No. 20 Boise State eyes stern test from Air Force

Boise State faces a must-win situation in order to keep its Mountain West title hopes alive.

One of the pesky problems is that Air Force is the opponent.

The No. 20 Broncos have experienced issues with the Falcons while losing each of the past two seasons. They badly need a victory this time around when they play on the Air Force Academy grounds on Friday (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS Sports Network).

Boise State (10-1, 6-1) is tied for first place in the Mountain Division with Wyoming and that also rates as an issue. The Cowboys defeated the Broncos earlier this season and control their own destiny.

Even if Boise State defeats the Falcons, Wyoming will claim the title if it upends New Mexico on Saturday.

And if the Broncos don't reach the Mountain West title game, they are no longer in the running for a possible Cotton Bowl berth.

“This is a big game for us, there's no doubt about it,” Boise State coach Bryan Harsin said during a press conference. “It's the last game of the year and it's against a team we haven't beat the last two seasons.

“And make no bones about it … we want to win this game.”

Air Force (8-3, 4-3) enters on a four-game winning streak and is brimming with confidence when it comes to facing the Broncos.

Two seasons ago, the Falcons forced seven Boise State turnovers while producing a 28-14 victory. Standout strong safety Weston Steelhammer intercepted three passes to tie the school single-game record.

Last season, Air Force rolled up 607 yards — including a stunning 279 passing for the run-oriented team — while posting a 37-30 victory in Boise.

Who knows what will happen in this meeting but the Falcons are averaging 38 points during their four-game winning streak — and had to overcome double-digit deficits in three of the games.

“Our strongest muscle is the one that's inside of our chest cavity,” coach Troy Calhoun said, “and that's what we rely upon is the heart and soul and character of our guys.”

Nobody personifies the Air Force mentality more than Steelhammer, who had two interceptions in Saturday's 41-38 victory over San Jose State.

Steelhammer decided to attend Air Force when his only college scholarship offers were from McNeese State and Central Arkansas. He has gone on to stamp himself as one of the top defensive players in school history.

Steelhammer has six interceptions this season and 17 in his career, the latter tying Tom Rotello (1983-86) for the school mark.

“Many of them have been pretty splendid grabs, too,” Calhoun said. “You look over the course of his career, I bet eight or nine of those have been where he really had to leave his feet to get. That's hard to do.”

Steelhammer has a team-leading 71 tackles for a unit that ranks 19th in rushing defense at 121.1 yards per game.

Boise State junior running back Jeremy McNichols will test the Falcons as he ranks third nationally with 1,575 yards while leading the country with 26 total touchdowns (22 rushing, four receiving).

McNichols rushed for 206 yards and four touchdowns in last Friday's 42-25 win over UNLV and he ranks seventh in school history with 3,071 career rushing yards.

He was passed over as a Doak Walker Award finalist on Monday, and that didn't sit well with Harsin.

“He's one of the best backs in the country,” Harsin said. “He's the most productive player. He's put up touchdowns more than anybody else.

“I don't know what else from an offensive standpoint a guy can do to not have his name thrown in there with all those other backs.”

McNichols is carrying the Boise State offense as the attack has become more dependent on him and less on sophomore quarterback Brett Rypien.

Rypien passed for just 109 yards against UNLV but has thrown for 3,025 yards and 22 touchdowns on the season.

The Broncos' defense will be down two starting linebackers. Senior strong-side linebacker Tanner Vallejo will undergo season-ending wrist surgery and junior middle linebacker Joe Martarano is surely done for the campaign after breaking his left fibula against UNLV.

Senior middle linebacker Darren Lee will be counted on after stepping up with a career-best 11 tackles against UNLV. Lee has 56 tackles on the season — including 6 1/2 for losses.

Air Force averages 323.5 rushing yards per game with its triple-option offense and sophomore quarterback Arion Worthman will make his fourth consecutive start in place of injured senior Nate Romine (ankle).

Worthman threw the winning 22-yard touchdown pass to senior receiver Jalen Robinette (team-leading 30 catches for 790 yards) with 32 seconds left against San Jose State and rushed for 215 yards and two scores.

The rushing yardage was the fifth-best for a quarterback in Falcons' history.