WALLA WALLA — Two weeks into the college football season, the jury is still out on the Boise State University Broncos.
Boise State opened the season two weekends ago in Seattle and was humbled by the Pacific 12 Conference’s University of Washington Huskies 38-6. Last weekend in Boise, the Broncos stampeded to a 63-14 victory over University of Tennessee Martin of the Football Championship Subdivision.
Having watched the first game on television and then lucky enough to be among the 33,293 sunbaked paying customers at Bronco Stadium last Saturday, it’s the conclusion here that Boise State is neither as bad as it appeared in its loss to the Huskies nor as good as the final score indicates against the outgunned Skyhawks.
The Broncos are probably somewhere in between. Not quite as powerful as they have been in recent years but still potent enough to contend for another Mountain West Conference championship and a postseason bowl invite.
There’s no question the Broncos were bucking the odds against a highly motivated Washington team that was playing its first game in refurbished Husky Stadium and still smarting from last December’s 28-26 loss to Boise State in the Maaco Bowl in Las Vegas. And few will argue at this point that Washington, which has replaced Boise State as the No. 19 team in the Associated Press Top 25, is a much-improved football team.
On the flip side, nobody expected UT Martin to pose much of a challenge to a Boise State program that has proven to be among the best in all of college football for more than a decade. Yet the Skyhawks put up enough of a fight early in the game to keep Broncos fans on the edges of their seats.
You could discern the angst in the stands when Boise State’s first two possessions were thwarted with a lost fumble and a forced punt. And when UT Martin responded to the Broncos’ first touchdown drive with one of its own, the fans’ anxiety was even more palpable.
Who would have guessed there were so many coaches seated around me in Section 105?
It wasn’t until Boise State regained the lead with 1:29 remaining in the first quarter, recovered an onside kick and then scored again six seconds into the second period that the Bronco faithful were able to take a collective deep breath and relax a little. Because the anticipated rout was on.
Nevertheless, Saturday’s final statistics hardly suggest a 63-14 score in which coach Chris Petersen was able to turn the game over to backups midway in the second half. Boise State rushed for 220 yards on 49 carries and UTM gained 147 yards on 48 trips. The Broncos held a 252-210 advantage in passing yards.
The biggest difference? Boise State forced six Skyhawk turnovers and lost just that one early fumble. One pass interception was returned for a TD and several others presented the Broncos’ offense with advantageous field position.
It was 49-7 at the intermission and 63-7 going to the fourth quarter.
That, of course, is what Boise State fans have grown accustomed to when opponents venture onto Bronco Stadium’s blue turf. Commonly referred to as “The Blue” in Bronco Nation, Boise State is 87-4 on its home field since the 1999 season.
Interestingly, one of those four defeats came at the hands of Washington State University in 2001. The Cougars are scheduled for a return visit to Boise in 2016, with the Broncos traveling to Pullman the following year.
Attending a game at Boise State might be smaller in scale but just as exciting as any other big-time program in the country. Bronco Stadium seats 37,000, and while Saturday’s crowd was the smallest since the regular-season finale against Utah in 2010, it was loud and colorful.
Color coordinated, in fact, with alternating seating sections adorned in Broncos blue and orange. All of which left me somewhat out of place wearing a mustard-colored T-shirt and green shorts.
But as a journalist I have always maintained a neutral position, even when I am not on the job. I never cheer, and I learned many years ago not to wear either team’s colors.
I recollect going to the office one February morning wearing a green sweater only to learn that a stringer assigned to cover a Waitsburg basketball game at the district tournament was unavailable. As the only other option, I grabbed a burger at McDonald’s and made a quick trip to Pullman to cover the Cards’ game.
Soon thereafter, a letter to the editor arrived in the mail. A woman from Waitsburg wondered how a U-B sportswriter “would dare to wear a DeSales Irish green sweater to a Waitsburg game.”
I was reminded of that Saturday when I got up to leave with the score completely out of hand and heard a Broncos fan behind me remark, “He must be for the other team.”
Another big crowd is anticipated tonight when Boise State entertains Air Force in the Broncos’ conference opener. The Falcons will arrive in Boise with a 1-1 record, having defeated Colgate 38-13 in their non-league opener and losing to Utah State 52-20 in a conference game.
Under a new format, Boise State and Air Force are rivals in the Mountain West Conference’s Mountain Division, so it’s a big game. The winner of the Mountain Division faces the winner of the West Division in December to decide the conference champion.
I’ve also been told by a reliable source — my granddaughter Sarah, a Boise State junior — that the Air Force game is always a hot ticket because of the traditional flyover by U.S. Air Force fighter jets and marching routines by the Air Force band.
However, a Google search revealed that due to the government sequester budget cuts, the flyover tradition is being scaled back. So Sarah might be disappointed tonight.
But it still promises to be a good game, and for Boise State an important one as it tries fight its way back into the national spotlight.
ESPN will carry the game at 5 p.m. Be prepared for a sea of orange and blue.