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Boise State plays big when it matters most, but that isn't all that matters in BCS

They didn't need to dust off the ol' Statue of Liberty play, never thought of pulling off a fake punt.

Save those for, say, Jan. 10 in Arizona. That may be the only time this season that Boise State has to dig into its bag of tricks.

OK, so the hugely entertaining win over Virginia Tech doesn't exactly guarantee the Broncos a spot in the BCS title game. There are still lots of games to play, even more polls to take, and a lot more debating to do.

But after yet another sterling performance on a national stage one thing is clear: Boise State is a grown up football team now, and maybe it's time to start treating them as such.

The voters in the Associated Press Top 25 poll already do, rewarding Boise with a No. 3 ranking. The teams they will face with a giant bulls eye on their backs the rest of the season certainly will.

And if the Broncos run the table in the regular season for a third straight year, the people running the BCS surely better.

This isn't the little team that could anymore. This is a big team that really can.

The Broncos had just 60 minutes Monday night to prove they weren't just pretenders. An hour of football to state their case or spend the rest of the season as an afterthought on gaudy blue turf.

They needed almost every second of it to win a thriller over Virginia Tech that was so big many Boise State players celebrated by taking a victory lap around FedEx Field.

"Certainly we're proving people right right now," quarterback Kellen Moore said.

Probably winning a lot of fans along the way, too. Say what you will about their weak schedule, but the Broncos always seem to find a way to step it up when it really matters and are certainly a lot more fun to watch than the two teams ahead of them in the national rankings.

The fun this time took place on the road before 86,587 mostly hostile fans. Up early, behind late, Boise State found a way to come back and win on a touchdown pass to Austin Pettis with 1:09 remaining.

A team that first gained national attention with trick plays that beat Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl also showed it can play football the old-fashioned way, too, more than holding its own in the trenches against a tough and physical opponent.

Indeed, the Broncos answered every question except the one about their schedule. They had to, because they will have no other chance.

Their coach tried to downplay it all along, insisting it was just one game in a long season. But the players, college students that they are, were too smart for that.

They certainly understood the difference between the BCS title game and the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl that one lucky Western Athletic Conference team will be in this year.

"We know how much was at stake for us, so it was kind of like a bowl game," Pettis said.

Whether the win over No. 10 Virginia Tech will be enough to keep the Broncos in the national title chase despite their weak schedule will be debated endlessly over the upcoming weeks by the talking heads on television. Oregon State is really the only team left on the schedule with an outside chance of an upset and the Beavers have to play in Boise, where the Broncos just don't lose.

So Boise State will run up the score on Wyoming, and try to win style points by blowing out New Mexico State. They'll need to win big against teams that have nothing to lose by trying to pull their own big upsets.

They'll have to satisfy both the voters and the computers, and they can't afford to let anyone even play them close.

"We're heading off to Wyoming, and it's going to be the biggest game at Wyoming ever," Moore said. "That's the way it goes, and that's the way we like it. We like to be everyone's biggest game."

In years past, beating up on bad teams would have gotten them a pat on the back and a conference title. The competition simply wasn't good enough for Boise to move all the way up in the polls.

That changed this year, though, which is what made the game against the Hokies so big. Boise came in as the No. 3 ranked team in the country, just behind Alabama and Ohio State, two teams with a lot more football pedigree.

The Broncos don't need to climb. All they need to do is tread water and hope that the two teams ahead of them can't make it through much tougher schedules undefeated.

Nothing terribly tricky about that.

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Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org