ON JAN. 1, 2007, BOISE STATE PUT THE MAJOR IN MID-MAJOR, AMBUSHING OKLAHOMA AND TURNING COLLEGE FOOTBALL UPSIDE DOWN. A DECADE LATER, THE BRONCOS LOOK BACK
David vs. Goliath.
Cinderella. Little guys vs. the big boys. No matter how you characterize the 2007 Fiesta Bowl, one thing is for sure: No one saw it coming. At least no one outside Boise, Idaho.
Oklahoma, with seven national titles to its name, is college football royalty. Led by junior running back Adrian Peterson, the Sooners went 11--2 and won the Big 12. They entered the game as seven-point favorites, and their matchup against a mid-major—even 12--0 Western Athletic Conference champ Boise State—was viewed as a letdown for a team that entered the season with national championship hopes. A romp was expected.
What followed instead was one of the greatest bowl games ever and a turning point in the BCS. The showdown at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., included a furious fourth-quarter comeback, 37 points in the final 1:26 of regulation and overtime, three trick plays and an on-field marriage proposal.
Boise's stunning 43--42 win proved that the little guys could compete, and it paved the road to the College Football Playoff. Ten years later, SI caught up with many of those Broncos, who feel that their win wasn't that surprising ... if you had been paying attention.
JARED ZABRANSKY,quarterback: We started throwing the Tostitos chips around when we won in Nevada. We knew we'd go to the Fiesta Bowl, and when a bunch of guys come to a school like this, you don't know how realistic [going to a bowl like that] is.
DRISAN JAMES,receiver: We were delighted to play Oklahoma. They were the most prestigious team out there, and the one that people would respect us the most if we beat.
MARTY TADMAN,safety: I didn't know we were underdogs. I know it sounds stupid, but I didn't read one paper or watch one TV show talking about us. I had zero idea we were supposed to get killed. Like, why? We'd just won every game of our season.
JUSTIN WILCOX,defensive coordinator: Don't minimize the talent we had. I know it makes for a good story, but we had some good players. We never approached it like, We're gonna have to be Superman on every play.
WHEN THE TEAMS ARRIVED IN
Arizona the week before the game, Boise State players began to realize where they fit in the college football hierarchy.
IAN JOHNSON,running back: At media day they asked Adrian Peterson, "Hey, what do you know about Ian Johnson?" and he said, "Ian Johnson who?" So they asked me how I felt about that, and I said, "Oh, maybe he's not a big football fan."
JERARD RABB,receiver: Me and [receiver] Legedu Naanee, during bowl week we saw a couple of the Sooners and they tried to be nice, but then they threw in little snide comments, like, "You guys are just happy to be here, right? You guys don't really expect to win, right?" We went back to the hotel, and of course we spread the word, because this is great locker room material.
JOHNSON: They were so dismissive. They didn't even realize, calling us a Cinderella story, Cinderella becomes queen! David vs. Goliath? Goliath gets knocked out! Pick one where the underdog loses.
IN THE GAME, BOISE STATE JUMPED
out to a 14--0 lead, and had a 21--10 advantage at halftime. Midway through the third quarter, Tadman returned an interception for a score, giving the Broncos a 28--10 edge.
TADMAN: We dominated them the first 2½ quarters—but what else would we expect? They did exactly what we thought they'd do. Who cares that it was Oklahoma?
ZABRANSKY: We would score, and they would look at each other like, What the heck is going on? You could tell they were shocked. They weren't prepared for a game like that.
JOHNSON: They were like, I don't understand what we're seeing. The product doesn't match the packaging.
LEGEDU NAANEE: In the second quarter, I remember looking into the stands, and everybody on their side was sitting on their hands. It was crazy. They were in complete shock. I've never seen anything like that.
OKLAHOMA DIDN'T ROLL OVER. WITH 5:30left in the third quarter the Sooners got a break, when a punt bounced off the calf of a downfield Boise State blocker. Oklahoma recovered the muff and scored two plays later to make the score 28--17. The Sooners stopped the Broncos on their next possession, and early in the fourth, Oklahoma kicked a 28-yard field goal to pull within eight. The score remained 28--20 until Oklahoma drove for a touchdown and conversion with 1:26 remaining. The game was now tied at 28, and with 1:16 on the clock Zabransky misread the Sooners' coverage, and Oklahoma junior cornerback Marcus Walker picked off a pass intended for James.
TADMAN: The moment he caught it, my heart dropped. It had been 15 minutes of, If we don't stop the bleeding, this is gonna get bad. Then that happened. It was heartbreaking. I couldn't believe we were gonna end it by giving it away.
JOHNSON: My first thought was, Well, I fumbled two drives ago, at least it won't be my fault anymore!
VINNY PERRETTA,receiver: Here we are, on the verge of a fairy-tale ending to a great season, and we got the game stolen from us. You've got to be kidding me.
ZABRANSKY: As soon as the ball left my fingertips, I said, "Oh, s---!" Then I was running, trying to chase him down. I'm glad I didn't dive and get him at the five or something [because Oklahoma would have been able to run down the clock].
BOB STOOPS,Oklahoma coach: If [Walker] takes a knee at the one, we kick a field goal with a second to go, and game's over. But that's not what you're used to doing when you intercept the ball.
WALKER'S SCORE GAVE OKLAHOMAa 35--28 lead. The Broncos tried to rally but found themselves facing a fourth-and-18 on the 50 with only 18 seconds remaining. On the sideline Taylor Tharp, Boise State's backup quarterback, pantomimed juggling, which meant the call was Circus: the Broncos' hook-and-lateral play.
PERRETTA: There's always hope, but when they called that play, I wasn't too hopeful.
JAMES: In the huddle, I hear that play come in and I'm like, What the hell are we doing?
BRYAN HARSIN,offensive coordinator: We had nothing else at that point. I mean, it's fourth-and-18. This is why we had Circus.
NAANEE: We ran this play every single week. It got to the point in practice where we didn't want to go through the motions anymore—we're never gonna call this play.
JOHNSON: It never worked in practice because we never took it super seriously. But if there was ever a time for this stinking play to work, it was gonna be that day.
ZABRANSKY: Ian lined up on the wrong side—I had to grab him. It was like, Make sure we have seven guys at the line of scrimmage, make sure everybody's set. Cadence. Watch your defensive reads. Very structured, very, very procedural.
JAMES: I was in my stance, I saw the corner playing about 10 yards off the line, and I knew he was gonna play soft.
WITH ONLY 18 SECONDS TO PLAY,Zabransky threw a 15-yard pass over the middle to James, who was then supposed to lateral to Rabb, crossing in the other direction....
JAMES: [Zabransky's] eyes were just bulging out of his sockets because he knew he was gonna rip it. Perfect ball, easy spiral to catch. I still remember the crosshairs as it was coming into my hands. My No. 1 thing was, Where's Rabb? Where the hell is he?
RABB: There have been very few times where I felt like I could see everyone else standing still and I was moving past them, but that's what it felt like. I could hear my heartbeat, I couldn't hear any fans. When he pitched it, my heart started beating a little faster and I was like, All right, I gotta go.
JOHNSON: Never once did I think Jerard Rabb was a fast individual, but somehow, some way, he found about two-tenths of a second on his 40-yard dash on that play—which he has never had since.
RABB: That's what everyone says, and I reply, I run as fast as I need to run. At that point I needed to run faster, and I did.
JOHNSON: The first time we ran it in an actual game, it worked. Hook and lateral, couldn't believe it. Couldn't believe it.
TADMAN: If you rewatch the game, after Jerard jumps in the end zone, the camera goes to me and you see my mouth saying, "Oh, my God!" Then my mouth is wide open, and I'm looking at the screen and my big, fat lineman teammate jumps in my arms. I was as shocked as anyone.
IN OVERTIME OKLAHOMA GETS THEball first.
KOREY HALL,linebacker: First play of overtime—we'd held Adrian Peterson to, like, 50 yards during regulation—and he ran an off-tackle play. I missed the tackle, and he took it 25 yards for a touchdown.
JAMES: Peterson just ripped it down the sideline. I'd never seen a running back run like that in my entire life. Everybody on the sideline was wide-eyed, like, What just happened?
HALL: I ended up diving at his legs, and he ran through my arm tackle. I remember lying there as he ran by and thinking, Oh, my gosh, I just lost the freaking Fiesta Bowl for us.
TADMAN: No one did their job. Everyone was exhausted or an emotional wreck. We were done.
JOHNSON: I was sitting there thinking, We've asked our defense to do too much. We've gotta go out there and score to continue the game, but also, this is a mercy thing for our defense. We can't ask them to continually take the bludgeoning that Oklahoma was handing out.
TRAILING 42--35 AFTER PETERSON'S SCORE,the Broncos ran six plays and found themselves with fourth-and-two at the Oklahoma five-yard line. Harsin, who was in his first year as coordinator, called another misdirection play: Zabransky would go in motion out of the backfield and the ball would be snapped to Perretta; he would run a sweep, and tuck the ball and go or throw to the tight end. On the sidelines Zabransky and coach Chris Petersen got into it.
ZABRANSKY: I didn't like the fourth-down call.
HARSIN: On the headset, usually you would get a "Yeah, it's gonna be fine!" It was radio silence for a minute. Then I heard from [Petersen], "Ugh, I'm not sure." There was hesitation, I can say that.
PERRETTA: Z was pissed. That was to be expected. Here he was, quarterback, he wanted the ball in his hands. Ian, who was a stud for us all year, wasn't even on the field. Then there I was, just a janky little walk-on.
ZABRANSKY: I was saying, Let's call something else where I can throw the ball. You don't want to put the ball in the wide receiver's hands to throw it late in the game with everything on the line!
PERRETTA: When we ran out on the field, I was thinking to myself, I can't believe we're actually running this play. This is either gonna be really good, or it's gonna be really bad.
DEREK SCHOUMAN,tight end: [Perretta] was supposed to throw it to me, so I was fired up about it.
PERRETTA: We had run a similar play the game before, against Nevada, and it was a designed run. We figured Oklahoma had done their homework and was telling their defense, Hey, if number 19 is in, in this formation and the QB motions out, it's probably going to be a sweep to that side of the field.
ZABRANSKY: I remember telling him, "Just sell the run fake. Really sell it like it's going to be a sweep."
SCHOUMAN: He threw a perfect pass to the corner of the end zone. Nice, soft throw. Right where it had to be. Good spiral. Everything was really slow. Right where it had to be, just out of reach of the defender. Awesome moment.
TADMAN: My reaction? Holy crap, we just threw an option pass to tie it.
PETERSEN DECIDED TO END THE GAME RIGHTthere by trying for a two-point conversion. Harsin called for the Statue of Liberty, the ultimate playground move.
ZABRANSKY: We knew we were going to go for two.
HARSIN: At that point, we were riding the lightning a little bit.
JAMES: In the huddle, everybody was grinning. It was like Christmas: You know that PlayStation is in that present wrapping. You don't even have to shake it, you just have to wake up and open it.
SCHOUMAN: Everyone knew it was gonna work.
JOHNSON: We had this mantra the whole season—Let's party in the end zone. When they called that play, it was perfect because we knew what fiesta means. It means party. Party Bowl!
ZABRANSKY: We had called that play earlier in the game, but there was a penalty that didn't allow us to run it. We had also run a couple of bubble screens, and every time our receivers broke the huddle early, their linebackers and DBs were talking to each other, "They're gonna run a screen." So I said, "Let's break the huddle early with the receivers," just to get their attention and create another dynamic of misdirection.
JOHNSON: I still can't believe how calm everyone was. I never said anything to Z, and he wasn't like, "You have to take a handoff from behind my back and not trip over my feet while I'm not looking at you."
ZABRANSKY: I just didn't want to drop the ball.
JOHNSON: I was having an in-depth conversation with myself: "I really hope I don't trip."
AFTER THE SNAP, ZABRANSKYturned and pumped his right arm toward the three receivers on his right, who were setting up as if they were executing a bubble screen. The defense bit on the fake, and Zabransky held the ball in his left hand, behind his back, for Johnson.
ZABRANSKY: The whole process was three steps, and you just held onto that ball until you actually felt it being grabbed, which is different from a normal handoff.
JOHNSON: They had finally bubbled enough, and I was like, O.K., I gotta actually get this ball now.
JAMES: The defense was trying to break and crash down on the screen, and we didn't even care about it! We were looking at the other side of the field.
NAANEE: It was a guaranteed score just because [Oklahoma] was so aggressive. You could feel they were desperate.
JAMES: The defender looks at us like, Oh, these dudes aren't even trying.
JOHNSON: I looked up, I wasn't even looking at the ball, and I saw there is nobody left on that half of the field. Man, I really hope I don't trip.
JOHNSON WALKED INTO THE ENDzone untouched.
ZABRANSKY: Dog piles everywhere.
TADMAN: I ran on the field, running in circles. It's over! How did we win this game?! Just pure elation, pure pandemonium.
JAMES: I was like a lost child. Just wandering the field in amazement.
JOHNSON: I ran to the stands. They were temporary stands, and they actually broke, and all my friends and family landed on me. It took them a couple of minutes to uncover me from this pile of humanity.
CHRISSY POPADICS,Boise State cheerleader and Johnson's girlfriend: I was rushing around the field trying to find him. I just wanted to give him a massive hug and maybe sneak on camera for a second.
IAN JOHNSON: As soon as I realized my legs weren't broken, I bolted.
AFTER AN ON-FIELD INTERVIEWwith Fox, Johnson dropped to one knee and proposed to Chrissy on national television.
NAANEE: Everyone was running around screaming. I was trying to get over to where Ian was, and at that point, he was on his knee, so it was a whole other circus.
POPADICS: I kept looking at him like, "Where's the ring? Where did you stash the ring?" [It was back in his hotel room.]
JAMES: I didn't even hear about the engagement until four days later. The most disappointing thing was, in that pandemonium, Ian threw the ball into the stands and it was so terrible.
It didn't even go past the second row. I was like, Ian, bro, when you chuck a ball in celebration, it needs to hit the moon or something. That throw....
JOHNSON: Might be evidence of why I had never attempted a pass.
THE NEXT DAY IAN AND CHRISSY FLEWto New York City to appear on Good Morning America, while other media embraced the Broncos.
ZABRANSKY: Even if you weren't a sports fan, you were going to see what happened—it was on every single channel.
PERRETTA: Everyone wants to see an underdog story, wants to see what the little guys can do against the big guys. It put Boise State on the map.
JOHNSON: We were a bunch of two-star athletes that no one cared about, that everyone passed on. From Day One, the coaches told us, "Be self-aware. Realize who you are. You're not gonna be the best at everything, but if you work together as a team, you can do something special."
RABB: It changed the perception of the quote-unquote small guy. It makes you wonder: Are there more teams like this?
JOHNSON: The game was portrayed as, You don't want to lose to the little guy—how embarrassing. But we were a damn good football team. They didn't lose to some jokers.
TADMAN: It wasn't like we went into the game, Let's rewrite history! When we woke up that morning, it was just another game. And by the time I went to bed, everything had changed. That game changed our lives forever. It changed our school's life. It was magical. Who would have thought?
PETERSEN DECIDED TO END IT RIGHT THERE. HARSIN CALLED THE STATUE OF LIBERTY.
WHERE DID THEY GO?
WHAT'S BECOME OF THE BRONCOS SINCE THEIR BIG WIN
Football: Two years in the NFL (Texans, Steelers); two years in the CFL (Edmonton)
Today: Entrepreneur in Houston
Football: Two years in the NFL (Bears, Raiders, Eagles); two years in the CFL (Hamilton)
Today: Software engineer for James Enterprise in Boise
Football: Did not play professionally
Today: Financial adviserat Tadman Financial in Boise
Football: Three years in the NFL (Vikings, Cardinals, Lions, Dolphins, 49ers)
Today: State Farm insurance agent in Boise
Football: Two years in the NFL (Cowboys, 49ers); one year in arena football (Boise Burn)
Today: Change scheduler for Boeing in Seattle
Football: Six years in the the NFL (Chargers, Panthers, Dolphins)
Today: Owner and operator of four businesses in San Diego
Football: One year in the NFL (Vikings)
Today: Orthopedics supplies sales rep at Stryker Corp. in Boise
Football: Five years in the NFL (won Super Bowl XLV with the Packers; Saints, Cardinals)
Today: Manager at Engineered Structures Inc. in Boise
Football: Four years in the NFL (Bills, Rams, Redskins, Saints)
Today: Boise State football quality-control assistant
HOOK & LATERAL
Oklahoma 35, Boise State 28, fourth-and-18, :18 left in the fourth quarter
1. ZABRANSKY (5) had a clear view of James over the middle and delivered a strike.
2. JAMES (11) made a clean catch and immediately began looking for fellow receiver Rabb (1), who was crossing behind him. As the two passed, James pitched the ball to Rabb.
3. RABB turned up the sideline and outran the Sooners secondary, diving for the pylon to pull his team within one point with only seconds remaining.
Oklahoma 42, Boise State 35, fourth-and-two, overtime
ZABRANSKY motioned out of the backfield, leaving Perretta, a former walk-on wide receiver, as the only player in the backfield to take the snap.
PERRETTA took the snap and broke right as if running a sweep, a play the Broncos had run in their previous game against Nevada.
SCHOUMAN (91) slipped behind the aggressive Oklahoma defense as Perretta pulled up and lofted a soft pass to the corner of the end zone for the TD.
STATUE OF LIBERTY
Oklahoma 42, Boise State 41, two-point conversion, overtime
1. ZABRANSKY (5) faked a bubble screen to his right, while holding the ball behind him in his left hand. Johnson (41) delayed initially, allowing the defense to react, then cut left and took the ball from Zabransky.
2. JOHNSON broke around the corner with hardly a Sooner defender in sight. He pranced into the end zone untouched for the two-point game-winner.
3. AFTER scoring, Johnson threw the ball into the stands, before looking for Chrissy on the sideline.