Third-quarter collapse costs Boise State again in Big 12 audition vs. Oklahoma State

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For the better part of two quarters Saturday, it looked like the Boise State football team was going to roll to its first statement win since Andy Avalos returned to his alma mater as head coach.

But for the second time this season, Boise State’s offense went completely dormant in the third quarter and Oklahoma State escaped Albertsons Stadium with a 21-20 win.

“It really hurts, especially at home on The Blue,” Boise State nickel Kekaula Kaniho said. “We, as a team, take pride in defending The Blue, so we’re going to remember this feeling and we’re going to take everything we learned from this and apply it moving forward.”

Oklahoma State (3-0) was the first team from the Big 12 to play a regular-season game in Albertsons Stadium. The loss drops Boise State to 2-3 all-time against teams from the conference.

The loss also drops Boise State to 1-2 on the season, marking the Broncos’ worst start to a season since they opened their 2005 schedule 0-2.

“We have to do a better job as coaches, No. 1, in creating a mechanism to help us finish these games at the end,” Avalos said. “Through these two losses early on, we’re obviously going to learn a ton that’s going to be able to carry us forward as we start getting into conference play.”

The Broncos open Mountain West play next Saturday at Utah State (10 a.m., CBS), and there’s a lot to clean up from this loss before they head to Logan, Utah.

“The crowd was awesome,” Avalos said of the 36,702 fans in attendance Saturday night. “We’ve got to do a better job of finishing for them, and we will. It starts with us as coaches, and we’ll make sure we do a great job of analyzing things we need to fix and we’ll implement some things to make sure we have the confidence and ability to execute better next time for Bronco Nation.”

The crowd on Saturday marked the fifth-largest home crowd in Boise State history.

Second-half meltdown

Boise State led 20-7 after kicker Jonah Dalmas connected on a 36-yard field goal with 6:26 left in the opening half. It was his second field goal of the day after he notched the first points of the game with a 40-yard kick in the first quarter.

The Broncos went up 10-0 in the first quarter after quarterback Hank Bachmeier found Portland State transfer Davis Koetter on a 28-yard touchdown pass. Koetter made his first start as a Bronco and scored the first touchdown of his Boise State career.

Koetter — the son of former Boise State head coach Dirk Koetter — finished the game with four catches for 56 yards. Khalil Shakir led the Broncos’ receivers with eight catches for 78 yards.

“There are a lot of things (Koetter) does that are unsung, like how he blocks for running backs in the run game and how consistent he is every day with how he works,” Avalos said. “With Stefan (Cobbs) down, that was a big opportunity for him to step up.”

Cobbs missed Saturday’s game after suffering a foot or ankle injury the previous week against UTEP.

Oregon transfer running back Cyrus Habibi-Likio also scored his first touchdown as a Bronco early in the second quarter. On second-and-goal from the Cowboys’ 5-yard line, he cut to his right — around a mass of big bodies — and won a footrace to the end zone to put Boise State up 17-7 with 10:07 left in the first half.

Boise State looked like it was going to head into halftime with a comfortable lead, but everything changed after a defensive pass interference penalty in the second quarter.

The Broncos had Oklahoma State in a deep hole, facing third-and-18 from Boise State’s 21-yard line, and quarterback Spencer Sanders’ pass flew well over the head of wide receiver Brennan Presley. But there was contact between Presley and Boise State defensive back Rodney Robinson and the penalty flag came out, giving the Cowboys the ball on the Broncos’ 6.

One play later, running back Jaylen Warren scored his second rushing touchdown of the night to cut the Broncos’ lead to six. Warren also scored the Cowboys’ first touchdown of the game on a 75-yard run in the first quarter. He finished with 218 yards on 32 carries.

He’s the first player to rush for more than 200 yards against Boise State since former New Mexico running back Teriyon Gipson posted 205 yards on the ground in 2014.

“When we were down by 10 early, we needed a lift,” Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy said. “We were struggling. We couldn’t get a first down. And defensively we were struggling. But (Warren) made that big run and put us back in the game. Then he had to run through tackles when everybody knew we were going to run the ball.”

Less than 20 seconds after Warren’s second touchdown, Boise State running back George Holani lost the ball in a pile of bodies at the line of scrimmage, and Oklahoma State pounced on the fumble. Holani finished the game with 12 carries for 28 yards.

With 6 seconds left in the first half, Sanders capitalized on the turnover with a 1-yard touchdown run, which gave Oklahoma State its first lead of the night — 21-20 — heading into halftime. Sanders completed 6-of-13 passes for 87 yards and was the Cowboys’ second-leading rusher with 40 yards.

“We didn’t finish the half the way we’re capable of, and we’ve got to finish better,” Avalos said.

Where’s the running game?

Boise State’s offense simply couldn’t get on track in the second half. After posting 239 yards of offense in the first two quarters, the Broncos managed just 3 in the third.

The Broncos went three-and-out on both of their possessions in the third quarter, while Oklahoma State put together three sustained drives, including one that was 14 plays long.

It’s the second time this season that a poor third quarter has left the Broncos in a hole too deep to escape. They put up minus-20 yards of offense in the third quarter of the season opener at UCF and went on to lose that game, 36-31.

Avalos said those struggles come down to getting off to a slow start on first down.

“We have to be much more efficient in early downs to be able to get the sticks moving and put ourselves in more manageable situations,” Avalos said. “We have to be able to get the ball out quick and not take negative yardage plays.”

Despite having a healthy Holani on the field, Boise State’s running game continues to be a concern.

The Broncos finished with just 61 yards on the ground Saturday and managed minus-2 yards on the ground in the second half. They posted 136 last week against UTEP and just 20 in the opener at UCF.

The Broncos also couldn’t stop the run Saturday. Oklahoma State put up 246 yards on the ground in its first visit to Albertsons Stadium. Boise State also gave up 255 rushing yards at UCF.

“We’ve got to do a better job up front in terms of fits in outside zone plays,” Avalos said. “We have to be able to fix that in the first half and not wait until halftime to make those adjustments.”

They had a chance

Despite their struggles in the second half, Boise State had chances to win the game late.

After the Broncos’ defense forced a punt, the Broncos had the ball on their own 27-yard line with 4:51 to play when Bachmeier (22-of-34, 242 yards) decided to go deep for Koetter. Safety Kolby Harvell-Peel was waiting on the pass, though, and intercepted it, preserving the Cowboys’ one-point lead.

Linebacker Riley Whimpey — who missed the first half because of a targeting call against UTEP — made up for lost time in a big way by giving the Broncos another chance to win it in the final 3 minutes.

Whimpey forced a fumble that safety JL Skinner scooped up and returned to the end zone, but the officials originally called the runner down by contact. The play was reviewed and the call reversed, but because the play was blown dead, Boise State got possession at the spot of the recovery.

On the ensuing drive, a sack — one of four the Cowboys recorded Saturday — pushed Boise State back, which eventually forced the Broncos to settle for a field goal. But Dalmas’ 36-yard attempt was partially blocked and flew wide left with 2:05 to play, and a late third-down completion from Sanders allowed the Cowboys to run out the clock.

With reports surfacing last week about Boise State being a likely target if there’s a second round of expansion by the Big 12, the Broncos had to have been looking at Saturday’s game as an audition.

Boise State didn’t get the win over Oklahoma State, but that doesn’t mean they don’t belong in the Big 12, according to Gundy.

“I said it last week in the press conference and I’ll say it after being out here. They’ve got a good thing going out here,” he said. “They have a unique stadium with their turf, and this stadium gets loud. The people in this community take a lot of pride in it. And the players play better than they’re supposed to because of all the tradition. That’s why they’re able to beat a lot of Power Five schools.”

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