Unbeaten in WAC, Bulldogs, Broncos meet with focus on WAC title

A peek at the standings and the stretch-run schedule suggests the WAC championship goes through the islands.

Hawaii has the spotless record (7-0), the BCS ranking (17th), the bionic quarterback (Colt Brennan) and the must-see war chant (the haka).

The Warriors also leave Oahu only once (Nov. 16 at Nevada) the rest of the season and play their other three WAC opponents -- New Mexico State, Fresno State and Boise State -- at Aloha Stadium, which for visiting teams is purgatory in paradise. Hawaii has lost more than one home game only once in the last five seasons.

With so much evidence, players and coaches from the other eight WAC teams ought to be having nightmares about Brennan and the haka.

Pat Hill knows better.

"Here's the way I look at it," the Fresno State coach said Sunday night. "They've lost one game in five years in the conference. They know how to win. We've beat 'em once in the last five years, so you've got to go through them if you want to have a chance to win this conference."

Hill isn't talking about Hawaii.

To him, Boise State is still the class of the WAC. And it's hard to argue with the Fu Manchu.

The Broncos have captured the last five league titles and raised the ceiling for all non-BCS teams by beating Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl. They have won 44 of their last 45 league games, with the lone blemish coming two years ago at Fresno State. Barring a slip-up Sept. 8 at Washington, Boise State could have been back in the BCS discussion.

"Everybody's gunning for us," Broncos quarterback Taylor Tharp said. "We know that, we can sense that."

Fresno State takes aim Friday night when Boise State visits Bulldog Stadium ( ESPN2, 9 ET). Both teams arrive unbeaten in league play, giving the game its standard significance after a lopsided letdown last fall.

Since the series resumed regularly in 2001, Boise State has won five of the six meetings. But the Broncos stumbled in their last trip to the Central Valley, and Fresno State has not allowed a touchdown in three home games this season.

"A lot of times you have rivals and don't like 'em and there's history back and fourth," Boise State coach Chris Petersen said. "That's not what this one is. It's a rivalry, but probably the way a rivalry's supposed to be.

"It's always going to be a big game."

Fresno State had some internal repairs to do before the matchup could become relevant again. In 2006, the Bulldogs endured just their second losing season under Hill and finished with their lowest victories total (4) since 1996, the year before Hill became head coach.

After never losing more than four consecutive games in Hill's first nine years, the 2006 Bulldogs dropped seven straight, culminating with a 45-21 setback at Boise State. The struggles were more shocking because Fresno State returned 16 starters.

"Last year, we had a lot of great players and I think our focus at the beginning of the year wasn't where it needed to be," senior linebacker Marcus Riley said. "We were still living off the year before, when we were ranked 16th, and we kind of thought things just kind of happened. We looked over a couple opponents and nowadays, you can't do that. We lost a couple games we shouldn't have, and it kind of built up."

Hill didn't bank on the winning habits naturally returning this fall.

In the winter he and his assistants met for several hours with each player, reprogramming the team's identity. Every night during training camp, coaches showed films of past games and star players to reestablish visually what Bulldog football was.

"We lost a lot of things that we had earned over a nine-year period," Hill said. "When you have a bad year, you've got to reestablish how you prepare for games, how you prepare for practice, how you do everything. Right now, a win just doesn't happen."

It seems to at Boise State, even after the loss of 11 starters from the Fiesta Bowl team. Star running back Ian Johnson was the only returning skill player on offense, and the defense lost both starting tackles and linebacker Korey Hall, the 2006 WAC Defensive Player of the Year.

Despite the departures, Boise State averages more points (42.9) and yards (494.6) than it did last season. The Broncos don't defend the run like they used to, but defensive end Mike T. Williams (5 sacks) and linebacker Kyle Gingg bolster the unit.

Quarterback Taylor Tharp has been foolproof in October, passing for 899 yards and 13 touchdowns in three games.

We're really driven," Tharp said. "We're driven to prove everybody wrong that says that we lost so much from last year and that Boise can't keep winning. We've lost some key guys in key spots, but guys just kind of buy into the system around here: Be ready, you never know if you're going to get the chance."

Freshman Jeremy Avery got his chance last week when Johnson missed a game against Louisiana Tech with a bruised kidney. Avery racked up 189 all-purpose yards (110 rushing, 79 receiving) and two touchdowns.

He's expected to fill in Friday for Johnson, who will travel to the game but won't play.

"He was a little like Ian before," Petersen said of Avery. "When he got as chance as young guy, he produced."

Fresno State has its own share of blossoming youth. Injuries on the offensive line have thrust freshmen Joe Bernardi and Andrew Jackson into starting roles. Freshman Ryan Mathews is emerging at running back, racking up 382 rushing yards and seven touchdowns in the last three games.

A season-ending leg injury to defensive end Jason Roberts has put freshmen Kenny Borg and Chris Carter into the rotation. Despite a sophomore-laden secondary and a freshman starting at middle linebacker (Ben Jacobs), the Bulldogs defense ranks 21st nationally in sacks (2.86 spg) and 13th in tackles for loss (8 per game).

It's a lot of fun to watch these kids develop, but we're still learning," Hill said. We're having a little bit of success, but Friday night we're going to be tested by a very good team."

Sometime after Friday's game, Riley will answer his cell phone and hear Ryan Dinwiddie's voice on the other end.

Dinwiddie, the starting quarterback at Boise State from 2001-2003, teamed with Riley at Elk Grove High School near Sacramento, Calif. Dinwiddie's dad coached Riley and the other linebackers at Elk Grove, and Riley worked for Dinwiddie's mom in the student store.

"They've been on me ever since I committed to Fresno State that I should have went to Boise," Riley said.

Dinwiddie has reminded his friend of the error every time Boise beats Fresno.

"If they get the win, he says he's not surprised," Riley said. "A couple years ago, when we got the win, he was saying we lucked out."

A 27-7 whipping in which Fresno held Boise to its lowest points total in 14 years took more than good fortune. Only a handful of players on both teams remain from the game, though Riley will emphasize it to Fresno's young players before Friday.

Since last year's loss to Boise, the Bulldogs have won eight of their last 11 games.

"The success that we've had the past few years, they kind of had it before when David Carr was there, and they're trying to get back to that spot," Tharp said. "Beating us would just be a huge step for them."

But only a step. A leap halfway across the Pacific still awaits Friday's winner, as Fresno visits Hawaii on Nov. 10 and Boise follows on Nov. 23.

"A win over Boise does not guarantee you're winning the conference," Hill said. "This is not the last game of the year."

Adam Rittenberg covers college football for the Arlington Heights (Ill.) Daily Herald.