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BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Once the leader of Boise State's rise to prominence, Chris Petersen was on the verge of ending the Broncos' hopes for another special year in the season opener.
After nearly all of their 16-0 lead disappeared, the 23rd-ranked Broncos came up with enough plays to send Petersen home with a loss.
"We weren't in very good situations in this game and we still responded and were able to find a way to win," Boise State coach Bryan Harsin said.
Jeremy McNichols rushed for 89 yards and two first-half touchdowns, and Boise State withstood a second half filled with special teams mistakes for a 16-13 victory over Washington on Friday night in Petersen's return to the school he helped grow into a national power.
Boise State (1-0) dominated the first half in building a 16-0 lead. But Washington's defense stymied the Broncos in the second half and three big plays on special teams — including Dante Pettis' 76-yard punt return for a touchdown — gave Washington a chance.
Washington's freshman quarterback Jake Browning nearly pulled off a late rally. Starting at Washington's 35 with 1:59 left, Browning drove the Huskies (0-1) into field goal range. But Cameron Van Winkle's 46-yard field goal attempt with 21 seconds left was wide right. Van Winkle had hit from 40 and 28 yards earlier in the game.
Petersen tried to downplay his return to Boise as much as possible. He was hidden in a pack of players when he arrived off the team bus at the stadium, only briefly being seen in a purple sweater. He lingered in the unfamiliar visitors' locker room, emerging with less than an hour until kickoff surrounded by cameras and acknowledging the cheers from the fans already in the stadium.
He avoided any contact with Harsin until the game was decided, and the two shared a hug at midfield.
"It's a little different situation when you come back and you play against so many of these coaches that were like brothers to us," Petersen said. "That's probably been the hardest."
McNichols was the star of the first half as Boise State built an early lead and rolled up 254 yards of offense. But Washington's defense fixed its issues at halftime and limited the Broncos' to 83 total yards in the second half.
Boise State quarterback Ryan Finley was 16-of-26 passing for 129 yards and another 30 yards rushing.
Finley said he was pulling together the Boise State offense for a potential last offensive series as Washington was driving. When it came time to watch Van Winkle's field goal attempt, Finley turned away.
"I heard the crowd. That was pretty exciting," Finley said.
Finley's debut won't erase fans' concerns about the quarterback position, but if the Broncos run game can approach what it was in the first half, it'll at least ease them. Boise State finished with 185 yards rushing.
Washington hung around because of special teams, specifically the punt team. Pettis returned a short punt 17 yards to set up Van Winkle's first field goal from 40 yards in the third quarter. Pettis took the next punt he saw back for his second career punt return touchdown, and Jaydon Mickens blocked Sean Wale's punt in the fourth quarter, leading to Van Winkle's 28-yard field goal that cut Boise State's lead to 16-13 with 7:29 remaining.
Browning had the Huskies on the cusp of overtime, driving them to the Boise State 19 before a key holding penalty against wide receiver Brayden Lineus. Browning was sacked on the next play, and a screen pass moved the ball to the Boise State 29 with 21 seconds left.
Petersen called on Van Winkle, but his attempt slid wide right, setting off a celebration that was a mix of joy and relief for the Broncos.
"We didn't open up last year with a win and this team did," Harsin said.
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