By Stewart Mandel
September 07, 2010

LANDOVER, Md. -- One by one, a stream of giddy Boise State players trotted down a narrow hallway to their FedEx Field locker room, some high-fiving a waiting staff member at the entrance. By no means was theirs a "we just won the national championship" vibe, but neither was this a standard season-opener postscript.

"We've got 11 left!" somebody shouted from inside the room. "Let's go!"

The No. 3 team in the country began a potentially historic quest here Monday with another dose of its patented dramatic flare. Taking over at his own 44-yard line with 1:47 remaining and trailing No. 10 Virginia Tech by four, Broncos quarterback Kellen Moore gathered his teammates in the huddle and reminded them this was not unfamiliar territory.

"It's exactly how we practice," he said of his team's weekly "two-minute" drill. "Except usually we only practice going 1:30. They gave us a little extra time."

Five plays and just 38 seconds later, Moore threw over the top to receiver Austin Pettis for a 13-yard touchdown that may eventually mark the difference between reaching the BCS Championship Game or staying home for the Humanitarian Bowl. Boise's defense proceeded to hold previously torrid Hokies QB Tyrod Taylor to a sack and three incompletions to seal a heart-stopping 33-30 victory.

"We knew how much was stake for us, so it was kind of like a bowl game -- but we've still got 11 or 12 to go," said Pettis. "It's just the first of many steps we have to go, but it was a big step."

At times, the most anticipated game of opening weekend resembled so many others from the previous 96 hours, filled with costly fumbles, ill-timed penalties (one of which, a questionable late-hit call on Virginia Tech's Bruce Taylor, aided Boise's winning drive) and special teams gaffes. The difference, of course, was this was no opening week tune-up for either side. The rankings said they were two top-10 teams, and they backed it up.

Much like they did in last season's showcase wins over Oregon and TCU, the Broncos' defensive line -- led by end Shea McClellin (2.5 sacks) and tackle Billy Winn (1.5 tackles for loss) -- blew up the Hokies' normally powerful running game, holding star running back Ryan Williams to 44 yards on 21 carries (though he scored three touchdowns). Virginia Tech managed nearly as many penalties (four) as total yards (six) in the first quarter, when Boise jumped to a 17-0 lead.

But the tide began to turn late in the first half when fourth-year Hokies QB Taylor, in arguably his finest performance to date, began letting loose both with his feet and his arm. By the time he was done, he'd rushed 16 times for 73 yards while completing 15-of-22 throws for 186 yards and two touchdowns.

In a nerve-tingling second half, the teams traded leads four times, but Virginia Tech seemed to have momentum firmly on its side when it held the Broncos scoreless on consecutive fourth-quarter drives, taking over with 5:14 left up 30-26. The Hokies picked up two first downs but, in a curious decision, elected to let Taylor throw downfield on third and 8 despite the fact Boise had used up its last timeout. They punted to the Broncos' Mitch Burroughs, whose 25-yard return set up Moore with good field position and, in his eyes, plenty of time.

The Broncos' third-year starter was the nation's second-leading passer last season behind only Tim Tebow and entered the year a popular Heisman pick. To this point, however, he'd never led his team on a game-winning drive, in large part because his team usually has the game well in hand. (He's 26-1 as a starter.) For much of the second half, he'd struggled to connect with his receivers.

But those who know the Prosser, Wash., native know his natural disposition borders somewhere between calm and sedate -- perfect for leading a colossal, season-defining drive in front of 86,587 mostly Hokie-loyal spectators.

"He's kind of in his element there," said coach Chris Petersen. "When we're going fast, when there's a lot of chaos around him, he stays calm. When you have a big-time quarterback, you're going to show up big in those situations."

Boise continues to show up "big" in its biggest games -- milking the suspense for good measure. There was no Statue of Liberty this time, no fake punt or game-sealing interception. It wasn't the Broncos' prettiest performance, either. Two lost fumbles set up Virginia Tech touchdown drives, and a running-into-the-kicker penalty (one of 11 infractions on the night) gave the Hokies' new life prior to another score.

But the night will be remembered more for plays like D.J. Harper's 71-yard touchdown run, Tommy Gallarda's diving one-handed TD in the first quarter and Moore buying time, then floating a 14-yard sideline out to Pettis on the game-winning drive. Defensively, they held the Hokies to a modest 314 total yards, including, most notably, 2.9 yards per rushing attempt.

"Give Boise State credit. They did a nice job of coming back," said Tech coach Frank Beamer, whose team lost its third straight opener and third September game in four years to a top-10 opponent. "I think we are going to be a really good football team, we just weren't a really good football team tonight."

Boise certainly hopes so.

If the Broncos keep winning -- next up is a Sept. 18 trip to Wyoming (that's reigning New Mexico Bowl champ Wyoming, mind you) followed by a home date with Oregon State -- the debate about their championship mettle figures to intensify. To the naked eye, this sure looked like a legitimate dogfight between top 10 opponents, but for resume's sake, Boise would certainly like the Hokies to remain a Top 10 team come early December.

"The nation's always going to doubt us because we're from the WAC," said McClellin. "Every week we're going to have to go out and prove who we are."

Who they are, right now, is the No. 3 team in the country -- with no pressing evidence to think otherwise.

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