Undefeated underdog: How San Jose State can beat Boise State, kings of the Mountain West

San Jose State has taken down several of the Mountain West’s top dogs this season, from Air Force to San Diego State to Hawaii to Nevada.
But Saturday, in its first appearance in the Mountain West championship game, San Jose State (6-0) will face the toughest of them all: Boise State, a team it has never beaten in program history.
“I’ve been playing against these teams for 15 years, more or less, off and on,” said coach Brent Brennan. “Every time you know that you’re going against them, you know how incredibly talented they are, how well they execute, how well they’re coached and how hard they play.”
Boise State (5-1 overall, 5-0 conference) is the poster child of the Mountain West. Since joining the conference in 2011, no team has come close to touching its success.
Most wins? Boise State.
Most appearances in the AP Top 25? Boise State.
Most conference championships? Boise State.
As Brennan knows all too well, the question of how to beat the Broncos is not an easy one to answer.
“There’s so many things to think about going into it,” Brennan said. “What’s the single biggest challenge? The single biggest challenge is all of it.”
Of course, there’s the Broncos offense, which leads the Mountain West in points per game (36.2) and is full of playmakers.
Quarterback Hank Bachmeier has played just four games this season, but he’s been solid when he’s on the field. Behind an offensive line featuring all-Mountain West second-teamers John Ojukwu and Jake Stetz, Bachmeier has completed 66.1 percent of his passes and averaged 232.3 passing yards per game.
Regardless of who’s behind center, all-Mountain West first-teamer Khalil Shakir has been the primary target, ranking second in the conference in receptions (46) and receiving yards (634). Bachmeier also has receiver CT Thomas and tight end John Bates, a pair of Mountain West honorable mentions, at his disposal.
Running back George Holani, last year’s Mountain West freshman of the year, has been limited to just 19 rushing attempts this season, but could play after making a cameo against Wyoming.
The Broncos also have a variety of ways they unlock those talented playmakers.
“Boise State is so good in their creativity with plays,” said Jesse Kurtz, lead anchor of the Mountain West Network. “If you don’t disrupt that and disrupt that rhythm, you’re toast. They’ll eat you to death with jet sweeps, with wide receiver screens, draws up the middle, throwing it deep. There’s not a team probably in the Mountain West that can hit you in that variety of ways.”
San Jose State has just the tandem to provide that pressure in defensive lineman Cade Hall and defensive end Viliami Fehoko.
Hall, the Mountain West defensive player of the year, and Fehoko, a first-team all-Mountain West selection, combined for 13 sacks and 18.5 tackles for loss.
In the final minutes of San Jose State’s comeback against Nevada, Hall sacked quarterback Carson Strong on two consecutive plays to help ice the game. Hall nearly sacked Strong three times in a row, but Strong managed to throw the ball away before being brought to the ground.
Hall recognizes that the Broncos pose a different level of challenge for the Spartans.
“They’re really consistent and they’re really good at following their schemes to a T,” Hall said. “It’s hard to play against teams that don’t make mistakes because you can’t capitalize on them.”
San Jose State will also have to contend with one of the conference’s better secondaries, which features all-Mountain West first-team talent Avery Williams and second-teamers Kekaula Kaniho and Jalen Walker. Boise State is holding opposing quarterbacks to 50 percent completion and 169 passing yards per game, both of which are the best in the conference.
“They’re a disciplined football team,” said quarterback Nick Starkel, a second-team all-Mountain West honoree. “They don’t do a lot of shooting themselves in the foot by busting coverages and stuff like that. So sometimes, it just comes down to one-on-one plays — your guy versus their guy.”
If any wideout corps could give Boise State’s secondary fits, it’s San Jose State, which features all-conference first-teamer Bailey Gaither, second-teamer Tre Walker and honorable mention tight end Derrick Deese Jr.
San Jose State’s receivers will benefit from an emergent run game that has provided the offense with balance, particularly late in the year. Behind the combination of running backs Tyler Nevens and Kairee Robinson and quarterback Nick Nash, the Spartans have averaged a whopping 221.3 rushing yards in their last three games.
“Offensively, they’re gonna have to hit some big plays,” Kurtz said. “That’s a secondary that’s as star-packed and star-studded as there is in the Mountain West.”

𝕭𝖚𝖗𝖓𝖙 ‘𝖊𝖒 
TOUCHDOWN, @tynevens23 pic.twitter.com/6liW1VbsnV
— San José State Football (@SanJoseStateFB) December 12, 2020

There’s also the matter of trying to contain Williams, the Mountain West special teams player of the year. In just five games this season, Williams, who Brennan compared to former Chicago Bears return specialist Devin Hester, has returned a career-high three kicks for touchdowns (two kickoff, one punt).
Alongside all the talent the Broncos bring to the table, they have an incomparable edge in postseason experience.
While Boise State is making its fourth consecutive appearance in the Mountain West championship game, this weekend will be a postseason baptism for nearly all of San Jose State’s players.
Starkel is among the few who have played deep into December. As a freshman at Texas A&M, Starkel threw for 499 yards and four touchdowns in the 2017 Belk Bowl against Wake Forest.
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“I’ve said it to our team: You play college football to play meaningful games at the end of December,” Starkel said.
Playing winter football is one thing. Winning is another.
Taking down the Mountain West’s kingpin won’t be easy. San Jose State hasn’t played a team like Boise State this season, but there are few teams like Boise State to begin with. For all the Spartans have accomplished this season, the Broncos opened as eight-point favorites.
San Jose State has shocked the nation all season long. No one outside of Silicon Valley believed they’d be in this situation. Saturday will tell if they’ve got one more surprise to unveil.

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