December 22, 2010
Boise State 26, Utah 3. The final score isn't particularly pretty, and with 13 penalties on top of six turnovers and a pair of missed field goals, neither was the game. But make no mistake: The ribbon on Boise State's third consecutive 12-win season came with a characteristic beatdown.
The Broncos outgunned Utah by upwards of 300 yards in total offense, 523 to 201, on a difference of almost three full yards per play. They went over 200 yards rushing and 250 passing for the seventh time this season. They kept the opposing offense out of the end zone for the fifth time. The nation's most sack-happy defense brought down Ute quarterback Terrance Cain five times. They punted once, on the second series of the game. And they trounced another ranked opponent, their third top-25 victim of the year.
Across the board, Boise settled in over the last two-and-a-half quarters to exactly the brand of front-running dominance it exhibited for all but one quarter of the regular season, exiting the stage with just that one lingering bit of unfinished business: Just how are we supposed to judge that performance, anyway?
For the believers, the numbers and the final score against the Utes were good enough to leave you wondering what might have been if Kyle Brotzman – who ended his career tonight as the NCAA's all-time leading scorer among kickers – hadn't ganked those crucial field goals at Nevada. But with the slow start, turnovers and blown opportunities, it certainly wasn't good enough to convert skeptics who refused to look past the second-rate schedule. In that sense, it was an appropriate final act for the most divisive team in recent memory: The Broncos gave the wedge one final whack, took a bow and exited stage left to simultaneous applause and indifference.
Over time, though, the aftertaste of one final blowout for the road may serve to deepen the sense of missed opportunity. Boise State didn't open the season in the top five by some lucky accident: This season was the logical culmination of a sharp, decade-long rise, the golden window for a team somehow returning 23 of 24 starters from a 14-0 Fiesta Bowl champion that finished fourth in the polls in 2009. This was the team to finish the ascent.
And it filled that potential, for the most part, and then some. It knocked off the eventual ACC champ in what amounted a road game on opening night, and reeled off nine straight as a double-digit favorite without encountering anything that even resembled a challenge. All things considered, it was probably a better team than the '09 edition over the course of the entire season – except for the season-killing collapse in Reno, which slammed the window shut, possibly forever. This time, ten starters will be moving on in 2011, including Brotzman, prolific receivers Titus Young and Austin Pettis and All-WAC defenders Ryan Winterswyk, Winston Venable, Brandyn Thompson and Jeron Johnson.
The lineup they leave behind faces the first of a couple crucial rebuilding seasons to sustain the consistency that put the 2010 edition on the cusp of a once-a-generation breakthrough. Odds are, though, that tonight was Boise's final hurrah as a serious national player for the foreseeable future. This was the team, and it fell just short of the summit. One last reminder that it really did have the tools to get there is almost as cold a sendoff as another reminder that it probably didn't. Almost.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.