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USM-Boise State meet tonight

Last season, Boise State broke through the wall of small-conference programs fighting for the glory and big money that comes with playing in the Bowl Championship Series.

Thursday night the Broncos host Southern Miss, a team with every hope of marching down the same path by season’s end.

While still early, the matchup is big for both schools’ postseason aspirations. The nationally televised game marks the first meeting between two upstarts that have dominated their respective conferences in recent years and feature two of the nation’s best young tailbacks.

“It’s a program that I think everyone is trying to emulate if you’re not a BCS school,” Jeff Bower, the Golden Eagles’ head coach, said of Boise State. “They arguably might be the best football team … we face this year. I think there’s a lot of things that make the game attractive.”

The Broncos (2-1) began the season in the AP Top 25, but dropped out after losing at Washington Sept. 8. Boise State bounced back by beating Wyoming, but have yet to reclaim a spot in the polls.

The Golden Eagles (2-1, 1-0 Conference USA) hung tough against Tennessee before the Volunteers pulled away late in a 39-19 loss on Sept. 8. Southern Miss responded the following week, beating East Carolina in the league opener.

Both teams will play their first game after a 12-day rest.

For Boise State coach Chris Petersen, the time off was spent more on fundamentals than scheming new tricks to keep the speedy Golden Eagles off balance.

“We tried to focus a lot of the time on ourselves,” Petersen said. “There are so many things certainly early in the season that you need to get cleaned up and corrected.”

It’s a safe bet that some of those drills were designed to open up the Broncos’ rushing attack, which is off to a slow start — at least by past standards.

Johnson is averaging 97.3 yards per game and 4.7 yards per carry, well off last year’s pace when he rushed for a school-record 1,713 yards and led the nation in scoring with 152 points, and lifted the Broncos to their stunning Fiesta Bowl upset over Oklahoma.

But with Taylor Tharp still getting comfortable at quarterback, opposing defenses are loading up to stop the run — a challenge Johnson says he relishes and ultimately plays into this year’s ball control philosophy.

“Teams are preparing for us a little different than they did last year,” Johnson said. “So you have to approach it with the mind-set that not every play is going to be a hundred yards … or a touchdown. There are going to be times you have to cover up and take what you can get, and know that a four-yard gain in our scheme it a very good gain.”

The Golden Eagles’ offense is led by senior quarterback Jeremy Young and sophomore running back Damion Fletcher, who rushed for 1,692 yards last season, 11th best in the nation. In its first three games, Southern Miss has been hurt by turnovers, including three costly ones in the loss to Tennessee.

But Young is coming off his best game of the season, completing 18 of 28 passes for 237 yards and a touchdown, plus another two rushing TDs, in the 28-21 victory at East Carolina.

Like Johnson, Fletcher is off to a slower start than 2006, averaging 101.3 yards per game. But Bower says Fletcher is the kind of player that thrives in an atmosphere when he’s matching his skills with a runner like Johnson.

“If you have a good competitive spirit in you, you are going to be that way no matter who you are up against,” said Bower, whose team finished 9-5 last year and lost 34-20 to Houston in the conference title game last season.

Defensively, Bower’s squad has struggled with giving up big plays, despite returning nine starters from last year. It’s a major concern facing the Broncos and their history of big plays.

“They have to eliminate the big plays, which we did against East Carolina,” Bower said. “We also have to stop the run. That will be the key going into the game.”