March, 20 2023
The analogy to the fairy tale Cinderella is a staple of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament every March. A scrappy 12 or 13-seed from a non-power conference becomes a media darling that first weekend by upsetting everyone’s brackets in toppling a 5 or 4-seed, respectively. In 2006, 11th seeded George Mason shocked the nation by making it all the way to the Final Four.
Just ten months later, the Boise State Broncos pulled off the football equivalent. The scrappy Cinderella from a non-power conference used a trifecta of trick plays to slay a college football blueblood. The victory went a long way to forcing the NCAA to adopt a playoff format. To top it all off, the concluding moment even involved two young lovers having a fairy tale moment.
The Fiesta Bowl featured Boise State, the undefeated winner of the Western Athletic Conference (WAC). Undefeated but uninvited to the title game due to a lack of “quality wins,” the Broncos were begrudgingly offered a spot in a BCS bowl. Their opponents were the University of Oklahoma, a member of the Big XII and college football royalty. The program boasts 26 members of the College Football Hall of Fame. The most recent Sooner inductee, head coach Bob Stoops, led his team onto the field favored by more than a touchdown.
Just a little more than halfway through the first quarter, Stoops and the Sooners were wondering just who this team in the blue and orange uniforms were. Boise opened the scoring with a 49-yard touchdown pass from Jared Zabransky to Drisan James, following it up with a forced fumble on Oklahoma’s next possession. Ian Johnson parlayed the turnover into a two-yard touchdown to put Boise up 14-0.
The Sooners cut the lead to 14-10, but Boise went on another run, expanding the lead to 28-10 in the third quarter following another Zabransky to James touchdown and a pick-six by Bronco defensive back Marty Tadman.
So far, the Fiesta Bowl had gone the way of a March Madness game. The upstart got out to an early lead, but the blueblood quickly got back into the game. Now having spotted Boise a three-score lead, the Sooners went on an extended run of their own, scoring 18 unanswered points in just under twenty minutes of play to tie the score, 28-28. When Sooner defensive back Marcus Walker picked off Zabransky and returned it 34-yards for a touchdown with just 1:02 remaining it appeared Boise State’s carriage had turned back into a pumpkin and Oklahoma would escape with a 35-28 victory.
Then the troika of tricks began.
The Broncos drove to midfield but then were stifled by the Oklahoma defense. Facing fourth-and-18 from midfield, Boise State head coach Chris Petersen called for the “hook and ladder” play. Zabransky completed yet another pass to Drisan James but instead of turning upfield, James lateralled the ball to fellow receiver Jerard Rabb, who was trailing the play. The unaccounted-for Rabb then completed the 50-yard score to tie the game 35-35 with just seven seconds remaining.
Boise State chose to go on defense first in overtime and watched almost helplessly as Adrian Peterson ran 25 yards on the first play to put Oklahoma up 42-35. The Broncos drove to the six-yard line but faced another fourth down situation when they broke out a modified Wildcat formation. Zabransky suddenly ran out wide in motion while the center snap went directly to receiver Vinny Peretta, who lined up in the backfield. Peretta rolled right and found tight end Derek Schouman for a touchdown. The Broncos trailed 42-41 and Petersen elected to bring out his third and final trick.
Boise State lined up for a two-point conversion and Zabransky took the snap from center and got in position to pass, only instead of completing his follow through, the wily quarterback kept the ball behind his back where it was grabbed by running back Ian Johnson on the “Statue of Liberty” play. Johnson then ran uncontested to the corner of the end zone to give the Broncos a wild 43-42 victory.
After a wild celebration, Johnson was being interviewed by the FOX network when he ran over to Boise State cheerleader Crissy Popadics, his girlfriend. Johnson got onto one knee and proposed to Popadics, who tearfully accepted as a sell-out crowd and a national television audience looked on in wonder.
“Another day at the office, huh?” an exultant but somewhat shellshocked Petersen said in the post-game tumult. “We gave them every trick in the bag.”
There were real world implications for this fairy tale ending. The BCS had often systematically left mid majors such as Boise State out in the cold. Now having defeated Oklahoma, the Broncos made it clear that on any given night, any team could beat any other. As Sports Illustrated argued: “Like it or not, (this game) just became the single biggest argument to date for a college football playoff.”
More than fifteen years later, playoffs are a reality and will be expanded from four teams to twelve. This makes it possible for champions of the Group of Five conferences (American, Conference USA, Mid-American, Mountain West, and Sun Belt) to go on a run to a title game appearance. Unlike the Boise State Broncos, these teams should not feel compelled to propose marriage on national television.