RENO, Nev. — Boise State coach Chris Petersen stated the obvious for the thousands of orange-and-blue clad fans who made the trip to Reno on Saturday to watch the 25th-ranked Broncos earn a share of the Mountain West Conference and ensure their nation’s best seventh consecutive 10-win season.
“It’s better than last time we were here,” he said.
D.J. Harper ran for 130 yards and a touchdown and Joe Southwick threw for two more scores to lead Boise State past Nevada 27-21 on Saturday.
Boise State (10-2, 7-1) opened up a 17-point lead in the third quarter just like it did in 2010 when Nevada stormed back to score one of the biggest victories in school history, 34-31 in overtime.
But this time the Broncos’ defense put the clamps on the Nevada offense that was averaging 38 points per game. And just as the home team seemed to be gaining some momentum, tight end Zach Sudfeld fumbled the ball on the way into the end zone, silencing the sellout crowd of 30,007, the fifth largest in Mackay Stadium history.
“You know a game like this going to come down to a couple of plays and you’re going to have to get a couple breaks, we’re going to have to get a couple turnovers,” Petersen said. “A play like that makes all the difference in the world.”
Boise State gave itself a slim chance to reach the BCS, but the Broncos will have to move up at least four spots in the last standings to the top 16 and be ahead of Mid-American Conference champ Northern Illinois to grab a bid to the marquee games.
They’ll probably have to settle for something smaller, again.
“I know we’ll play somebody good,” Petersen said. “There are no bad teams going to bowl games.”
Stefphon Jefferson ran for 139 yards and a touchdown and Cody Fajardo passed for 203 yards and ran for 81 for the Wolf Pack (7-5, 4-4), who lost four of their last five games after starting the season 6-1.
Matt Miller caught seven passes for 127 yards, including a 52-yard touchdown from Southwick that put Boise ahead late 24-7.
Southwick completed 19 of 26 for 199 yards.
“We made plays when we had to,” Southwick said. “Nevada didn’t quit. We knew they weren’t going to quit, just like two years ago here. They came out and fought hard. On offense, we had one or two little, little mistakes that kept us out of big drives. But we still did enough to win the game.”
Michael Frisina made the second of two field goals from 30 yards with 3:30 left in the game to make it 27-14.
Fajardo capped a 74-yard scoring drive with a 6-yard TD run to pull within 27-21 with 2:27 left. Nevada tried an onside kick but Harper recovered on the Wolf Pack 44 with 2:25 remaining to put the brakes on a comeback.
“Unfortunately, our offense started clicking too late and it ended up in a loss,” Fajardo said. “Their defense is very sound. They have 11 players playing together and it’s tough to execute against that.”
Boise State’s defense allowed only 90 yards total offense in the first half and Ricky Tjona-A-Tjoe, Darren Koontz and Jamar Taylor all sacked Fajardo before intermission.
“I’m not sure really how we slowed those guys down like we did. But even though we did that, we knew they’d come answering back in the second half,” Petersen said.
Broncos linebacker J.C. Percy had 13 tackles and recovered a fumble in the end zone.
“This was one of our goals coming into the season and doing it at Nevada makes it even better.” Percy said about the league title the Broncos will share with Fresno State and San Diego State.
Nevada accepted an invitation earlier in the week to play a Pac-12 opponent in the New Mexico Bowl on Dec. 15.
Southwick completed his first six passes, including a 17-yard toss to a wide open Chris Potter in the corner of the end zone that put Boise State ahead 7-0 midway through the first quarter. Harper had 75 yards on nine carries by the end of the first quarter and scored on a 2-yard run a minute into the second quarter to make it 14-0.
On the next series, on third-and-10 from his own 14, Southwick scrambled 15 yards to keep the drive alive, then threw a 26-yard pass to Miller to set up Frisina’s 20-yard field goal for a 17-0 lead 3:37 before the half.
Fajardo led Nevada on an 86-yard touchdown drive to open the second half, throwing 32 yards to tight end Kolby Arendse then running 20 yards on a keeper to set up Jefferson’s 1-yard score to pull to 17-7.
But Shane Williams-Rhodes returned the ensuing kickoff 41 yards and on the next play Southwick found Miller alone along the left sideline for a 52-yard touchdown to make it 24-7 at 1:52 in the third quarter.
Fajardo came storming back with an 18-yard pass to Rickey Turner and a 28-yard run to Boise’s 14-yard line. But after Sudfeld grabbed a pass in the right flat, he fumbled the ball near the goal line and Percy recovered it in the end zone for a touch back.
“The air just goes right out of you on a play like that,” Nevada coach Chris Ault said. “When you play a great defense like Boise, you can’t do that.”
“It’s OK to make first down mistakes, third down mistakes but you can’t make touchdown mistakes. And we made touchdown mistakes,” said Ault, whose team lost four times at home this season for the first time in his 25-year career.
“We moved the ball well in the first half and had some things open. But Cody was not sharp. We had things open and he didn’t hit them. You have to hit them in a game like this,” he said.
Jefferson followed a 28-yard run around left end with a 9-yard stroll through a big hole on the left side of the line for a touchdown to pull the Wolf Pack to within 24-14 with 8:26 left.
“I knew, we knew that this would come down to a couple of points,” Petersen said. “You know how Nevada is going to play when they play us. I think they’re a darned good team. I was proud of the kids for fighting so hard.”