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Southern Miss' game tonight at Boise State may not have any dramatic, overarching ramifications for the future of either program, but it is exciting in a different way than most of Southern's non-conference games, which typically fall in to one of two categories: "Please Don't Let Us Get Blown Out" (aka "Crush My Hopes Again," for the optimists) or "What Good Does It Do Us to Blow This Team Out?" There is always some reason to get excited about playing Alabama, Tennessee, Nebraska, etc., in face of the methodical beatdown to come, and considerably less in rolling over a I-AA or Sun Belt team. It's satisfying to crush N.C. State and the likes every now and then, but when those victims subsequently finish 4-8, it doesn't do much for you. For a team in the middle, always playing up or down, a good, egalitarian showdown is rare, and even rarer is someone willing to put it on national television.

Of course you know this means war.
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Boise State, then, is exactly the kind of non-conference game Southern should be playing as often as possible. Thursday night, not Tuesday night, a plum and even traditional national spot, relatively speaking, against a program with a high national profile at the moment but still roughly comparable talent. The Broncos are clearly the favorite - hell, BCS aside, they've won a couple dozen consecutive regular season games at home - but are not comprised of four and five-star hulks destined to wear you down to the point you start envisioning random fumbles and muffed punts as your only hope by the third quarter, even as the score remains tantalizingly, cruelly within reach. That might happen, anyway, but if Southern's gameplan falls apart, the excuse will not be "bigger stronger faster." This is the rare valuable game that can be won exclusively via conventional, controllable factors like brains and execution, and that's all you can ask.

At the same time, quite obviously, USM does not and perhaps has never had an anywhere-on-the-field threat of the caliber of Ian Johnson. Damion Fletcher is an outstanding back in his old school, between-the-tackles sort of way, and probably holds the key to the Eagles' eventual success in his ability to find the smallest creases, keep the chains moving and keep the ball away from Johnson. I'm not overly concerned with BSU's passing game - this is only Taylor Tharp's fourth start, after he threw three interceptions in the loss at Washington and completed a meh 50 percent against Wyoming - as BSU's offensive identity (trademark Fiesta trickery notwithstanding) has been increasingly ground-oriented since Ryan Dinwiddie left with all the passing records, and the focus must be on Johnson. The Idaho Statesman suggested Tuesday that Southern Miss might be faster than the typical BSU opponent on the blue turf - cuz they're from the South, right? - but I find this compliment impossible to take seriously coming from a team with this guy:

Did I mention he captured America's imagination in a matter of a few short, magical moments? An all-around threat, that Johnson.

It has been heartening on the other side to see the coaches trust a healthy fifth-year senior to throw in non-obvious situations. USM's passing game was the most prolific in school history in 2005 with another fifth-year slinger, Dustin Almond, but that was out of necessity, with no discernible running game and possibly the worst defense of Jeff Bower's tenure. Fletcher singlehandedly changes that equation, in a way very similar to what Mike Hart singlehandedly does for Michigan without true gamebreaking ability, so when Jeremy Young attempts 21 passes in the first half of a close game at Tennessee, a few of them on first down, even, and hits passes of 50, 69 and 22 yards in the first quarter, it's a welcome attempt to inject a little balance into a typically moribund, one-dimensional (at best) attack. It worked out of the gate in front of 268,000 or whatever in Knoxville, and piped-in noise or not, it will be an effective way to try to score early and open things up for Fletcher to be the workhorse with a lead the rest of the way. Throw to score, run to win, as Jaworski likes to say.

But then again: Ian Johnson. That son of a bitch is the scariest crochet aficionado alive.
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Boise State 27 Southern Miss 22