BYU to provide challenge for No. 14 Boise State
Brigham Young produced a stellar ending when it defeated Boise State last season but the Cougars don't want to rely on another late-game prayer.
The No. 14 Broncos would like to avoid another dose of anguish as they attempt to bolster their resume.
Boise State (6-0) aims to remain unbeaten as well as avenge last year's stunning defeat when it hosts BYU (4-3) in a nonconference game on the blue turf on Thursday night (10:15 p.m. ET on ESPN).
The Broncos were one play from a victory last season when Cougars quarterback Tanner Mangum -- who is from the Boise suburb of Eagle, Idaho -- threw a 35-yard, fourth-down 'Hail Mary' pass to Mitchell Juergens to give BYU a four-point lead with 45 seconds left.
Free safety Kai Nacua added a 50-yard interception return to punctuate the Cougars' unlikely 35-24 victory.
The comeback hasn't been forgotten -- on either side -- and the BYU players are well aware the welcome mats won't be rolled out in Boise.
"Playing in Boise will be kind of a hostile environment, but I'm excited to go there and play," sophomore linebacker Francis Bernard said.
The Cougars arrive with a three-game winning streak that includes back-to-back victories over Michigan State and Mississippi State. BYU also provides a much-needed challenge for the Broncos, who are the second-highest ranked team from a non-power conference behind No. 11 Houston.
Boise State defeated Pac-12 programs Washington State and Oregon State earlier this season. And a win over BYU would certainly increase the school's chances of landing a Cotton Bowl bid as the top team from a non-power league.
The Broncos realize the Cougars might be the best team left on their schedule. Boise State is 4-2 in the previous six meetings between the schools.
"I think there is a rivalry there," senior receiver Thomas Sperbeck said. "We're definitely looking forward to it, especially on a short week. It will be a great challenge for our team."
Thursday could prove to a memorable night for Sperbeck, who has 38 receptions (six for touchdowns) while compiling a Mountain West-leading 701 receiving yards. He has 3,030 career yards, which ranks third in Boise State history behind Titus Young (3,063 from 2007-10) and Matt Miller (3,049 from 2011-14).
Broncos running back Jeremy McNichols is coming off a momentous occasion. The junior rushed for a career-best 217 yards -- his second 200-yard outing of the season -- during Saturday's 28-23 victory over Colorado State.
McNichols' 40-carry night was highlighted by an 80-yard scoring run -- the third of at least that length in his college career. He has rushed for 775 rushing yards this season and has caught 20 passes for 263 yards.
BYU also features a stellar running back in senior Jamaal Williams, who became the school's all-time leading rusher during Friday's 28-21 double-overtime victory over Mississippi State.
Williams (3,468 yards) surpassed Harvey Unga (3,455 from 2006-09). He has rushed for 942 yards -- second-most nationally -- and 10 touchdowns this season.
Williams complements senior quarterback Taysom Hill, who has passed for 1,420 yards and nine touchdowns while adding 324 yards and four scores on the ground.
Hill grew up in the Eastern Idaho town of Pocatello but doesn't find it to be a special occasion to play in Boise, located in the southwestern part of the state.
"Not really," Hill said. "It's Boise State and I grew up watching them, but the Treasure Valley is further away than Provo is to me and Pocatello. It's fun to go back and play in Idaho against a good program, but every week I am going to prepare the best I can. So in terms of preparation, it's all the same."
The Cougars are receiving solid play on the defensive side from Nacua. The senior is tied for the national lead with five interceptions and has 13 in his career.
Bernard rolled up a career-high 16 tackles against Mississippi State to raise his season count to 48. Sophomore middle linebacker Butch Pau'u and junior outside linebacker Fred Warner share the team lead of 51.
BYU will try to slow down Broncos quarterback Brett Rypien, who leads the Mountain West with 1,622 yards and 12 touchdown passes.
Boise State senior defensive end Sam McCaskill leads the Mountain West with 9 1/2 tackles for loss. He is second on the Broncos with five sacks behind sophomore nose tackle David Moa (5 1/2 sacks).
Boise State allowed 20 fourth-quarter points before hanging on against Colorado State but coach Bryan Harsin remains unconcerned.
"There's nothing weird about that, it's a win," Harsin said. "Watch college football. Every single week, it's hard to win every single week. There are no apologies for a 'W.'"