Saturday night's meeting between the 20th-ranked Broncos and host Cougars will likely prove to be a de facto elimination game.
Boise State doesn't come off a particularly inspiring opening-week victory, defeating former coach Chris Petersen and Washington 16-13. The Broncos, who opened the season ranked 23rd, led 16-0 and were nearly pushed to overtime with Washington missing a 46-yard field goal with 21 seconds left.
It was an underwhelming offensive performance for a team that ranked ninth nationally with 39.7 points per game last season. The other side of the ball, though, was equally impressive, considering Boise had dropped four straight in which it scored fewer than 20 points. The Broncos forced three three-and-outs and only gave up 179 yards.
They were particularly dominant against the run, holding the Huskies to 29 yards on 22 carries to push their winning streak to 10, which trails only Ohio State (14).
"Even at the end at the end of the game, when we were struggling on offense and we were struggling on special teams, a lot of times the third unit, if that happens, they start to struggle, too," coach Bryan Harsin said. "It gets frustrating for them. And that didn't happen. That defense ran out with great energy and they got it done."
BYU comes off a bittersweet 33-28 victory at Nebraska, winning on a 42-yard Hail Mary from Tanner Mangum to Mitch Mathews as time expired. The jubilation lessened the blow of losing senior quarterback Taysom Hill to a season-ending Lisfranc fracture.
Hill, who dotted many preseason award watch lists, threw for 2,938 yards and ran for 1,344 while combining for 29 total TDs in 13 games in 2013, but was limited to six games last year after suffering a leg injury against Utah State. That was the first of four straight losses for the Cougars, who started 4-0.
The freshman Mangum was 7 of 11 for 111 yards and a TD and gained 26 yards on five carries in handing Nebraska its first season-opening loss since 1985.
"As a freshman, I never seen the amount of poise he showed," Mathews said. "He gave the receivers a lot of confidence knowing that this kid's not scared. It's not like, well, we've got a freshman let's see what we can do. This guy's our quarterback now. ... We're trying to win every single game and with his ability we really believe we can."
Hill was already under immense pressure with BYU having lost last year's leading rusher Jamaal Williams for the year after he withdrew from school for personal reasons following an offseason rules violation.
One of the top quarterback prospects in the class of 2012, the 22-year-old Mangum returned from a two-year mission in Chile in June.
"(His) age alone isn't the only thing. It's who he is," coach Bronco Mendenhall said. "Experience has to help, maturity has to help, age has to help. And you mix that with who he is and that gives us more stability at the spot."
Boise State showed some early promise offensively with a 16-play, 92-yard touchdown drive on its second possession. Jeremy McNichols ran 24 times for 89 yards and two scores, all career highs. Ryan Finley underwhelmed in his first career start at quarterback, going 16 of 26 for 129 yards and an interception.
Cleaning up special teams will also be a focus after the Broncos surrendered a 76-yard punt return for a score and had an extra point and punt blocked.
"That's basic fundamentals of special teams," Harsin said. " ... That's poor on our part. To start off that way is not how we want it."
BYU, which has dropped seven of its last eight meetings with ranked opponents, lost 55-30 at Boise State last year. The Broncos own a 4-1 edge in the all-time series, losing 37-20 in Provo, Utah, on Oct. 25, 2013.