third time in four seasons that a Bronco has reached the 100-tackle mark, following Tanner Vallejo (100 in 2014) and Ben Weaver (108 in 2016). Vander Esch has been a playmaker, forcing three fumbles and making 5.5 tackles for loss, including three sacks.

–S Kekoa Nawahine, a sophomore, has been a breakout player in 2017. He is coming off a 12-tackle performance last week against Fresno State, two weeks after recording a career-high 14 at Colorado State. Nawahine has 90 tackles this season and leads the Broncos with three interceptions.

–QB Brett Rypien has lived up to his two-time All-Mountain West form over Boise State’s last five games, going a combined 100-for-151 (66.2 percent) for 1,427 yards and 12 touchdowns against just one interception.

KEYS
TO THE GAME

Jeff Tedford, head coach of No. 25-ranked Fresno State, once again meets Boise State and its head coach, Bryan Harsin, Saturday at Boise’s Albertsons Stadium for the Mountain West Conference championship.

Though on opposite sidelines, the two share similar backgrounds on their way to this title opportunity.

Tedford is in his first season at Fresno State, completing a remarkable regular-season turnaround that culminated with a 28-17 home win over Boise State last week for the Milk Can Trophy.

The Bulldogs (9-3, 7-1) had already claimed the West division’s berth into last week’s game, but the victory over the Broncos (9-3, 7-1) put a fitting bow on their turnaround from a 1-11 finish in 2016.

“I cannot tell you how happy and gratified I am to see all of the hard work paying off for these guys and this coaching staff who have put so much into it,” Tedford said.

And for Tedford, his own hard work and long path paid dividends this season, as well.

Successful with the Cal Golden Bears throughout the 2000s, Tedford’s 11-season tenure in Berkeley ended in 2012 after the Golden Bears finished below .500 two out of three seasons. Tedford spent time in the NFL with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the CFL with the BC Lions before returning to college football last season as an assistant to Chris Petersen with the Washington Huskies.

Petersen, before taking the job at Washington following the 2013 season, spent eight seasons as the head coach of Boise State. The program won at least 10 games in seven consecutive seasons from 2006 through 2012.

Harsin worked as the Broncos’ offensive coordinator from 2006 through 2010, following a four-year tenure as the program’s tight ends coach.

Like Tedford — celebrated for his work with quarterbacks at Oregon, Cal and in a previous assistant’s tenure at Fresno State — Harsin was long known for his offensive acumen. However, both coaches now oversee teams paving their way to the Mountain West Championship Game with defensive prowess.

Fresno State is No. 12 in the nation in scoring defense at 17.3 points per game and is No. 15 against the run, surrendering just 117.3 yards per game. Boise State ranks No. 41 in points allowed at 23.3, and No. 19 defending the rush with 124.9 yards allowed per game.

Last week’s relatively low-scoring rivalry game set a tone likely to carry into Saturday’s championship.

The Bulldogs held Boise State to just 3.5 yards per carry, but the Broncos yielded only 3.3 yards per rush on the opposite end. Fresno State quarterback Marcus McMaryion outdueled Boise State’s Brett Rypien, with 332 yards passing with two touchdowns to Rypien’s 294 yards and one score.

Following the win, Bulldogs defensive back Jaron Bryant credited defensive coordinator Orlondo Steinauer for Fresno State’s performance this season.

“He comes out with a great attitude every single day,” Bryant said. “He pushes us to be the best (secondary) in the country and he pushes us to communicate the most. He just brings great energy and a good vibe to the team every practice and every game.”

One striking difference between the head coaches ahead of this title tilt is that Harsin, in just his fifth year as a head coach, boasts two conference championships in two different leagues. He led Arkansas State to the Sun Belt championship in 2013, and Boise State to the Mountain West crown the next season.

Despite Tedford’s success at Cal in the 2000s, USC’s run of dominance during the decade denied the Golden Bears from ever claiming more than a share of the championship (in 2006) in the former Pac-10.

Harsin is not just aiming for his third conference championship; Boise State is out to end a two-year title drought, the longest such stretch for this program since 1997 and 1998, when it was a member of the Big West Conference.

From the Big West to the Western Athletic Conference and now the Mountain West, Boise State has won at least a share of 12 championships since transitioning to Division I in 1996.

Having the opportunity to play for the title on Saturday for the first time since 2014 is an important step for the program, Harsin said Monday.

“There are some good football teams that are not playing in championship games,” he said. “How many good football teams — there was one that was No. 1 (Alabama) and a few that were top 10 (Penn State) — that are not playing in championship games. It is hard to get into this game. And right now, our staff is preparing.

“I’m glad we’re not in the position we were two years ago,” he added.