AIR FORCE ACADEMY – It was two No. 7’s that nearly cost the Broncos big time Saturday night, so fittingly it was a No. 7 that came up with the play of the game when they needed it most.
After Air Force kept the ball in the final minutes due to a penalty on Boise State for having two players wearing No. 7 on the field for a punt return, the Broncos stopped the Falcons on fourth down in the red zone on a pass break-up from No. 7 Ezekiel Noa to preserve a 19-14 win at Falcon Stadium.
Boise State (5-2, 4-0 MW) remained the only undefeated team in Mountain West play and improved to 3-0 since Dirk Koetter took over as offensive coordinator and Taylen Green became the starting quarterback.
“Every game in this conference is a battle,” Boise State coach Andy Avalos said. “I’m really proud of the team and the coaches and everybody involved. This is not an easy place to come play and to play the way we did and to have the fortitude we did to stay in the field.”
The defense was dominant from the start, but it nearly became a side story due to a penalty that completely changed the complexion of the game.
With Boise State leading 19-14 midway through the fourth quarter the Broncos got a huge stop on third-and-5 and forced Air Force to punt. No. 7 Latrell Caples caught the punt, and it looked like Boise State would take over with a chance to run out the clock.
But after a long conference by the officiating crew it was ruled that Boise State had two number sevens on the field – Caples and the linebacker Noa, who was up near the line of scrimmage. Boise State was given a five-yard penalty, which gave Air Force a first down.
“We were in the safe punt return to watch for the fake and we didn’t catch two sevens on the field,” Noa said. “We just didn’t catch two sevens on the field. We didn’t notice that as far as our team, the coaches, the players – that was definitely a mistake we had that we have to fix for next time.”
Even worse? Noa said the Broncos practiced with both Caples and Noa on the field all week and nobody noticed it then, either.
“We did actually practice it like that,” Noa said. “Nobody really brought it to our attention at the time.”
Given new life Air Force moved the ball right down the field and looked poised to take the lead on a go-ahead score in the final minutes. Air Force ran 10 more plays for 60 yards to get down to the 11 yard-line as the clock dipped under two minutes.
The Falcons faced fourth-and-3 from the 11 with roughly 90 seconds left and converted the first down – but a holding penalty erased the play and pushed them back to the 21-yard line for a fourth-and-13 try.
“Next play mentality,” Avalos said. “That is 100 percent on me and we’ll make sure we get that squared away, but they didn’t flinch. They didn’t flinch one bit.”
With the game on the line Noa dropped back into coverage swatted the ball down with his hand to turn the ball back over to the Broncos with just 1:25 left on the clock.
“That was definitely huge,” Noa said. “On fourth down we were in the advantage. They only had a couple plays we knew in their playbook on what they were going to run so we were ready for the pass.
“It was tough, but that’s what we live for. That’s what we practice for. All the conditioning we do in the offseason, its for these types of moments. It was great to see. … Our defense, we’re taught every day to stay in the fight. None of us were complaining (about the penalty). What happened, happened. We stayed in the fight.”
Boise State ran out the clock thanks to a 15-yard run from Green on third down. Green was 16 of 24 for 207 yards passing while rushing five times for 16 yards in his best game since taking over as the starter against San Diego State on Sept. 30.
But the offense went scoreless in the second half and the Broncos were in complete control for much of the game due to one reason – a dominant defense. Air Force had 12 plays for -4 yards on its first four drives and had -1 yards in the first quarter.
The Falcons, who entered the game No. 1 in the nation at nearly 360 rushing yards per game, finished with just 175 rushing yards and a season-low 271 total yards. Air Force averaged 33.3 points per game coming in, but was held to just 14 points by the Broncos.
“Shoutout to the scout team offensive line and the scout team,” Avalos said. “How we were able to start the game, that’s because of the young men behind the scenes that helped their brothers get ready, which was a critical factor in the game.”
On the dominant first quarter from the defense which led to the Broncos opening up a 16-0 lead, Avalos said, “That was a huge emphasis. We didn’t do that last year (in a loss to Air Force). We didn’t start fast enough in the first quarter and you can’t get behind schedule against them. That was the biggest emphasis.”
Boise State went through the toughest three-game stretch on its schedule a perfect 3-0 and now sits in the driver’s seat in the Mountain Division with four games left. Not many would have believed that following an ugly loss to UTEP last month, but three wins later here we are.
And the defense is to thank for Saturday’s win at Air Force.
“It’s huge man,” Noa said. “Playing Air Force, they are a great team and not an easy team to play against. We knew the fight we were coming into, and we prepared very well.”
Up next for the Broncos is a home game against Colorado State on Saturday at 5 p.m.