BOISE, Idaho – San Diego State beat Boise State at its own game.
For years, the Broncos built long winning streaks and won conference titles with the help of special teams that were more clever, opportunistic or superior than their opponents.
The Aztecs turned the tables Saturday night, running the opening kickoff back for a touchdown and turning a blocked punt deep in Boise State territory in the third quarter into another touchdown en route to a stunning 21-19 upset of the No. 19 Broncos.
"It started with special teams," Aztecs quarterback Adam Dingwell said. "If you can win the special teams battle, you got a good chance of winning the game. And the defense, all night, first quarter through the fourth quarter played a heck of a game. They kept us in this one, I can't say enough about how they played tonight."
It was also a landmark victory for the Aztecs (7-3, 5-1 Mountain West).
San Diego State has won five straight — the longest winning streak since 1995 — and moved into a tie for first place in the conference. It also marked the first road victory over a ranked opponent in school history, snapping a run of 31 straight defeats.
The Aztecs were outgained and penalized 10 times, but made up for those deficits with a couple of big plays from special teams.
It started on the game's first play when Colin Lockett caught the kickoff, raced up the middle through the Boise State coverage, faked the kicker and raced down the right sideline untouched for the score.
It's the second kickoff return of the season for Lockett, who returned one in the Aztecs' Sept. 8 victory over Army.
Then in the third quarter, trailing 13-7, Dwayne Garrett reached over a blocker and deflected Trevor Harman's punt to set up another score. Garrett scooped up the bouncing ball and was pushed out of bounds at the Boise State 8. Two plays later, Adam Muema scored on a 3-yard run that put the Aztecs up 14-13.
Muema rushed for 127 yards on 25 carries, including a 43-yard scamper that helped set up a touchdown that put the Aztecs on top 21-13 with 12:20 left in the game.
Dingwell, a redshirt sophomore who took over three weeks ago after starter Ryan Katz went down with an injury, was 12 of 18 for 105 yards. Walter Kazee rushed for 37 yards and scored the Aztecs' final touchdown on a 1-yard dive on fourth down.
The defense also did its part to hold in check a Boise State offense that had scored an average of 34 points in its past four games.
"I think our team believed that they could do it," said Aztec coach Rocky Long. "We got a little help from everybody. Defense played well most of the night. The offense drove it down and ran out the clock. We ran a kickoff back for a touchdown and we blocked a punt, so I think all aspects of the team had something to do with the victory."
For Boise State (7-2, 4-1), it was another rare loss at home.
Last season, TCU came in and won at Bronco Stadium, spoiling hopes for a conference title and playing in a BCS bowl. Boise State came into the game with a 71-1 record in regular season home games, dating back to 2001.
This loss will likely have the same consequences as last year's TCU defeat. The conference title is still within reach, but the Broncos need some help down the stretch.
After winning seven straight and edging into the BCS conversation, any chance of playing in one of those prized postseason games seems remote.
The Broncos played well in the first half and responded to Lockett's kick return on the next possession. Quarterback Joe Southwick was 5 of 5 passing on the drive, including a 12-yard toss to Chris Potter on third down.
Six plays later, D.J. Harper took a pitch and ran right from 1 yard. On the 2-point try, the snap sailed over Southwick's head. Southwick scooped up the loose ball then misfired on the run to Matt Miller in the end zone.
Harper, who rushed for 81 yards, scored again in the second quarter when he kept the ball on a fake reverse and ran 16 yards for a touchdown.
But Southwick and the offense struggled in the second half against a stingy Aztec defense. He threw an interception on the first play of the third quarter, and the offense managed just one first down on its next three possessions.
Southwick, who was 20 of 31 for 164 yards, and the offense finally got rolling in the fourth quarter. Down 21-13 with 12:20 remaining, Southwick led the Broncos on a 16-play, 75-yard drive capped by his 1-yard touchdown toss to fullback Dan Paul that pulled Boise State within 21-19. The Broncos went for 2, but Southwick was pressured and his fluttering pass was picked off near the goal line by Rene Siluano.
"We didn't play well and San Diego State played well, that's just the bottom line," Boise State coach Chris Petersen said. "They're style is very awkward for us to play against. Special teams really hurt us, and we couldn't get enough going on offense."
After Boise State pulled within 21-19, the Aztecs took over with 5:35 minutes remaining, got a couple of first downs, ran out the clock and then stormed the field after time expired.