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BYU battles Boise State in Thursday night action

Back in the national rankings after a brief hiatus, the 24th-ranked Boise State Broncos have a short week as they prepare for the arrival of the BYU Cougars on Thursday night.

The Broncos had a tough opener this season as they tangled with nationally- ranked Michigan State on the road in East Lansing, an outing that resulted in a disappointing 17-13 loss for head coach Chris Petersen and his crew. The defeat served to take away enough votes in the AP Poll so that the Broncos were on the outside looking in for the first time since the middle of September in 2008.

With more than a two-week break in the action, Boise State was more than ready to rebound against Miami-Ohio last weekend and did so with a 39-12 victory in the home opener.

Meanwhile, the Cougars know a little something about being bumped out of the national rankings as they had that happen last week following a bizarre ending to a 24-21 loss at Utah. BYU, which had won decisions against Washington State and Weber State by a combined 75-19 and was ranked 25th in the country as a result, had more than just one chance to get over on the Utes, but an unusual set of circumstances saw the squad miss field goal attempts from 51 and 36 yards at the end of regulation for their first loss of the season.

"Our team didn't play clean enough football today to win the game," head coach Bronco Mendenhall said after the loss. "I really liked their heart, how they fought back, how they played until the last second and gave us a great chance right until the very last play."

The Broncos have won both of their previous matchups with the Cougars, although the most recent one in 2004 was decided by just a single point, 28-27. This game marks the first in a 12-year series between two schools that are separated by less than 400 miles.

BYU trailed 24-7 heading into the fourth quarter against rival Utah in Salt Lake City last weekend and had a chance to send the game into overtime in the final moments, but it simply wasn't meant to be. Quarterback Riley Nelson had his ups and downs as he converted 17-of-35 passes for 206 yards and two scores, but was sacked four times and intercepted once.

The signal-caller was able to move the ball down the field in the final drive, close enough for a 51-yard field goal attempt. But that try was missed in what should have been the final play of the game. However, the Utes were assessed a 15-yard penalty for Utah fans storming the field and that gave the Cougars one more shot. Unfortunately for the visitors, that brief reprieve was met with a failed 36-yard try by Riley Stephenson which bounced off the upright.

From a defensive standpoint, the Cougars limited Utah to just 245 yards of total offense, marking the ninth straight BYU opponent that's been held below 300 total yards. Having held the Utes to just 49 yards on the ground, BYU is now sixth in the nation in run defense with a mere 53.0 ypg allowed. As far as total defense is concerned, the Cougars are ninth in that category with 241.0 ypg permitted through the first three games of the season.

Nelson is again the focal point of the offense for BYU, converting 60 percent of his pass attempts for 245.0 ypg and a total of five touchdowns, but for now the key to the team's success lies on the defensive side of the ball where the squad is seventh in the nation in tackles for loss (9.0 per game) and fifth in sacks (4.3).

BYU might be one of the best in the nation when it comes to sacking quarterbacks, but the squad will have its hands full this week because Boise State is one of four teams in the country (Air Force, Middle Tennessee and Oklahoma State) that has yet to allow a sack.

Last weekend, BSU signal-caller Joe Southwick had a very strong outing as he closed out the meeting with Miami-Ohio by connected on all but one of his 17 pass attempts, finishing 24-of-31 overall for 304 yards and two touchdowns, and yet he knows the offense can still perform at a higher level.

"It was good," Southwick said of the performance by the offense. "We were moving the ball. Still have to clean up some things, each week we have to keep getting better ... Week two to week three we need to see some improvement and same thing down the road. I think we got some things done and again, we have to keep getting better."

Taking some of the pressure off Southwick was D.J. Harper who rushed for a career-high 162 yards and three touchdowns, adding a fourth score through the air on a 21-yard reception to begin the affair.

"I've waited a long time for this," Harper said of being a primary contributor. "I'm really excited for the opportunity, and when an opportunity presents itself you want to make the most of it. I feel like today the offense, the line, the receivers blocking, they helped me do that."

Possessing a staunch defense for several seasons, the Broncos may have taken a step back in that department given how few returning starters the unit has this year. Against Michigan State the team gave up 213 rushing yards, which is uncharacteristic of a Petersen-coached squad, but against Miami the unit was able to pull it together and allow just 49 yards.

It is still a little too early to tell where BSU really falls when it comes to stopping the run, but it is presumably somewhere in the middle of the last two efforts that when combined have the Broncos ranked 52nd in the country. Perhaps even more startling is the fact that BSU is averaging just 3.0 TFL per game, last in the conference and 116th in the nation this week and barely half of what they averaged all of last season (6.23).

Southwick is still a work in progress at quarterback, converting 62.9 percent of his pass attempts for two touchdowns and the same number of interceptions, but as long as he can refrain from making awkward mistakes that prove too costly, he'll be the one in the huddle calling the shots.