Tom Mason doesn’t remember the game perfectly. Our memories — just like most things in life — tend to be imperfect.
With nearly 25 years gone by, it’s easy to weave the details of one magnificent win into the storyline of another. As fuzzy as the play-by-play may be now, it is the feeling that has lingered longest for Mason.
“The chemistry of that team was something that I don’t know if I’ve ever experienced it since, just that kind of chemistry,” Mason said. “Because if you really look at that team, none of those guys went on to play NFL football. It was just a bunch of good football players and a bunch of guys that believed in each other and played for each other. I still talk about that team.”
Mason was the defensive coordinator for the Boise State football team in 1994, a season that saw the Broncos transform from a 3-8 team the year before into a national runner-up. That season, the second under Pokey Allen, was filled with program-defining wins, including upsets of Nevada, Montana and Idaho. It was the peak of Allen’s tenure, just before the pall of his cancer diagnosis brought the Broncos back to Earth.
Boise State’s 28-24 comeback victory over No. 2 Marshall on Dec. 10, 1994, in the I-AA national semifinals remains one of the legendary games played on The Blue. Boise State and Marshall meet for the first time since that game in the Broncos’ home opener Friday at Albertsons Stadium(7 p.m., ESPN2).
“Bob Seger has a song called ‘Turn the Page.’ That season was kind of a turn of the page for Boise State and a peek of things to come,” said Paul J. Schneider, who was the Broncos’ radio play-by-play announcer from 1973 through the end of the 2008 basketball season.
Boise State made the transition to I-A, now known as the FBS, in 1996. The Broncos won their first bowl game in 1999 and have posted 21 consecutive winning seasons dating back to 1998. With their appearance at No. 24 in The Associated Press Top 25 and USA Today Coaches’ Poll on Tuesday, Boise State has been ranked at least one week in each of the past 18 seasons.
Looking back, that 1994 victory over Marshall was perhaps the Broncos’ first step toward national prominence. The season also marked the end of Idaho’s 12-game rivalry win streak.
“Our senior captain’s name was Jarett Hausske, and he wrote a letter at the beginning of the year that mapped out our season,” said former Boise State quarterback Tony Hilde, who was a sophomore on the 1994 team. “It was beating Idaho, breaking that big streak, winning a Big Sky championship and playing in a national championship game. All those things happened for us. It’s the power of belief.
“Statistically we got our rear ends kicked (against Marshall), but we found a way to win together. I think it’s such a microcosm of what Boise State has done in the last 25 years.”
Marshall arrived in Boise for that 1994 game with a No. 2 ranking, 12-1 record and national runner-up finish the year before — and it was scheduled to host the championship game. The Thundering Herd led 17-0 early in the second quarter and 24-7 when Hilde, the Broncos’ starting QB, went to the locker room with a separated shoulder with 2:25 remaining before halftime.
“I was calling the game on the radio and at halftime I went out to get a cup of coffee,” Schneider said. “Marshall, their hierarchy was out there and they were celebrating talking about going home, slapping hands, laughing, grinning. At that point in the ball game, you could see their point, because they started out very strong.”
Backup Mark Paljetak, who had thrown just four passes with one completion all season, took over for Hilde and promptly marched the Broncos 61 yards in five plays. Paljetak found Lee Schrack on a screen for a 34-yard score, closing the gap to 24-14 at halftime.
“When Tony went down, we’re thinking our goose is cooked. There’s no way in the world we’re going to win this game,” said Max Corbet, who was the Broncos’ sports information director at the time. “But we get that score and then we skunked them in the second half and Tony came back in to play. We scored (21) unanswered points ... and then held them off. The magic of the whole season just kept going on.”
Hilde returned to the field with 3:04 left in the third quarter and Marshall still leading 24-14. Despite severe pain in his right (throwing) shoulder, Hilde orchestrated a 10-play, 89-yard scoring drive that culminated with a 2-yard touchdown run from star running back K.C. Adams that made it 24-21 Marshall with 14:44 left.
Meanwhile, the Boise State defense buckled down. Marshall, which held the ball for more than 37 minutes in the game, had seven possessions in the second half. Five of them ended in punts and two others on downs.
“Those kids came out in the second half and they played their hearts out,” Mason said. “That was one of those teams that the charisma of that team, they didn’t think anybody could beat them. It was unreal that second half.
“If I remember right, we had plowed the field and there was snow piled up. It was cold and after the first half I thought: ‘Ooooh, this ain’t gonna be good.’ But then all of a sudden we started playing and playing well.”
With Marshall in man-to-man coverage, Hilde hit a wide-open Schrack with a 34-yard pass for the go-ahead score, making it 28-24 Boise State with 7:51 to go.
“It was like the parting of the Red Sea,” Corbet said. “Marshall’s defenders both went the other way to the sideline in a total blown coverage. He’s wide open. There was nobody within 20 yards of him.”
Marshall got the ball back three more times. The first drive after Boise State’s eventual game-winning touchdown ended in a punt. Then DaWuan Miller — the Broncos’ one-armed cornerback — ended the Thundering Herd’s next drive by batting down a pass on fourth-and-7 from the Boise State 38-yard line.
Hundreds of fans stormed The Blue when Keith Walk-Green knocked away a Marshall pass in the end zone on the last play of the game.
Allen had promised before the Marshall game if 20,000 fans showed up, he’d ride a horse down Broadway. The City of Boise met the challenge, with an announced crowd of 20,068 on hand despite the 23-degree weather. And true to his word, Allen saddled up and rode on horseback during a snowstorm to the weekly boosters luncheon at the Student Union the following Monday.
“He was amazing at getting people in the stands and finding a reason to have people come watch us,” Hilde said. “That game, there’s 6-foot piles of snow going all around the football field. It was snow-pocalypse 25 years ago. It was freezing and it was cold and he found a way to pack the house.
“We felt like we won that game as Boise. The crowd was incredible. Boise State was bigger than the guys on the field that day. It was everybody in the stands. There was no reason to be at a football game that day, but everybody was there.”
The Broncos’ unlikely run ended a week later with a 28-14 loss to Youngstown State on Marshall’s home field in Huntington, West Virginia — but the 1994 team already had secured its place as one of most memorable in program history.
“They just were blue-collar overachievers, like Boise State likes to present themselves,” Schneider said. “They were the epitome of that.”
MARSHALL AT BOISE STATE
When: 7 p.m. Friday
Where: Albertsons Stadium (36,387, FieldTurf)
TV: ESPN2 (Dave Flemming, Jim Mora, Paul Carcaterra)
Radio: KBOI 670 AM/KTIK 93.1 FM (Bob Behler, Pete Cavender)
Records: Both teams are 1-0
Series: Boise State leads 1-0 (last meeting: Boise State won 28-24 in a 1994 Division I-AA semifinal)
Vegas line: Boise State by 12
Weather: 84 degrees, partly cloudy, light wind