LANDOVER, Md. – For the gatecrashers in blue, this was the Respect Bowl. A mini-national championship game, if you will, because they certainly weren't going to be playing in the real one in January if they didn't win this one on Labor Day.
So it's little wonder Kellen Moore confessed to being a little nervous when he trotted onto the field with Boise State trailing by four with 1:47 to play Monday night. The Broncos aren't used to trailing anyone, and they're certainly not used to having to resort to their two-minute offense to win a game.
Moore passed the test with time to spare, hitting Austin Pettis for a 13-yard touchdown with 1:09 remaining to give No. 3 Boise State a 33-30 win over No. 10 Virginia Tech. Like it or not, the Broncos look as if they're here to stay when it comes to the BCS title hunt; they'll most certainly be favored in every game on their schedule from here on out.
"You should gain a little respect," Moore said, "beating Virginia Tech out here."
In what was essentially a road atmosphere against another team with national championship ambitions, the Broncos (1-0) blew a 17-0 first-quarter lead in a mistake-filled game that combined the natural jitters of the big stage with the natural choppiness that comes in the season opener. Still, it was compelling viewing — back and forth, back and forth they went amid two blocked punts, 18 penalties, timely throws and incredible runs and catches.
"We know how much was at stake for us, so it was kind of like a bowl game," Pettis said. "But we've still got 11, 12 games to go. There's a lot we need to work on, too, because there was a lot of mistakes we made. We can't afford any slip-ups, especially after setting ourselves up like this."
Coach Chris Petersen and his players kept saying the right things, that the victory only means that they're 1-0 and that it means little if they don't keep winning. And they're right: Their next game at Wyoming in two weeks is the next must-win, and of course they'll have to run the table in the Western Athletic Conference if they're to become the first team from a league without an automatic BCS bid to play for a national championship.
"We've just got a long, tough, hard season," said Peterson, who improved to 50-4 at Boise State, "and the bull's-eye will continue to grow. And it's just going to be one game at a time."
Meanwhile, Virginia Tech (0-1) might learn again all too painfully how a September defeat can taint a season. The Hokies have lost their opener three years in a row, although their tougher Atlantic Coast Conference schedule doesn't completely eliminate them from the national title picture.
"It's a frustrating loss knowing that we haven't been successful in the first game all these seasons," said Tyrod Taylor, who passed for 186 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 73 yards. "But I think we have a good team to go out there and bounce back from this. I really believe that we can bounce back."
Moore, the undersized Heisman Trophy contender, threw for 215 yards and three touchdowns. The final drive went 56 yards in five plays — aided by a Virginia Tech personal foul penalty — and culminated with the quick slant to Pettis for the winner. Pettis had blocked a punt to go along with six catches for 73 yards and two touchdowns, and when he approached the podium for his postgame news conference he was enveloped in a big hug by Peterson, who exclaimed: "God, I like you."
The two-minute drive is something the Broncos practice every week, usually with 90 seconds on the clock and one timeout remaining. The defense usually comes out on top, although last week the offense managed a field goal. But Boise State's games have been so lopsided that Moore could remember only one time in recent years that the team has run it in the closing minutes of an actual game.
"I'd be lying to you if I didn't say I was a little nervous," Moore said. "Everyone's nervous at that point, but at the same time you're excited. These are the type of opportunities you play for, to be in these situations. This is where some of the big-time quarterbacks are able to make plays, and this is your goal."
Ryan Williams scored three touchdowns for Virginia Tech, but he needed 21 carries to gain 44 yards. Jarrett Boykin caught six passes for 102 yards and a touchdown as the Hokies seized the momentum after several miscues put them in an early hole. Williams' 1-yard run in the third quarter, set up by a fumble when Moore was hit by one of own lineman, put the ACC team ahead for the first time, 21-20.
About a minute later, Boise State was back in front. D.J. Harper broke a tackle on a third-and-1 and outran the Hokies for a 71-yard touchdown. Virginia Tech blocked the extra point, making it 26-21.
Back came the Hokies. Virginia Tech's Chris Hazley was wide right on a 51-yard field goal try, but Boise State was flagged for running into the kicker. Now with a fourth-and-4 from the 28, Tech went for it. Taylor zipped an out to Boykin, who slipped a weak arm tackle attempt by Brandyn Thompson and eased into the end zone to put the Hokies up 27-26. They went for two and missed.
Boise State couldn't answer that score. Kyle Brotzman missed wide left from 30 yards and Hazley hit with a 34-yarder for Virginia Tech to make it 30-26 with 7:38 to go.
Virginia Tech got the ball again after a punt with 5:14 left and had a chance to run out the clock, but couldn't do it. The Hokies kept snapping the ball with too much time on the play clock. Williams went out of bounds on a running play. Taylor threw an incomplete pass on third down. It all added up to precious seconds that Boise State would use to win.
"We just made too many critical mistakes to beat a top-five football team," Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer said.
And now it's getting harder to harder to argue that this top-five team doesn't deserve its current place on the national stage. After years of proving people wrong, the Broncos entered the game wanting to prove people right.
"We're certainly proving people right, right now," Moore said.