The last decade of Boise State football has been as dominant as any in college football history. A staggering 105 victories since the start of the 2007 season. All-Americans all over the place. Three Fiesta Bowl championships. The winningest quarterback in NCAA history.
It all started Jan. 1, 2007, against the Oklahoma Sooners in the Broncos’ first Fiesta Bowl.
Boise State came from the Western Athletic Conference, with its highest ranking in school history as an FBS program (No. 9) and a new head coach in Chris Petersen. On the opposite side of the field was the No. 7 Sooners of the Big 12, boasting national championship-winning head coach Bob Stoops, running back Adrian Peterson and a plethora of future NFL players. Oklahoma entered the game as seven-point favorites.
Boise State safety Marty Tadman was never one to focus on the names of players on the opposing team. But he knew about Peterson, who missed a good portion of the season with a collarbone injury, but was back in time for his final collegiate game.
“He couldn’t have been 100 percent. For me to tackle a guy like this as many times as I did was nothing short of a miracle,’’ Tadman said.
It was David versus Goliath in the truest sense possible. Then-left tackle Ryan Clady admits that much.
“They had a lot of talent,” said Clady, who was a first-round pick by the Denver Broncos in 2008 and now plays for the New York Jets. “I think it was pretty clear they had a more talented team than us.”
But as the nation soon discovered, Boise State wasn’t just happy to be in its first major bowl game. The Broncos were out to win it, even if it wasn’t conventional.
A hook-and-ladder on fourth-and-18 late in the fourth quarter tied the game at 35-35 after Boise State blew an 18-point lead. A touchdown pass from wide receiver Vinny Perretta to tight end Derek Schouman on fourth-and-2 brought the Broncos to within a point in overtime. And, of course, the Statue of Liberty 2-point conversion between quarterback Jared Zabransky and tailback Ian Johnson turned college football on its head.
Boise State has played a handful of big games since that life-changing night in Glendale, Ariz. Quarterback Kellen Moore led the program to a ranking as high as No. 2 in 2010 as he marched toward a college football record of 50 career victories. Petersen and current head coach Bryan Harsin each added an additional Fiesta Bowl trophy to the school’s display case.
Coaches that preceded them like Lyle Smith, Dirk Koetter, Dan Hawkins and countless others helped mold Boise State into a powerhouse program, which was ranked in the national Top 25 polls for four straight years prior to 2006. That included three straight seasons of at least 11 wins and an undefeated 2004 regular season.
But the undefeated 2006 Broncos turned the program into a household brand that appears to be there for the long haul. The Broncos were no sideshow.
“After 20 years of building, this was the reward,” Tadman said. “We’ve been honored every week of our lives for 10 years. It’s never really left our minds, I don’t think.”
As players from the 2006 team gather in Boise this weekend to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of their historic 13-0 season on Saturday against Colorado State (8:15 p.m., ESPN2), the Idaho Statesman takes a look back at that Fiesta Bowl, its biggest plays, and lets its biggest players tell the story a decade later.
“It’s pretty miraculous. You think about how many teams go undefeated in sports. ... You have to have a lot of things work in your favor,” said Zabransky, then a senior playing his final college game. “That was five years of being together. The blood, sweat and tears, all of the cheesy stuff that people talk about. It’s real.”
▪ Zabransky tosses an early touchdown pass to Drisan James (9:07, first quarter).
Zabransky, who would later be named offensive player of the game, throws the first touchdown, a 49-yard bomb to fellow senior James, the first of his two first-half touchdown catches. Johnson also scores on a touchdown run in the first quarter as the Broncos take a 21-10 halftime lead.
“Starting fast is extremely important. It not only gets you on the scoreboard first, but it gives you momentum,” Zabransky said. “(But) we were comfortable before it started, knowing we had a legit opportunity to win a BCS bowl game.”
“It was big. We knew that we were going to be in a dog fight. There (were) a lot of doubters,” Perretta said. “It was important for us, just for our confidence, knowing that we jumped out early. To show us that we could do this thing.”
“(That first touchdown) was big. It showed that we deserved to be there,” Clady said. “It kind of showed that we were the better team, maybe not talent-wise, but we played together and executed better.”
“It calms the nerves if there are any (when you score first). It reaffirms that you can play with them,” Tadman said. “It showed that it wasn’t an underdog matchup. It was just another football game.”
▪ Tadman returns a Paul Thompson pass 27 yards to make it 28-10 (8:07, third quarter).
Tadman catches a tipped Thompson pass off the hand of linebacker Korey Hall and cuts outside to the sideline. He returns the ball 27 yards for a touchdown and what appears to be a fairly safe 28-10 lead.
“We kind of had an idea of what they were doing. On that hashmark, they had really only (run) one or two plays from (the formation) all season,” Tadman said. “(Defensive coordinator Justin) Wilcox called the perfect play if they ran that play. I saw the quarterback drop back so I ran over to the slant.
“All sorts of emotions of pure joy. Definitely a surreal moment.”
But Tadman and his teammates weren’t celebrating a victory quite yet. For a team that had played in seven games decided by 24 points or more, Boise State wasn’t sure what Oklahoma had in store; this was considered a close game for the Broncos.
“(We didn’t feel) too safe,” Clady said. “My career in Boise, we had a lot of blowouts and games where we were done in the third quarter.”
▪ Oklahoma scores 18 straight points to tie the game at 28-28.
Peterson scores an 8-yard touchdown to narrow the gap to 11 heading into the fourth quarter after an Oklahoma punt hit off the leg of Boise State receiver Aiona Key, blocking for a possible return. Oklahoma proceeds to score on a 28-yard field goal by Garrett Hartley at the beginning of the fourth. A Quentin Chaney touchdown catch and 2-point conversion from Thompson to Juaquin Iglesias ties the game at 28-28 with 1:26 remaining in regulation.
After dominating Oklahoma for the first 45 minutes, the Broncos are suddenly reeling.
“Everything that could happen bad, did happen to us. (It) just snowballed,” Hall said. “You automatically get this feeling, ‘I can’t believe where we were sitting in the third quarter and now we’re going to lose.’”
“We definitely weren’t complacent,” Zabransky said. “But I think human tendency is to see time ticking down and you being on top. They talk about in sports, trying not to lose the game, trying to run the clock out. ... I wouldn’t say we got to that point, but I think you could tell we wanted to get the game over faster than it was.”
“The mentality turned kind of quickly, too. If we don’t stop, we’re going to give away this game,” Tadman said.
▪ Zabransky throws an interception to Marcus Walker, who scores a touchdown to give Oklahoma a 35-28 lead (1:02 remaining in regulation).
With plenty of time on the clock to rally a suddenly sputtering offense, Zabransky takes the field with a chance to lead the Broncos to victory. Just 22 seconds after tying the game, Oklahoma takes its first lead when Walker steps in front of a Zabransky throw and returns it for the go-ahead score.
“As soon as the ball left my hand, I knew I made the wrong read,” Zabransky said. “For a split second, you think, ‘Oh shoot, what did I do?’ ”
“You can definitely feel momentum switching and turning fields toward Oklahoma, for sure. You just have to put a band-aid on the bleeding,” said Perretta, the Broncos’ wide receiver. “That was a tough play. We were kind of like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ We have the game in our hands the whole game and this is how it’s going to go down?”
“Devastating. Pure devastation. Not saying we believed it was over … (but) we gave the game away,” Tadman said. “I was devastated, thinking we had this game and we played so well and we had given it (away). Big-time shock. It was three quarters of dominance on our end. ... They didn’t have one big play against us. We just couldn’t get off the field. It was like a slow death.”
▪ Famous hook-and-ladder play gives Boise State new life and a chance at victory in overtime.
Zabransky doesn’t have much time to reflect on his pick-six, as he and the offense take the field with the game in the balance. The Broncos remain unfazed despite what happened just moments before.
“That’s a pretty interesting huddle that whole year. You had linemen who would talk about the previous play, and as soon as I walked into the huddle, (they moved on),” Zabransky said. “Having a group of guys who were that in-tune all the time is pretty unique.”
With 18 seconds left in the fourth quarter and his offense in fourth-and-18, Zabransky throws a dart to James, the wide receiver who is running from the left across the middle of the field.
James pitches to fellow wide receiver Jerard Rabb, who is sprinting across from the right. Rabb runs to the left sideline, outruns the defense and dives into the end zone with seven seconds remaining.
After a PAT from Anthony Montgomery, Boise State and Oklahoma are tied at 35-35 and headed to overtime.
“Circus,” as it was called, was a play that never worked in practice. It was a hook-and-ladder play where Johnson and Zabransky trailed the receiver who got the pitch, in this case Rabb. In practice, players mostly wound up pitching the ball around in street-ball fashion.
“It was more rugby-style. It never worked,” James said. “We would throw it to the coaches sometimes (in practice).”
Things didn’t bode well before the play was run in the game, either.
“Ian lined up on the wrong side of me, so I had to move him to the right side,” Zabransky said. “(That play) never worked. Ever. It turns into a joke. The ‘Circus’ is fitting, because it turned to a Barnum and Bailey’s act with all the guys throwing the ball around.”
But when it came time to run the play in a game, the pieces somehow fell into place. After a costly interception that looked like it would end his career, Zabransky found redemption.
“You just felt so much for Z because he had such a great season that year. He was a great leader. The way it was looking, it was going to be kind of a tough way to end the season and career for Z,” Perretta said. “There was probably nobody I was more excited for than Zabransky.”
“We ran it a lot of times in practice,” Clady said. “Did I know it would score a touchdown? No. I thought it would get us quite a few yards. I was confident in the play, but you’re never for sure when you’ve not run it in a live situation.”
“As that play developed, my mouth was wide open,” said Tadman, who watched the play on the sideline. “It never really worked (in practice). The fact it worked so perfectly ... It was absolutely amazing.”
“The Statue of Liberty never worked (in practice). Even the hook-and-ladder never worked,” Hall said. “It didn’t fool anybody. But they completely sold it (in the game).”
“You talk about preparing yourself for one moment in your life,” Zabransky said. “That was a pretty good moment to do it.”
▪ On the first play of overtime, Peterson rumbles 25 yards for a touchdown to give the Sooners a 42-35 lead.
Oklahoma spends no time cashing in on a tired Boise State defense. Peterson takes a handoff and cuts off the left side of his line. Hall misses a tackle, allowing Peterson to run into the end zone standing up.
“I remember, the whole defense, our whole starting linebacker crew, we played every snap and special teams. I remember pacing myself for four quarters,” Hall said. “Adrian Peterson ran off tackle. (I) didn’t run my feet through and he runs through the tackle. ... (I thought to myself) ‘I just lost the freaking Fiesta Bowl. Wow.’ ”
“No one even touched the guy. It was terrible defense on our part. And all of a sudden we’re down again. It was just confusing,” Tadman said. “They could have put the JV kicker out there and I’m sure they would have scored a TD.
“It’s very frustrating. But that was the story of the whole fourth quarter.”
“I don’t know if it was disheartening. We were expecting him to have somewhat of a big game,” said Clady, though the Broncos held him to 77 yards even with the last score. “At that time, (Peterson) was the best running back in college football. You can’t be too surprised when he makes plays.”
FOURTH-AND-2: 28 HB TOSS PASS
▪ Perretta throws a touchdown to Schouman to make it 42-41.
The Broncos’ trickeration strikes for the second time on New Year’s Day. After Peterson does his work for the Oklahoma offense, it is time for Boise State to match. The Broncos are aware they must pull out all the stops, as they aren’t beating the Sooners in a shootout.
“You could feel it, where guys are at physically. Guys were tired,” Zabransky said. “I honestly think our top 25 guys were as good as any in the country that year. But the depth advantage that schools like Oklahoma and Alabama have is unmatched.”
On fourth-and-2 with the game on the line, Zabransky lines up next to Perretta in the shotgun. Zabransky splits out to the left in motion, leaving Perretta, a sophomore who had not thrown a pass all year, by himself.
“My 38th game and they take the ball out of my hands. I wasn’t super excited about that,” Zabransky admitted. “But we knew (Perretta) was going to do the right thing.”
Perretta tucks the ball and runs to his right as if running a sweep. He suddenly pulls the ball out and throws a lob pass to Schouman in the corner of the end zone, just out of reach of a defender. The score brings the Broncos to the brink of a tie.
“We had run that play, a very similar play, the game before. It was a designed run. ... It was pretty much a sweep. We knew that Oklahoma was going to be studying game film, if you see No. 19 at QB, it’s going to be a sweep,” Perretta said. “I was thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, there’s only one play we’re running. I can’t believe we’re running this play right now.’ The football gods shined down on us. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be living in Boise right now.”
“There were so many plays that had to happen right in a row that had to go our way,” Hall said. “There were a bunch of things that happened that are statistically impossible.”
STATUE OF LIBERTY
▪ History. Chaos. A legacy for life.
Knowing full well his team needs to end things sooner rather than later, coach Petersen goes for two and the win rather than the PAT and a tie. That was decided the moment Oklahoma’s Peterson scored his overtime touchdown, according to James.
“Once we called the group and Statue of Liberty was called, it was kind of like we were going to score that one,” James said. “It was automatic.”
Clady also remembers hearing the Statue of Liberty play call in the huddle and being excited for its potential success. The Broncos had run the play against Idaho earlier in the season for a solid result.
“I was excited. I’m kind of the lead blocker. At the time, we just wanted to win the game. I don’t think we wanted to go shot for shot with them in overtime,” Clady said. “Petersen has great instincts. I think he knew we needed to go for two.”
Zabransky lines up under center with Johnson behind him. To the right side of the formation are a trio of wide receivers in a bunch formation. The senior quarterback hurries players from the huddle to the line to imitate the speed and pace with which they had previously run screen passes. Zabransky drops back and fakes a screen to wide receiver Legedu Naanee.
“The fake was so terrible to the top,” James laughed. “(We just stared at Johnson thinking), ‘How quick can you get to that corner?’ ”
Zabransky sneaks the ball behind him after the “throw.” Johnson, meanwhile, stands motionless as he watches the fake action to Naanee. Oklahoma bites hard.
“The whole defense flew over there. If we were throwing a screen, we probably would have lost 15 yards,” James said.
After a split second, Johnson takes the ball from behind Zabransky and runs to the quarterback’s left. Clady, who had pulled around Schouman, makes a crushing seal block as Schouman helped keep the defense inside. Before Johnson crosses the goal line, Clady knows the Broncos have made history.
“As soon as I pulled around, I was like, ‘Yeah, it’s over,’ ” Clady said.
Following Clady’s lead, Johnson walks into the end zone untouched. He turns to his left, throws the ball in the stands and jumps in jubilation, fingers pointed toward Bronco fans. Boise State has shocked the world with a 43-42 win in the most unlikely way possible.
Johnson proposes to his cheerleader girlfriend while the rest of the Broncos celebrate on the field.
“Everyone thought it was trickeration,’’ Zabransky said. “But, also, it was great game-planning. And then you run a trick play on top of that? You eat their lunch.”