BOISE, Idaho — In the end certain comparisons had nothing to do with anything. It didn’t matter that UB ranked fourth in the nation in turnover margin. Or that its roster included some of the most accomplished players in the history of the program. Or that it owned the only All-American on the field in linebacker Khalil Mack.
The comparison that mattered, it turned out, was: Who have you beaten? What are your credentials? And it’s there that San Diego State had a stacked hand that it played out to perfection in a 49-24 conquest of the Bulls in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.
The Aztecs had beaten pretty good teams in Boise State and San Jose State. They lost to nationally ranked Fresno State in overtime. They answered some of the sternest tests on their schedule although until Saturday they’d never won by more than 10 points.
UB? Not so much.
The Bulls made their way to its second bowl appearance in school history by beating just one FBS team that finished with a winning record. Against better competition, they were outscored, 31-0, in a decisive half at Toledo. They were outscored, 21-0, in a decisive half against Bowling Green. And that scenario played out again at Bronco Stadium as SDSU surged to a 28-10 halftime lead and won going away.
Both teams finished their seasons 8-5 but the similarities end there. SDSU was faster at the skill positions and speed carried the day. Junior running back Adam Muema gouged UB for 229 yards and three touchdowns, validating his desire to declare early for the NFL Draft. Quarterback Quinn Kaehler threw for 211 yards and two TDs and made UB look foolish in running 29 yards for the game’s first touchdown.
UB experienced one brief stroke of glory when it scored 10 unanswered points to close within 14-10 late in the first half. But not late enough. The Aztecs scored two touchdowns in the final 1:11 and the avalanche was unleashed.
Conversely, UB struggled to get anything going. The Bulls didn’t pick up a first down until the second quarter. They dropped passes, even standout senior Alex Neutz. They missed on passes. Their running game became predominantly a litany of 3-yard bursts although Branden Oliver eventually accumulated 114 yards.
“I missed a lot of opportunities early,” quarterback Joe Licata said. “I missed Neutz on a post that we usually hit. We make those mistakes, we can’t do that and expect to win. We made some adjustments, we came back and we fought but we didn’t get it done today.”
And, uncharacteristically, UB turned the ball over. Licata threw an interception late in the first half and lost a fumble off a sack. Boise Ross fumbled away the second-half kickoff.
“I thought that’s the best game we’ve played all year,” said SDSU coach Rocky Long. “Going into the game I thought the turnover battle would decide who won and that’s exactly what happened.”
UB got blitzed at the end of the first half but went to the locker room knowing it would get the ball first after intermission. Drive to a touchdown and maybe the Bulls could work their way back from an 18-point deficit. Instead, disaster struck. Ross coughed up the ball on the kickoff return, SDSU recovered and five plays later the Aztecs were back in the end zone. Kaehler found Adam Roberts on an 11-yard touchdown toss and the rout was on at 35-10.
“You can’t turn the ball over and expect to beat a good football team and that’s what happened,” said UB coach Jeff Quinn. “We didn’t play our very best. You got to really make sure you really take care of the ball and that’s what we weren’t able to do late in the second quarter and the first play of the second half. Right then and there it turned into a three score difference.”
UB started slow, clawed its way back into the game and then fell victim to a nightmarish end to the half. The Aztecs scored twice inside the final two minutes and ballooned a slight four-point advantage all the way to 28-10 at intermission.
San Diego State’s speed gave UB fits. Running back Muema found room inside and around the corner. The wideouts had little trouble getting behind the secondary. Even as UB cut into its early deficit the feeling persisted that they were hanging on for dear life.
UB’s offense sputtered out of the gate, failing to pick up a first down until 10:42 remained in the second quarter. The succession of three-and-outs magnified the strain on a defense that yielded yardage but conceded no points on SDSU’s first three drives. That ended with 21 seconds left in the first quarter. Kaehler, no more a runner than Licata, bootlegged left, slipped Okezie Alozie, sidestepped Najja Johnson and covered 29 yards on a touchdown run.
The Aztecs made it 14-0 early in the second quarter after a Vaness Harris strip/sack of Licata that swapped possession at the UB 30. Muema found the end zone six plays later from the 3.
UB picked up its first first down of the game on its next possession and kept right on going. Licata found Fred Lee for a pair of completions totaling 29 yards on a 75-yard march capped by a 10-yard throw to Oliver. It was the 34th touchdown of Oliver’s career but his first off a reception.
The Bulls received a reprieve on the kickoff as Colin Lockett’s 96-yard return for a touchdown was negated by a hold. UB forced a punt and drove 25 yards to a 38-yard Patrick Clarke field goal. It was Clarke’s seventh straight make. At that point 4:01 remained in the half and UB, now within 14-10, appeared to have weathered the worst. But actually the worst was yet to come.
Muema opened SDSU’s possession with a 22-yard run and capped it with an 8-yard run as the Aztecs marched 67 yards to a 21-10 lead with 1:11. Instead of killing clock, UB took to the air. A high Licata throw skipped off Neutz and into the hands of Marcus Andrews. It was a game-changer. Kaehler hooked up with Dylan Denso for a 25-yard touchdown on the very next play and in a flash UB found itself down by 18.