The unbeatable season: Cinderella wears blue

Idaho StatesmanJanuary 7, 2007 

No one could have foreseen this. Even imagining it was preposterous.

An overtime victory against Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl on national TV? The sandlot playcalling by a rookie head coach and his rookie offensive coordinator? A marriage proposal by the star tailback after scoring the winning points to end the biggest game of his life? The onslaught of attention? A nation captivated by Boise State football?

But it happened.

All of it.

And so much more.

The Boise State Broncos cemented their place in college football lore by completing a remarkable 13-0 season with a for-the-ages 43-42 classic against the mighty Sooners on New Year's Day 2007.

In four hours in the Arizona desert, from opening kickoff to bended-knee finish, they convinced a nation of skeptics and attracted throngs of adoring fans.

America, a sucker for the underdog, especially when it arrives in Cinderella's slipper and leaves with an engagement ring, quickly adopted these never-say-die Broncos.

From coast to coast, the Broncos dominated conversation. In New York City, America's newest sweethearts — tailback Ian Johnson and new fiancee Chrissy Popadics, a Bronco cheerleader — worked the talk show circuit. In Los Angeles, the Times printed a front-page article on the upstart Broncos.

And, in seemingly every city in between, the Broncos' go-for-broke style cultivated a legion of instant fans and created watercooler buzz.

How many unbelieving viewers wore out their TiVos playing back the frantic final plays?

How many people drafted salt and pepper shakers to demonstrate the Statue of Liberty to astonished co-workers?

How many children took their footballs to the back yard and reenacted Zabransky-to-James-to-Rabb?

It happened.

All of it.

And more.

THE FIESTA BOWL:‘A CRAZY, WILD GAME'

The Fiesta Bowl, a Bowl Championship Series game with a renegade spirit, welcomed the unbeaten Broncos with open arms.

Boise State, five-time champions of the Western Athletic Conference, cruised through the regular season undefeated. Rarely were the Broncos challenged. More often, they humbled opponents with a high-powered offense and a stifling defense.

Grudgingly, the national pollsters voted the Broncos higher and higher. Eventually, Boise State reached No. 9 — well above the top 12 ranking it needed to qualify for the BCS.

Boise State found itself paired against mighty Oklahoma, winner of seven national championships and the 2006 Big 12 title.

The media had its storyline: David vs. Goliath.

The nation had its doubts.

Were the Broncos, kings of the unheralded WAC, worthy of their ranking? Could they really compete with — much less defeat — one of college football's bluebloods? Would enough fans travel all those miles to Glendale, Ariz., to support them?

The Bronco fans showed up, as they had for Salt Lake City and Reno and as they did at Taco Bell Arena for the Fiesta Bowl announcement.

They gobbled up more than 20,000 game tickets and countless airplane flights. Bronco Nation filled the streets of Tempe, the hotels of Scottsdale and the pregame party in Glendale.

But fans alone wouldn't faze Oklahoma. The Sooners had faced enormous crowds — two and three times the size of Bronco Stadium — all season long.

In a flash, Boise State led 14-0, stunning the Sooners with a long touchdown pass and a forced fumble that quickly led to another score. Right before halftime, the Broncos punctured the end zone again, extending their edge to 21-10.

Hmmmm.

Could they really pull this off?

Midway through the third quarter, Boise State led 28-10 and, improbably, it appeared the Broncos would walk over their vaunted foe.

But Oklahoma, playing in its fifth BCS game in seven years, had overcome its own extensive obstacles to reach the Fiesta Bowl. And the Sooners roared back, eventually tying the game at 28-28 with 1 minute, 26 seconds remaining on a third 2-point conversion attempt.

Hearts pounded.

Then came the big mistake. Senior quarterback Jared Zabransky — prone to costly turnovers throughout his career — fired an ill-advised pass to the Boise State sideline. Oklahoma cornerback Marcus Walker snagged the errant throw and raced 33 yards for an Oklahoma touchdown with 62 seconds remaining.

Score: 35-28 Sooners.

Did it really happen?

Paul J. Schneider, the longtime radio voice of the Broncos, all but called it for the Sooners. Standout left tackle Ryan Clady fired his helmet into the turf and watched it bounce for yards. Some fans, though they'll never admit it, exited University of Phoenix Stadium, convinced that the game was over.

A nation of skeptics smirked.

This was more like it.

Sure, the Broncos could score a few touchdowns. They could force a few turnovers. But they'd tire out because Oklahoma was too deep. They'd get run down because Oklahoma was too strong. They'd lose their nerve because the stage was too big.

At that moment, even the heartiest believer despaired. Only the Broncos didn't.

"I probably had 10 guys come up to me and say, ‘There's a minute left. You can do it,' " Zabransky said.

With 1:02 remaining, the Broncos rewrote the ending. Zabransky buried his checkered past. First-year head coach Chris Petersen brandished nerves of steel. Boise State went from cute story to gritty underdog — Rocky Balboa in blue and orange — all before the clock struck midnight in the Valley of the Sun.

Facing fourth-and-18 from midfield, the Broncos produced a play for the ages, one even they admit never works in practice. Called "Circus," Zabransky connected with wide receiver Drisan James on a 15-yard route across the middle. As Sooner defenders swarmed James, he lateraled the ball to receiver Jerard Rabb, who raced 35 yards for the improbable touchdown. The extra point forced overtime.

"The Doug Flutie pass. The Cal-Stanford (band) play. It's got to be up there," Zabransky said.

Did it really happen?

In overtime, the Sooners struck on their first play. Superstar tailback Adrian Peterson bolted through an exhausted Bronco defense for a 25-yard touchdown and the lead, again.

It was Bronco ball. Do or die.

After six offensive plays, the Broncos again faced a desperate situation: fourth-and-2 at the Oklahoma 5. Once again, Petersen and first-year offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin reached into their bag of tricks.

Zabransky went in motion left, and running back/wide receiver Vinny Perretta took the direct snap. He ran right, then lofted a pass for tight end Derek Schouman in the end zone. Touchdown.

Did it really happen?

Now Petersen, with his defense finished, seized the moment. The Broncos would take the Fiesta Bowl. They would not wait for Oklahoma to give it to them. They would go for two points, not one, and try to win the game on one final play.

Coaches called "Statue," one more trick play.

The Broncos grinned.

Zabransky took the shotgun snap and faked a pass to the three wide receivers aligned to his right. The Sooners — all 11 on the field, all 100 or so on the sidelines, all hundreds of thousands across the globe — went right. Johnson ambled left, snatched the ball from behind Zabransky's back and raced untouched into the corner of the end zone.

And when Johnson glided across the goal line for the game-winning 2-point conversion, no one among the 73,000-plus inside the stadium, among the hundreds of thousands of Boise State fans worldwide, among the millions watching on television, experienced more joy than athletic director Gene Bleymaier.

"As soon as we scored, I went euphoric like everybody. I ran out there and jumped on as many players, and jumped into their arms, as I could. I was just running around jumping up and yelling," said Bleymaier, head of the department since 1982.

Jadon Dailey, the Broncos' loquacious and undersized senior center, collapsed in the end zone to make snow angels on a grassy field in the middle of a desert.

Perfect strangers embraced in crowded bars, united in their can-you-believe-it amazement.

The aftershocks reverberated around college football. Boise State football, Boise State University, Boise will never be the same. Nothing is impossible.

Oklahoma players walked off the field in stunned silence. "It was a crazy, wild game," Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said.

Boise State players, equally dazed, stormed the field, grabbing one another in giant bear hugs.

Johnson tossed the ball into the stands toward his family and eventually was surrounded by media, including live national television cameras.

Then came the part that hooked America.

Johnson dropped to one knee, looked his cheerleader girlfriend in the eye and asked her to marry him.

She said yes.

They kissed.

Did it really happen?

Absolutely.

PETERSEN TAKES OVER, PUTS HIS STAMP ON BSU

This magical journey started Dec. 16, 2005, when Petersen was hired to replace his Colorado-bound boss, Dan Hawkins — the most successful coach in Boise State history.

It should have been a time of frazzled nerves and uncertain expectations. Petersen, after all, had never been a head coach. In fact, he had wavered for years on the question of whether he even wanted to become a head coach.

The scene inside the Allen Noble Hall of Fame that day was jubilant.

On TV screens throughout the room, reporters watched Colorado introduce Hawkins as its new coach. Bleymaier walked in, told his staff to turn off the TVs and began his press conference.

The message was clear.

Boise State football was moving forward.

"I don't think there's any question that the dream lives on with this appointment," Boise State president Bob Kustra said. "The dream for me is national rankings. The dream for me is someday another conference. The dream for me is busting the (Bowl Championship Series).

"Chris Petersen can get all those things done for the Boise State University Broncos."

Fans, staff members and players inside the hall of fame interrupted the press conference several times to deliver passionate rounds of applause.

The expected apprehension was replaced by joy — as if everyone watching was proud to see Petersen, just 41 at the time, emerge from the shadows and into the spotlight.

He was reluctant, but his unassuming, competitive, fun-loving personality already had endeared him to everyone involved with Boise State football.

"I'm humbled, I'm awe-struck and most of all I'm just looking forward to keeping this thing rolling,'' Petersen told the crowd. "And with the people around here, there's no doubt in my mind that we will.''

He accepted a five-year, $2.5 million contract and went to work — building a cohesive staff and rebuilding the psyche of a team that went 9-4 in 2005, its worst season in four years.

He immediately took some heat for hiring a pair of 29-year-old coordinators, Harsin (offense) and Justin Wilcox (defense), and needed almost two months to fill out his staff.

He told his players to trust him, that his staff would look just like him.

That eased their anxiety.

"We've always liked Pete and feel we can relate to him,'' linebacker Colt Brooks said. "Pete's all about football and he's all about winning, and we're with that. We feel very confident in him.''

Petersen chose the Boise State job over the offensive coordinator gig at Colorado. When Hawkins interviewed for the Colorado job, Petersen expected to go with him.

"I started kind of visualizing myself going over there, and I was just not feeling it," Petersen said. "I kept trying to make it fit, and that was just not happening."

And then he considered another option.

He had often said he would wait for the perfect situation before taking a head-coaching job. He looked around. He realized he had it at Boise State.

"This truly is a dream of mine," Petersen said. "... I wouldn't get myself into a situation I didn't feel extremely confident about."

BOISE STATE, IAN MAKE THEIR FIRST BIG STATEMENTS

With one 10-second play on Sept. 7, the Broncos and their star tailback arrived on the national stage simultaneously.

The Broncos, 1-0 after an easy win over Sacramento State, trailed Oregon State 14-0 in the first quarter of a nationally televised game at Bronco Stadium.

Johnson took a handoff going to his right, slashed back to the middle, darted through a hole, shrugged off a weak tackle attempt and outran two defensive backs who dove at him in desperation on a 59-yard touchdown run.

Until that moment, nobody knew how good Johnson was. Or how strong the Broncos were.

Johnson finished the game with 240 yards and five touchdowns. The Broncos reeled off 42 straight points to win 42-14 over a team that, by season's end, sat comfortably in the Top 25.

"All we needed was that little spark," Johnson said. "It just happened to be me."

He added two more touchdown runs in the first half, including one in which he dragged a couple tacklers into the end zone, and gave the nation a glimpse of his all-around talent in the third quarter.

The 19-yard touchdown romp was his favorite of the season because it required so many skills.

Johnson took a handoff moving to his right again. He shuffled his feet searching for a hole (patience), cut back to his left (vision) and turned on the burst that coaches and TV analysts like so much (speed). He blasted through two would-be tacklers (power) and lunged across the goal line with two defenders on his legs (determination).

"That's everything we teach right there," Johnson said.

He added a 50-yard run in the fourth quarter — tying the school record for touchdowns in a game.

"Those are numbers that I never thought I'd do," Johnson said. "It took me a week, if not two weeks, to realize that happened."

The big night propelled him to the school record for rushing yards in a season (1,713), the national touchdown title (25) and an eighth-place finish in Heisman Trophy voting.

"We always knew Ian was special," Dailey said. "He didn't prove anything to us. We just knew what he could do, and he did it."

On ESPN, analyst Kirk Herbstreit bragged about Johnson to a prime-time audience.

"America's getting a look at one of the top tailbacks definitely on the West Coast," Herbstreit said. "This is a Pac-10 defense, folks, that he is running right through."

The key to Johnson's breakthrough fall was his summer conditioning. He missed part of spring ball with a hernia and was unable to work out for two months.

He was one of the hardest-working Broncos in the summer — sensing his importance to the team and knowing what kind of pounding he would take.

"I kept calling him our horse," strength coach Tim Socha said. "I told him he'd have to carry us."

Johnson's dad, Sterling, also pushed him.

Sterling is a firefighter in Los Angeles. Johnson picked him up at the Boise Airport the day of the Oregon State game.

"You know, son," Sterling told him that day, "I don't care how many yards you rush for, just run tough."

Looking back on that night, Sterling isn't surprised that his words resonated with his son.

"He's always been good at listening and making it work," Sterling said.

"Run tough" took on a new meaning in late September.

Not only did Johnson gash defenses, but he did it with hidden pain. A knee bruise limited him in games against Utah and Louisiana Tech.

He barely practiced the week of the Utah game but still carried 14 times. He would have had more, but the Broncos won easily. He cracked two ribs against Wyoming and played without a flak jacket.

Those were the first signs of unusual toughness from a running back who, by season's end, would be known for it.

The first half of the season, fans knew more about his crocheting hobby than his pain tolerance.

"The first impression you get of Ian is he's kind of a goofy kid, and not in a bad way at all," Boise State running backs coach Jeff Choate said. "… You're thinking, ‘Is this guy going to be tough enough?' And there is absolutely no question he's one of the tougher football players I've been around."

In November, that toughness made national news and fueled Johnson's fame. A hit in the second quarter at San Jose State aggravated his cracked ribs and began to collapse his left lung.

Johnson stayed in the game, rushing for 149 yards on 29 carries. He generated 41 total yards on the Broncos' game-tying drive in the fourth quarter. Still, he could tell something was wrong. His stamina was slipping.

"We're losing, the game is kind of in the balance," Johnson said. "It's one of those things where you can't just take yourself out."

Less than a half-hour after the game, he was headed to the hospital. He stayed five nights.

At home, fans worried.

In San Jose, Johnson was restless. He wanted to play.

Boise State held him out for one week, but he returned to score three touchdowns in the BCS-clinching win against Nevada.

"That guy is a warrior," Petersen said. "I have so much respect for him, and our team does because he's so stinking tough. … He's what a running back is all about. That's what they should look like, and that's what they should play like."

BRONCOS, FANS DOMINATE UTAH ROAD TRIP

On the final day of September, the Broncos were four wins into what still appeared to be a routine season. Two of the wins were impressive, over Pac-10 rival Oregon State and pesky WAC threat Hawaii, but they were on the blue against programs that would play better football later in the season.

Boise State was ranked No. 22 in the nation — and a 5›-point underdog to a Utah team that was supposed to be nothing more than an average contender in the Mountain West Conference. Hardly an indication of things to come.

Fans sensed something different, though, and bombarded Salt Lake City by the thousands.

The Broncos fed off the energy of more than 5,000 fans and unloaded on the same Utah program that cracked the BCS barrier in 2004 when it went undefeated, including a win over Pittsburgh in the Fiesta Bowl.

And Gerald Alexander, a sleepy yet sometimes-explosive senior safety, was about to put his signature stamp on the season.

Radiant sunshine hovered above Rice-Eccles Stadium, a brilliant facility that hosted Olympic athletes, an American president and a parade of rock stars during the Opening Ceremony of the 2002 Winter Games.

Bleymaier took Boise reporters on a tour of the massive pressbox and luxury suite complex that helped inspire what Boise State is planning to build for the 2008 season.

The joint was impressive indeed — but what was about to happen on the field would attract the attention of the college football world. Boise State's defense intercepted four passes, and a businesslike offense cranked out 398 yards. By the second quarter, when Brooks, the linebacker from Bishop Kelly High in Boise, returned one of the picks for the only touchdown of his career, the score was 20-3 and this masterpiece was history.

Bronco Nation spent the second half belting out a steady rain of "Our House'' chants. This was big: Not only did the Broncos produce a much-needed road victory, their fans traveled en masse to a regular-season road game other than Nevada.

But the highlight of the day — literally — came in the third quarter when Alexander slid across the field and plowed into Utah running back Darryl Poston. Poston's helmet went flying, Alexander quickly bounced off the turf and immediately gave his best muscle-man pose. A resounding "Oooohhh'' rolled throughout the stands.

A few days earlier, Alexander, who wasn't getting a lot of statistical opportunities, told the Statesman he was "looking for some action. ... I'm hungry and I'm waiting for that opportunity.''

That night, as all those delirious fans traveled back to Boise, Alexander's hit made "SportsCenter's'' top 10 plays.

Boise State football changed that day, because of Alexander, the fans, the attention on one of the most impressive regular-season victories in Boise State history, and because TCU, the only non-BCS program ranked ahead of Boise State at the time, lost to BYU two nights earlier.

Boise State took sole ownership of the BCS slipper, not that coach Petersen wanted to talk about it.

"Don't even ask one question about the BCS,'' he said at the start of his postgame press conference.

With seven games left on the schedule, all against hungry WAC teams, he wanted nothing to do with the holy grail of college football.

He instructed his players to follow his example.

One game at a time ... and there was oh-so-much time.

But Zabransky, who completed 15-of-21 passes for 210 yards against a Utah defense that included preseason All-American Eric Weddle, offered a huge hint in a season full of surprises.

"There's a stigma about us that we may not be a very good road team and we may not have the talent that some of those big-time schools have,'' Zabransky said after the game, "but if you look at our roster from top to bottom ... and you match us up, we can go against anybody.''

Little did we know.

TWENTY YEARS ON THE BLUE — WHAT A PARTY

If there was any doubt, it was gone before the end of the game. Fresno State's Bulldog Red was not the color of the WAC. Not this year.

The game on a Wednesday night in November turned into a 45-21 blowout. The Blue-and-Orange-Out — alternating sections of color-coordinated fans inside Bronco Stadium — was a striking success seen by a nationwide audience on ESPN2. It celebrated the 20th anniversary of Boise State's most notable feature — the blue turf.

Among the 30,604 fashion-fancy fans that night were representatives from the Fiesta Bowl, all decked out in their yellow blazers. This, of course, would prove to be important later on.

Boise State had lost to Fresno State the year before so the Bulldogs brought with them the Milk Jug — a rivalry-enhancing trophy dreamed up by the dairy industries that thrive both here and there.

Far more importantly, though, the Broncos and Bronco Nation showed again they were ready for the national stage.

"This was a big-time redemption game for us," Zabransky said when it was all over.

It also turned out to be a night of redemption for Bleymaier, the man who was sitting in an airplane when he had the original idea in the early 1980s.

Blue turf!

That would put Boise State on the map, he thought.

It wouldn't be easy. The college football map is marked with more than a century of history. How can you compete with the Four Horsemen of Notre Dame? The 11 national championships won by the University of Michigan?

Even the mediocre teams in the big conferences have cache. Indiana fights Purdue for the Old Oaken Bucket. Cal and Stanford staged the mostfamous play of all time.

The Boise that Bleymaier saw through his mile-high window that day was nothing like it is today. Downtown was in shambles, thanks to an ill-conceived plan to gut it for a mall never built. The university was barely metropolitan, largely without distinction and without a lot of research.

But Boise had some football tradition to build on. Lyle Smith had coached the team to a junior college national title in 1958. In 1980, the school won the Division I-AA national title.

Bleymaier looked down at that Boise and Boise State campus and saw blue. The problem was, nobody wanted anything to do with it — even AstroTurf.

"They tried to talk us out of it. ... They had done thousands of green fields, but they have never done a blue field,'' Bleymaier said.

Finally convinced, the company couldn't guarantee what shade of blue the turf would end up when it was first installed in the summer of 1986.

"I was worried," Bleymaier said. "I can still remember the day in July when they rolled the first five yards of blue turf out. I was the only person in the stadium that day. I was sweating."

What started as a gimmick — a way for the school to get attention, even if it wasn't always flattering — has become an endearing trademark.

The university's ad campaign is called "Beyond the Blue.'' In 2005, ESPN.com ranked the blue turf as one of the 12 greatest sports spots in terms of visual recognition. It shared a list with Fenway Park's Green Monster, Notre Dame's Touchdown Jesus and the French Open's red clay at Roland Garros.

"The uniqueness of it, I thought would be a positive. It's fortunate that it's turned out to be a positive,'' Bleymaier said.

THE KICK THAT SAVED THE SEASON

Anthony Montgomery had never before been called upon to hit a game-winning field goal. Not at Boise State. Not at Reedley Junior College. Not at Central Christian High in California.

But as the Broncos mounted a stirring comeback at San Jose State on Nov. 11, the senior placekicker sensed his moment had arrived.

Montgomery is the same kicker who had been banished to the sidelines in 2005 when coaches lost faith. He connected on 6-of-10 field goal attempts that season and attempted just one in the Broncos' final six games. He missed.

During spring practice, Montgomery had to fend off several challengers for his position.

Then, he missed his first field goal of the 2006 season. But Montgomery rediscovered his stroke, converting his next 11 tries, including two earlier in the San Jose State game.

"(Cornerback) Orlando Scandrick has been telling me all year that I'm going to have to win a game for them," Montgomery said.

Now he would get his chance.

So too would long snapper Mike Dominguez and holder Kyle Stringer.

Dominguez, a senior reserve defensive end, earned his fifth season of eligibility in the classroom. A partial qualifier, Dominguez had to sit out his first year. Then he had to reach academic benchmarks to earn a fourth season on the field. The sociology major easily cleared those marks.

Snapping, however, presented periodic hiccups, including a bad game in the season opener against Sacramento State.

So as the Broncos moved into field goal range against San Jose State — and with the clock running down — coach Choate dispatched Dominguez to keep practicing snaps on the sidelines. "I usually get two or three in. The coaches had me get in at least a dozen," Dominguez said. "The whole time, I was like, ‘I'm fine. I'm fine.' They were like, ‘Just get some more snaps in.' "

As Dominguez snapped, Montgomery practiced alone, kicking six or seven balls into a net. Stringer, the team's standout punter and holder, tried to keep everything as normal as possible.

"I tried to leave (Montgomery) alone. As we're going out onto the field, we did a fist bump, the same thing we always do," Stringer said. "In situations like that, you've got to make it as routine as you can or you're going to freak out on yourself."

No freaking out this time.

Dominguez's snap was perfect.

"It was money," he said.

Stringer got the ball down.

"The laces weren't perfect, but I turned them right around," he said.

Montgomery hit the 37-yarder pure.

"You always hear how baseball players don't even feel the ball when they hit it. It's that sweet of a hit. That's kind of how it felt. I just knew it felt good coming off," he said.

The unbeatable season was intact.

A headline in the Statesman the next morning said it all: "Alive & Kickin'.''

The Broncos showed the heart of a champion in the 23-20 victory. They faced their first fourth-quarter deficit of the season. Zabransky was ill with chicken pox but still completed 14-of-21 passes for 181 yards.

"We learned that we can go through anything with the senior class and the leadership that we have on this team and the playmakers that we have," Montgomery said.

Not until the Fiesta Bowl would the Broncos be tested again. Not until the Fiesta Bowl would so many players be needed for victory.

"Every guy was ready when their number was called," Dominguez said. "It showed a lot of character."

Then came the news that could have derailed Bronco Nation: Johnson's near-collapse after the game. The cracked ribs and partially collapsed left lung. The five-day stay in a California hospital.

Johnson didn't play again until the regular season finale at Nevada.

SENIOR DAY — AND ONE SHINING MOMENT

One play summed up the commitment, sacrifice, success and unity of Boise State's 22-man senior class. Popular but little-used wide receiver Jovan Hutchinson scored the first touchdown of his career in the fourth quarter of the Nov. 18 game against Utah State.

Teammates flooded from the sideline and carried him off the field. Hutchinson sat on the bench the rest of the game, clinging to that football. He had not let go of the ball yet when he met with the media about 20 minutes after the game.

Hutchinson's story appeared in the Statesman the day before the game. A fifth-year senior from Los Angeles, he had just three career catches before senior day.

"It would be nice to go in there and get in the end zone, leave the turf with some special memories," he said.

Hutchinson scored on the Broncos' first attempt to get him the ball.

The play was a salute from the team to Hutchinson, whose contributions played out in practice, in the locker room and in social situations. He was the Broncos' No. 1 source of comedy.

Oftentimes, he was the butt of those jokes — not that he minded. Teammates autographed his practice jersey during the season, so he had to switch from No. 45 to No. 2 in practice.

"We wouldn't be as great without that guy," Brooks said. "He works hard. He adds a lot of comedy. Everybody loves him on the team."

That was obvious when Hutchinson scored on the 10-yard fade pass from Taylor Tharp in the left corner of the end zone. He made the catch despite interference from the defender.

The Broncos and the crowd went bonkers. Players urged the fans to chant "Veez," Hutchinson's nickname.

"Here's a guy who has poured his heart and soul into this," Petersen said. "He's still doing the right things. He's acting the way he needs to act. He's been a role model … even though deep down he's probably ticked off that he's not playing."

Hutchinson's catch was the highlight of senior day for a trailblazing class that went 46-6 in four years and won five WAC championship rings. The seniors helped produce three of the four Top 25 seasons in school history, including the first top-10 finish this year.

They beat a Pac-10 team for the first time (Oregon State in 2004), beat a ranked BCS-conference team for the first time (Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl) and earned the school's first three out-of-town bowl invitations (2003 Fort Worth, 2004 Liberty and 2007 Fiesta).

They were 31-1 in the WAC and 25-1 at home.

The senior class included 15 fifth-year seniors who arrived at Boise State in 2002, before the school had spent a single week in the Top 25.

They leave having established the Broncos as a perennial Top 25 team.

"We've always worked hard, we've always focused on our goals and we've never gotten distracted," Brooks said. "A lot of classes have a lot of athletes and a lot of talent, but they get distracted with other things. For the most part we've been great on doing that — just keeping the prize in mind."

The class included 10 players who started for at least three seasons. They were an integral part of the team that recorded the school's first unbeaten regular season in 2004.

And it was loaded with great stories.

Linebacker Korey Hall, who grew up on a farm in Glenns Ferry, tied the school record with 52 career starts and was voted the 2006 WAC Defensive Player of the Year.

Zabransky, the son of a potato farmer, posted a 33-5 record in three years as the starter.

Brooks, Stringer, and defensive tackle Andrew Browning walked on and became All-WAC honorees.

Dailey quit football for a year after high school, became a bank teller, played junior college football to help his friend's undermanned team and ended up starting in the Fiesta Bowl a mile from his mother's house in Arizona.

Legedu Naanee switched from quarterback to wide receiver late in his sophomore season. He became an All-WAC first-teamer and NFL prospect.

Montgomery, the kicker, improved from 6-of-10 in 2005 to 13-of-14 in 2006 and was named an All-WAC first-teamer, too.

"We practice to get better," Brooks said, "but we know we're going to win."

ZABRANSKY HAS HIS FINAL DAY ON THE BLUE

On a day most remembered for the contributions of lesser-known seniors, Zabransky, too, starred in the home finale against Utah State.

He started 38 games.

He won 33.

But Zabransky could never do enough. For the coaches, who expect perfection from the quarterback, Zabransky always could be a little better. They benched him at times during his junior season.

For the fans, who remembered his poor play and interceptions more than his victories, Zabransky was always one play away from disaster. He was voted the team MVP of the 2005 MPC Computers Bowl, even though he threw a game-ending interception and was booed.

But in his final game at Bronco Stadium, he was damn near perfect.

He misfired on his first pass, an ill-advised and underthrown pass to Naanee. Then Zabransky completed 18 consecutive passes — long ones and short ones, for touchdowns and first downs, to wide receivers and running backs.

From the Broncos' third play from scrimmage until their second possession of the third quarter — a span that included 35 Boise State points and 41 Boise State plays — Zabransky did not throw an incomplete pass.

No. 1: To Schouman for 11 yards.

No. 2: To James for 5 yards.

No. 3: To Schouman for 11 yards.

No. 4: To Jeremy Childs for 5 yards.

No. 5: To Naanee for 24 yards.

No. 6: To Schouman for 22 yards.

No. 7: To Perretta for no gain.

No. 8: To Rabb for 10 yards.

No. 9: To Schouman for 1 yard.

No. 10: To Rabb for 46 yards and a touchdown.

No. 11: To Naanee for 17 yards.

No. 12: To Rabb for 6 yards.

No. 13: To Naanee for 16 yards and a touchdown.

No. 14: To James for 6 yards.

No. 15: To James for 12 yards.

No. 16: To Perretta for no gain.

No. 17: To Childs for 6 yards.

No. 18: To Schouman for a loss of 11 yards.

"I didn't realize it was 18 in a row. I just felt like I was kind of in a rhythm," said Zabransky, who finished the game 21-of-23 for 236 yards and three touchdowns in three quarters of the 49-10 blowout.

Petersen, a standout quarterback at Division II UC Davis in the 1980s, still found things he didn't like — a high throw on a screen pass, for example. It's part of the job to be critical.

But after a quick glance at the numbers, even Petersen the perfectionist was impressed.

"That was a very fitting performance for him to finish out on the blue with," Petersen said. "Those stats and that efficiency, that says a lot about how hard that guy's worked and how far he's come."

It was a long journey.

Zabransky grew up on a potato farm in Hermiston, Ore. When he was 12, one of his older brothers died. His father, Steve, showed him the value of hard work, often rising before the sun to begin work in the fields.

"Seeing how hard he worked, you know that's what it takes to achieve what you want," Zabransky said.

When Zabransky was in high school, his dad contracted West Nile virus and was hospitalized for more than six months in a Spokane hospital. Zabransky lived alone while his parents stayed in Spokane. The virus sapped Steve of his vigor, and he had to relearn how to walk and talk. He still deals with the effects of the virus.

His mother, Tana, worked hard to keep the family going.

"I'm just grateful that he's still with us," Zabransky said. "Just seeing how my mom kept the whole family together and how family can really save someone's life. She was definitely the rock in the entire situation."

Moving away from that family was difficult. When Zabransky arrived on the Boise State campus, one of his first acts was to challenge Hawkins' policy of requiring freshmen to live on campus. He won the battle but was tagged with a high-maintenance label right away. Desperately homesick, Zabransky considered transferring during his freshman season.

He stuck it out.

Zabransky earned playing time during his redshirt freshman year, then won a quarterback competition with Mike Sanford his sophomore season. He guided the Broncos to an undefeated regular season and a near victory over Louisville in the Liberty Bowl.

The magic ended his junior year. A darkhorse Heisman Trophy candidate coming into the season, Zabransky forced too many passes and made too many bad decisions in a widely hyped season opener at Georgia. He didn't give the Broncos a chance, committing six first-half turnovers before being benched. He was in the locker room the second half, receiving treatment for dehydration.

The Broncos finished the season 9-4. Zabransky was booed at home, quite a comedown from the year before.

"You go 11-0 and you don't really know about losing. You don't really know about hard times. You don't know about what the fans are going to react like when you do lose. And then you have a year like '05 ... and you kind of see what the real story is,'' he said.

No one knew which Zabransky to expect in 2006 — the efficient quarterback from 2004 or the turnover-prone one from 2005.

Zabransky, happier and more relaxed, turned in his best season. Though the emergence of Johnson at tailback shifted the burden from the senior signal-caller, Zabransky still needed to produce.

He did every time — but never was he better than on senior day at Bronco Stadium.

"(I hope I'll) always be remembered as a winner," he said. "I may not have been the prettiest passer or maybe not even the best quarterback that's been through here, but I've competed my tail off and always strived to win."

Two more victories secured that legacy forever.

BRONCOS HIT THE BCS JACKPOT IN RENO

One more game — a road trip to Nevada in the regular season finale. That's all that stood between the Broncos and the Fiesta Bowl.

Neither the team nor its fans were about to let the historic opportunity pass.

As they had done in Salt Lake City — and as they would do again in Glendale — the Nation traveled in droves to support its team. As many as 6,000 blue-and-orange clad faithful crowded into Mackay Stadium in Reno on Nov. 25.

The trip was well worth it.

Nevada, which had won its previous five games by a combined score of 200-35, provided little resistance. Johnson, wearing a flak jacket to protect his cracked ribs, set the school record for rushing yards in a season and scored three touchdowns to pad his NCAA-leading total.

The defense, led by Browning's three sacks, crushed the Wolf Pack. Nevada passed for 35 yards. The offense barely reached Bronco territory and did not score.

"I don't think I've seen them dominate like they did today. Not in my wildest dreams did I think they would shut them down like that," Petersen said.

The assembled crowd didn't wait long to voice its prediction. "BCS, BCS," Bronco fans chanted when the score reached 24-0 early in the third quarter. The crowd drowned out the Nevada cheering section from the opening kickoff. Before the game ended, Bronco players donned oversized sombreros. Fans pulled out bags of Tostitos, the official sponsor of the Fiesta Bowl.

"No doubt, this was the biggest game in school history, and we all feel it,'' said Ron Evans, a Boise State fan from Portland who attended the game. "Now the whole world will know who Boise State is."

Bronco fans rushed the field, setting off a wild celebration. Players were mobbed and posed for pictures. Fans carried Johnson off the field in one of the season's most iconic moments.

"Is this cool or what?" BSU president Kustra said to his wife, Kathy, while celebrating on the field after the game. "It hadn't sunk in until I got out there and watched those fans. We've got the greatest fans in the world."

It took team officials nearly 30 minutes to corral all the players from the on-field celebration for the presentation of the WAC Championship trophy in the locker room, where the party continued. During the postgame festivities, Harsin, the young offensive coordinator, handed the game ball to Petersen.

"It's been a long time coming," Harsin said.

Petersen became just the second college coach since 1900 to win 12 games in his first season.

The Broncos continued to master the WAC. Boise State is 39-1 in league play the last five years and 45-3 since joining the conference in 2001.

"The most dominant team in WAC history," commissioner Karl Benson concluded as he presented the WAC trophy.

But the league title was old news. The Broncos had bigger plans.

Skeptics had waited for the Broncos to falter, waited for one game to trip them up, waited for a reason — any reason — to keep them out of a BCS game.

The Broncos proved them wrong.

After Benson finished, Fiesta Bowl CEO John Junker addressed the Broncos: "This team is worthy of a BCS bowl. We're going to get ready for you in the Valley of the Sun."

The party was just getting started.

A BCS CELEBRATION WORTH TWO PARTIES

BCS parties, it turns out, take on a life of their own. It was the Saturday night of the Nevada game, and fans in Boise who hadn't gone to Reno were boiling over with excitement.

A spur-of-the-moment celebration sprouted in the Bronco Stadium parking lot.

"BCS!" they shouted in the darkness.

The team charter had just arrived at the airport.

"BCS!"

Now the team buses were headed down Broadway.

"BCS!"

Jarie Hearne wore a sombrero and shook maracas.

"It's only the biggest thing that's ever happened to BSU," she said.

Hearne and some 150 others gathered in the cold to wait for the team.

Statesman managing editor Bill Manny grabbed the next day's Sports section — essentially a poster recognizing the Broncos' 12-0 regular season — and went to FedEx Kinko's to make 100 copies to hand out to fans. They were gone in minutes.

Boise State football has always had its fans. This year, it had fanatics.

Still, some wondered whether Bronco boosters would buy the 17,500 tickets required by the Fiesta Bowl. The tickets were offered first to season ticket holders, then students and staff. They sold all but a couple of hundred before non-season ticket holders were given a chance to buy them.

Of course, none of this BCS stuff was official until the BCS folks made the announcement a week later. If Boise State were to throw a party on BCS selection night, mostly to announce news that everyone already knew, how many people would show up?

Five hundred?

One thousand?

More?

Three-decade Bronco booster Chuck Kennedy did. Fifteen-year Bronco fan Ken Wold did. Izzy Villanueva and Jerry Jones wouldn't miss it.

In fact, more than 5,000 people hit Taco Bell Arena on Sunday night, Dec. 3, to watch national television and make the big news official. Boise State, a Division I-AA program only 10 years ago, was going to the Fiesta Bowl. The fans went nuts. National television showed the party.

The momentum was brewing right before our very eyes.

USA Today featured the Broncos on its front page. Even then-Idaho Gov. Jim Risch — that quintessential Idaho Vandal — showed up for the BCS party.

That was the thing about the Broncos this year. Boise State grads weren't the only ones glued to the television on Saturdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and whatever other day the folks at ESPN could squeeze in a broadcast from the blue turf.

"On Jan. 1, you're not playing just for BSU," Risch told the team. "You're playing for every Idahoan."

It can't be easy for Vandals like Risch to say these things, but they said them — and they meant them (at least until Idaho comes to town next season).

But despite the fair-weather fans, the hangers-on and the bandwagon jumpers, the old-timers were the ones enjoying it the most.

"I've been a fan since 1972," Kennedy said. "We dreamed about playing major teams in those days. We were good, but playing Oklahoma was a fantasy. Now it's reality. We have a chance to prove that we're truly one of the great teams in the nation."

The fans, quite simply, went Bronco bonkers that night. They bought more than $13,000 in T-shirts, sweatshirts and sombreros. In about an hour.

Fans in every state ordered Boise State gear online from the school bookstore. Before Christmas, folks had snatched up almost$500,000 worth of gear — including$223,000 worth of Fiesta Bowl paraphernalia.

Coach Petersen had been praising Bronco Nation all year, but if we can go back to that magical day in Reno one more time, one specific moment stands out. It happened while Petersen was sitting in the team bus, as he rounded the bend into the stadium parking lot.

"When we came pulling in here today," he said, "my son, Jack, was sitting next to me and we came around the corner and I thought he was pointing to this new building being built and I said, ‘Yeah, that's a big building.'

"And he said, ‘No look at all the blue and orange.' The parking lot was just covered, and I knew right then and there it was going to be a good day."

The FIESTA BOWL — THE SCENE, THE FANS, THE FUN

Boise State was the ultimate little guy at the big-boy party.

But if anyone doubted the Bronco Nation, they didn't after New Year's weekend.

For days, Boise State fans converged on Phoenix, Scottsdale, Tempe and Glendale. Blue and orange filled the airport, packed the hotels, crammed into restaurants, clubs and bars, and spilled into the streets of Tempe.

The country saw the Boise State program as an overnight sensation. A team that came out of nowhere, from a town in the middle of nowhere.

The Nation knew better.

Fans like Ellie Sandner have had season tickets since "they just had bleachers out there.'' Her late husband played decades before the blue turf, back in the days of leather helmets.

Andrea Urresti's father and grandfather both have places in the Bronco Hall of Fame. That's why she made the trip.

Dads like Mark Young and Steven Tucker know all about the 1958 junior college national championship and the 1980 Division I-AA championship, even if their kids, Matt Young and Drew and Alyssa Tucker, have only experienced Boise State's domination of the WAC.

They all came to the fiesta in the desert. On New Year's Eve, they streamed into the streets of Tempe, which threw a block party to welcome 2007.

It started with a Boise State pep rally. Though most of the team was back at the hotel resting and preparing, coach Petersen and his captains came to greet the crowd. President Kustra, Idaho baseball legend Harmon Killebrew and even Smith, the Boise Junior College coaching legend, came to wish them luck.

As the sun dipped lower, more than 6,000 fans surrounded the stage. The marching band needed a police escort to push through the throng. Fans climbed streetlights to get better views and better shots with their digital cameras.

If Arizona and Oklahoma were surprised, Petersen was not.

"We've been waiting for you,'' he told the fans — more of them in this Arizona park than even came to the BCS party back home in Boise.

Petersen had been tackling questions all week about whether the Broncos were ready, whether they were up to this task. The country expected Boise State to be confident, to say the right things, but the Broncos didn't really expect to win this, did they?

Petersen said he had an answer every time they asked whether the team was prepared to take the field.

"We've been telling them we're waiting for the other half to get here,'' he said. "Just wait till the Bronco Nation gets here and you see what they got.''

But certainly, the team and the fans would be overpowered by the Sooners. They hail from the heart of football, honed by 100 years of playing at the top levels of the collegiate game.

Bronco fans kept expecting to see the crimson and cream, but only a handful of Oklahoma faithful showed up to the Tempe block party.

The next day — game day — buses of Bronco fans filed into the parking lot at University of Phoenix Stadium. As they passed an enclosed complex that housed the official pre-game party, the Boiseans gasped at the sight. An unbroken sea of blue and orange. If there was one Sooner fan in the crowd, there were 100 Bronco lovers surrounding him.

Sooner fans were shocked, and some confessed they were impressed.

Bronco Nation, though, was just being Bronco Nation.

"This is what we expect from Boise State fans,'' Boisean Andy Enrico said. "They show up.''

Like the Sooner team itself, though, the Sooner fans would make themselves known. The seasoned bowl travelers skipped the expensive pre-fab parties and spent their pre-game ritual at their own tailgates. And these were serious flat-screen-in-the-back-of-the-Hummer kinds of tailgates.

Inside the stadium, by game time, the almost 74,000 seats were evenly split between the two camps.

And, of course, we all know what happened next — quite possibly the most emotionally swinging and dramatic game in anyone's memory.

After the game, longtime sports analysts would say they had never seen such dramatic swings. They would say they had never watched a game in which both sides faced certain loss in such a short amount of time — and each side more than once.

America was captivated.

In Glendale, the Nation erupted.

And in Boise, the Nation poured into the streets, partied for days and didn't think twice about any physical or emotional hangovers. Nothing but pure joy.

No one cared about anything except for that miracle finish, Ian and Chrissy, and paying respect to the Broncos.

Back in Boise, the team charter landed at the airport. Players and coaches were immediately showered with love. Fans. Airport workers. Visitors waiting for their flights. Even security officials put down their important busy work and placed their hands together in a show of support.

The team buses traveled down Broadway and headed for the Bronco Stadium parking lot — again — where a few thousand fans waited to get their first glimpse of the Fiesta Bowl champions.

The fans chanted "Go'' and "Broncos" and "We want Ohio State,'' in reference to the No. 1 team in the nation.

Signs were everywhere:

"WE BELIEVED!''

"Way to go Broncos''

"Blue Turf Boulevard''

"Boise State Rocks''

"BSU Makes Oklahoma Blue''

Political VIPs were on hand, and keys to the city were handed out like candy at a parade.

"I keep thinking about the game. The Broncos have brought us a lot of joy for the new year,'' fan Troy Howell said.

"This definitely put Boise on the map,'' said Diane Dragone, another fan.

Did all of this really happen?

Yes, it really did.

All of it.

The little guy captured the attention of an entire nation. And on the biggest stage, the little guy proved he wasn't so little anymore.

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