Mike Atkinson has often talked with his Boise State teammates about that rare moment of glory for a nose tackle: The elusive pick six.
That heroic moment finally came Thursday night when he dropped back into pass coverage, stepped in front of a throw by Brigham Young quarterback Riley Nelson and rumbled 36 yards for a touchdown.
His score turned out to be the difference as the No. 24 Broncos (2-1) held off a late rally to beat the Cougars 7-6 in a game dominated by defenses and marred by turnovers and penalties.
"We always talk about getting interceptions and taking it to the house," said Atkinson, a Canadian who goes by the nickname `Canadian Bacon.’ "We always talk about it happening, but it rarely does. You don’t really think when it’s happening, you just react."
It’s also the second time this season the defense has supplied all of the Broncos’ touchdowns as the offense struggles to find a rhythm in the wake of quarterback Kellen Moore’s departure. In the season opener, safety Jeremy Ioane returned an interception for a score in a 17-13 loss at Michigan State
The Boise State defense also forced five turnovers and held BYU scoreless until the game’s final minutes.
With 8:03 remaining, BYU backup quarterback Taysom Hill engineered an 11-play, 95 yard drive capped by his four-yard touchdown run. But BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall gambled, electing to go for a two-point conversion to try to secure the first victory over Boise State in the program’s history.
Hill dropped back to pass, was immediately flushed out of the pocket and his on-the-run throw was deflected by linebacker J.C. Percy and fell incomplete into the end zone.
"I wanted to win," Mendenhall said. "We had momentum for the first time in the game, moving the ball offensively. We wanted to capitalize on it. I’d do it again."
The Broncos, aided by a 40-yard kick return by Mitch Burroughs, ran out the clock to notch their third straight victory over BYU.
"I’m ecstatic for what happened on" defense, Boise State coach Chris Petersen said. "We have to go back to the drawing board on the other side. That happens sometimes."
But give credit to the BYU defense, which came into the game as one of the stingiest in the nation, allowing just 14.3 points per game and an average of 59 yards on the ground.
Boise State managed just 261 yards on offense. Running back D.J. Harper was a bright spot, rushing for 112 yards on 31 carries.
But quarterback Joe Southwick struggled again. The redshirt junior was 15 of 25 for 145 yards, and he and the offense failed to convert five times on fourth-down attempts.
Four of those fourth-down tries came in BYU territory, including one possession the Broncos failed on four downs to convert after the defense recovered a fumble on the Cougar 1-yard line. Some of Boise State’s fourth-down risk-taking may have been due to Michael Frisina missing a 33-yard field goal early in the first quarter, but the BYU defense clearly met every challenge the Bronco offense had to offer throughout the game.
"Our defense is the focal point of this team," said BYU linebacker Brandon Ogletree. "We lead with energy and emotion and hopefully, try to pass that on to the offense. But any time that an offense has four times to score inside their own one, and you don’t let them, that’s the best feeling in the world as a defender."
It was a night to forget, however, for Nelson. The lefty struggled throughout the first half and was picked off three times. The first came when Jamar Taylor stepped in front of an underthrown ball at the Boise State 2-yard line, squelching the Cougars’ best scoring chance in the first half.
The second went to Atkinson, but it was Nelson’s third on the following possession that sent him to the bench. He finished 4 of 9 for 19 yards, was sacked twice and fumbled once.
Hill, who grew up in Pocatello, Idaho, and was recruited by Boise State, was 4-of-10 passing for 42 yards and he led the team with 72 yards rushing on 12 carries. The Cougars amassed only 200 yards of total offense, had two fumbles and were penalized eight times for 64 yards.
While Hill may have energized the Cougars late, Mendenhall made sure to douse speculation Nelson will be replaced as the starter for the Sept. 28 game against Hawaii.
"Riley is our quarterback," Mendenhall said after the game. "I want him to be healthy and I want him to be able to look me in the eye and tell me, `Coach, I am absolutely ready.’ I don’t have any different feelings about him than I did going into this game."