Oh, Boise! Did Broncos Have a Fiesta
David had a slingshot and a stone. Posterity will recall that Boise State had both a hook-and-lateral and Statue of Liberty play.
Actually, the Broncos had much more than gadget plays in their arsenal when they pulled off the most memorable bowl game upset in nearly a quarter century. On New Year's Day, Boise State culminated an undefeated season with a 43-42 overtime victory over Big 12 leviathan Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl.
In so doing, the WAC champions provided the greatest paradigm shift college football had seen since another team clad in orange pants (Miami) on another New Year's Day (1984) usurped the national championship from another Big 12 school (Nebraska), also by a margin of a single point (31-30).
This was more than just the most thrilling football game of the decade, after all (strangely enough, it took place inside the same post-millennial venue as the second-most thrilling contest, Super Bowl XLII). It was a revolution. Utah had defeated Pittsburgh two seasons earlier in the Fiesta Bowl, shattering the glass ceiling that had existed for mid-major programs in BCS bowls, but the Panthers were nobody's idea of a juggernaut (in fact, the Utes had the better record and better talent).
Oklahoma, though, belonged in the VIP section. The Sooners were playing in their fifth BCS bowl game in seven years. Bob Stoops had already coached his team to three national championship game appearances this decade. His counterpart, Chris Petersen, 42, was in his first season as a head coach. It almost seemed unfair.
The following week on this same field Ohio State and Florida, a pair of schools whose uniform colors approximated those of Oklahoma and Boise State, respectively, would play for the BCS championship. The Fiesta Bowl seemed like little more than a warm-up act, a dress rehearsal. But if there were a sense among the Boomer Sooner throng that facing a "mid-major" program in a non-championship bowl was a bit of a letdown, well, Boise State's 14-0 lead midway through the first quarter aroused them.
Everyone remembers the dramatic finish (never has that term been more understated): the hook-and-lateral, a play Boise State refers to as "Circus", on fourth-and-18 from midfield with just 0:18 left that went for a 50-yard touchdown; the halfback pass, also on fourth down, in overtime; and, of course, the Statue of Liberty play from quarterback Jared Zabransky to Ian Johnson for the game-winning, two-point conversion.
A trio of trick plays. All three attempted on fourth down or the PAT equivalent. If any one of them fails, Boise State loses. In short, Cinderella was brazen.
What fades from memory is that the yokels dominated this contest for three quarters. The Broncos outplayed a Sooner team led by tailback Adrian Peterson (still recovering from a broken collarbone, to be fair) from the moment they recovered a fumble deep in Oklahoma territory on the game's second series.
The Broncos jumped to that 14-0 lead and extended it to 28-10 late in the third quarter when defensive back Marty Tadman intercepted a pass by Sooner quarterback Paul Thompson (future Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford was red-shirting that season) and returned it 27 yards for a touchdown.
That's when the empire struck back. Peterson galloped for an 8-yard touchdown. After a field goal made it 28-20, Thompson led the Sooners on a long drive that culminated in a 5-yard pass touchdown pass to wide receiver Quentin Chaney with 1:26 to play.
From that moment on, the game entered a dimension that defied reality if not also the most creative of imaginations.
First, Oklahoma converted its two-point conversion on its third try, after penalties -- one on each team -- nullified the first two plays.
On the next play from scrimmage, Sooner linebacker Marcus Walker intercepted a Zabransky pass and returned it 34 yards for a touchdown, seemingly restoring the BCS universe to order. After all, only 62 seconds remained and OU led 35-28.
Then came the fourth-and-18 play, "Circus", which the Boise State players would later admit to practicing just once per week, each Friday, and rarely executing.
Overtime. On the first play Peterson, in the final carry of his brief and brilliant collegiate career, runs off left tackle and scoots 25 yards into the end zone virtually untouched.
It seemed too easy for the Sooners, and everyone watching realized that if this became a battle of attrition then the odds did not favor the Broncos. With the score 42-35 in favor of the Sooners, Boise State faced a fourth-and-2 from the 5-yard line. During a timeout Petersen looked at Zabransky, his senior quarterback who might have been about to take his final snap at any level ... and the rookie head coach called for a halfback option pass.
Simply unbelievable, that, and had his role of the dice backfired Petersen might have been pilloried. Instead, Zabransky lined up in the shotgun and then went in motion to his left. The shotgun snap went to 5-9 backup wide receiver Vinny Perretta, who then rolled right and found tight end Derek Schouman in the end zone for the touchdown.
While eyeballs were still returning to their sockets, while witnesses were still trying to grasp what they had just seen, Petersen doubled down on the no-guts, no-glory card. Using a play drawn up by backup quarterback Taylor Tharp, Zabransky took the shotgun snap. He looked right and pump-faked a pass to his right ... except that the football was not in his right hand.
The pigskin was hidden in Zabransky's left hand, behind his hip. Tailback Ian Johnson yanked it away and raced into the end zone untouched, then threw the football into the stands.
By this point reporters on the field had given up placing exclamation points or stars next to their hastily scribbled notes. When one reporter informed another that Johnson had gotten down on one knee to propose to his girlfriend, the reaction was little more than a shrug. What would surprise you at this point?
It's quite astounding, actually. Just two days earlier, also in the Valley of the Sun, Minnesota and Texas Tech had squared off in the Insight Bowl. In that contest Minnesota led 38-7 midway through the third quarter. The game seemed such a foregone conclusion that many reporters in the press box were killing time by reading accounts of the execution of Saddam Hussein that was occurring simultaneously.
Then Texas Tech stormed back, the greatest bowl comeback in history, scoring 31 unanswered points before winning 44-41 in overtime. The outcome effectively cost Golden Gopher head coach Glen Mason his job.
But few people outside of Minneapolis and Lubbock remember that game. The Fiesta Bowl simply eclipsed everything that bowl season, and rightly so.