This story appears in the December 12, 2016, issue of Sports Illustrated. To subscribe, click here.
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 supposed to be a romp.
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. Whew.
Boise State’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, Boise State quarterback: We started throwing the Tostitos chips around when we won in Nevada. We knew if we won, 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, Boise State receiver: We knew there was a chance we could play Nebraska or Wisconsin, and we were delighted it was Oklahoma. That was the most prestigious team out there, and the one that people would respect us the most if we beat.
Marty Tadman, Boise State 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.
Bryan Harsin, Boise State offensive coordinator: We had a first-year head coach [Chris Petersen], two young coordinators. We were just young and dumb enough to not know we couldn’t go out there and win every single game.
Justin Wilcox, Boise State 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.”
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When the teams arrived Arizona the week before the game, Boise State players began to realize where they fit in the college football hierarchy.
Ian Johnson, Boise State 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 do I feel about that, and I said, “Oh, maybe he’s not a big football fan.”
Jerard Rabb, Boise State 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 a little snide comment, like, “You guys are just happy to be here, right? You guys don’t really expect to win, right?” Me and him went back to the hotel and of course we had to spread the word because this is great locker room material.
Johnson: They were so dismissive of the situation 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 half. 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 two and a half 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 that they were shocked. They weren’t prepared for a game like that.
Johnson: They’d hit us hard, and they look at us like, “Why are you still punching back? Why are you getting up?” It was more like, “I don’t understand what we’re seeing. The product doesn’t match the packaging.”
Zabransky: That’s the perfect position, to have your opponent in disbelief mode.
Legedu Naanee, Boise State receiver: In the second quarter, I remember looking up into the stands and everybody on their side was sitting on their hands. It was crazy. They were just in complete shock. I’ve never seen anything like that.
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Oklahoma didn’t roll over. With 5:30 left 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 quater, Oklahoma kicked a 28-yard field goal to pull within eight. The score remained 28–20 until Oklahoma drove for a touchdown and two-point conversion with 1:26 remaining. With the game now tied at 28 and 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 just dropped. It had been 15 minutes of “Holy crap, if we don’t stop the bleeding, this is gonna get bad. We need to stop it, we need to make a play,” and then that happened. It was just heartbreaking. “I can’t believe we’re 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!”
Perretta: Here we are, fairy tale ending to a great season, and we got the game stolen from us. It would end like that, to someone who’s an underdog. You’ve got to be kidding me.
James: He throws it, and all the sudden I’m like, “No, nooooo!” Then you hear everyone screaming and you see the No. 24 jersey streaking to the end zone and you’re like, “Oh. My. God.”
Zabransky: As soon as the ball was leaving my fingertips I said, “Oh, s---!” I was running, trying to chase him down. I’m glad I didn’t dive and get him at the five or something.
Marcus Walker, Oklahoma defensive back: Ugh. I try not to remember that play.
Bob Stoops, Oklahoma coach: The ironic part is, if he 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 Oklahoma a 35–28 lead, and Boise State fans started to flood out of the stadium. 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. 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?
Harsin: You had nothing else at that point. I mean, it’s fourth-and-18. This is why you have Circus.
Naanee: We finally called the f------ play! You don’t understand: We ran this play every. single. week. It got to this point in practice where you don’t want to go through the motions, but, like, we’re never gonna call this play.
Johnson: It never worked in practice ‘cause we never took it super seriously.
James: That was such a cluster play. In practice, I would catch the ball, and I’d throw it back to Z. Or Z would throw it to Rabb, and we’d we have to figure out a way to get a pitch man. I’d run underneath and the pitch goes to me, and all the sudden we get tackled. We’re just messing around and it’s literally just schoolyard ball.
Johnson: If there was ever a time for this stinking play to work, it was gonna be today.
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’m in my stance, I see No. 24 [Walker] is on me, and he’s playing about 10 yards off, and you know he’s gonna play soft.
With only 18 seconds to go, 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 knows he’s gonna rip it. He gives me that mean look as he’s about it throw 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’s very few times where I feel like I can see everyone else standing still and I’m moving past them, but that’s what it felt like. I can hear my heartbeat, couldn’t hear no fans. When [James] pitched it, my heart started beating a little faster and I’m like, all right, I gotta go.
Johnson: Never once did I think Jerard Rabb was a fast individual, but somehow, some way, he wanted to shine on that night and he found about two tenths of a second on his 40-yard dash—that he has never seen 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 run it in an actual game, it works. Hook and lateral, can’t believe it. Can’t believe it.
Tadman: If you watch the game, after Jerard jumps in the end zone, the camera goes to me and you see my mouth saying, “Oh my God!” 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.
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Korey Hall, Boise State linebacker: First play of overtime. We’ve held Adrian Peterson to, like, less than 50 yards rushing the whole game. He runs an off tackle play, I miss the tackle and he takes it 25 yards for a touchdown.
James: All the sudden, this Adrian Peterson cat just rips it right down the sideline. I’ve never seen a running back run like that in my entire life. Everybody on the sideline was wide-eyed like, holy s---, what just happened?
Hall: I ended up diving at his legs, and he wound up running through an arm tackle. I remember laying 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 such an emotional wreck because of what just happened. We were done.
Johnson: I’m 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 was Oklahoma.
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 then tuck the ball and go or throw to the tight end. On the sideline, Zabransky and head coach Chris Petersen got into it.
Zabransky: I didn’t like the fourth down call.
Perretta: Z was pissed. That’s to be expected. Here he is, quarterback, he wants the ball in his hands. Ian, who was a stud for us that year, he wasn’t even on the field. Then here I am, 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 or running back’s hands to throw it, late in the game with everything on the line!
Perretta: When we ran out on the field I’m thinking to myself, I can’t believe we’re actually running this play.
Harsin: On the headset, usually you get a “Yeah, it’s gonna be fine!” It was radio silence for a minute. Then I heard from Pete, “Ugh, I’m not sure.” There was hesitation. I can say that.
Perretta: This is either gonna be really good, or it’s gonna be really bad, we’re gonna lose, we’re gonna go back to Boise, and everyone’s going to hate No. 19, and I’m gonna have to move back to San Diego.
Derek Schouman, Boise State 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 No. 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 halfback 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 for the defender. Awesome moment.
Tadman: Holy crap, we just threw a halfback pass to tie it.
Instead, Petersen decided to end the game right there by going for a two-point conversion. That meant it was time for Statue of Liberty, the ultimate playground move.
Zabransky: We knew we were going to go for two.
Harsin: At that point, you’re just riding the lightning a little bit.
James: In the huddle, everybody’s just grinning. It’s 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 go 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’s perfect because you know what “fiesta” means—it means party. Party Bowl!
Zabransky: We had called [Statue of Liberty] earlier in the game, but there was a penalty that happened that didn’t allow us to run it. We also called a couple bubble screens. Every time we broke the huddle early with receivers, their linebackers and DBs were talking to each other, “They’re gonna run a screen.” So I said let’s hurry this one up, break the huddle early with the receivers, just to get their attention and create another dynamic of misdirection.
Wilcox: I remember in the box, when they ran out on the field, because of the numbers we had on the blocking scheme, everyone saying, “We got it.”
Johnson: I still can’t believe how calm everyone was. I never said anything to Z. It wasn’t like, “Hey, remember this is the most difficult handoff we have in our playbook.” Or, “You have to take a handoff from behind my back and not trip over my feet while I’m not looking at you, while you’re pretending like you’re not doing anything.”
Zabransky: I just didn’t want to drop the ball.
Johnson: I was having an in-depth conversation with myself of, “I really hope I don’t trip.” This is literally going through my mind as we’re like, “Down! Ready!”
After the snap, Zabransky turned 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 is three steps, and you just hold onto that ball until you actually feel it grabbed, which is different from a handoff because then, you see them and put it in their belly.
Johnson: They had finally bubbled enough, and I was like, O.K., I gotta actually get this ball now.
James: Everybody’s trying to break and crash down on this screen and we don’t even care about it! We’re looking all the way on the other side of the field.
Naanee: It was a guaranteed score just because [the Sooners] were so aggressive. You could feel they were desperate.
James: The defender looks at us like, “Oh, these dudes aren’t even trying.” Then they just put their heads down, and Ian was in.
Rabb: I had no doubt we were gonna score, especially when you sell it the way Z and Ian did. As far as execution and sell, if there was an Academy Award for a play, I think they’d probably get it.
Johnson: I look up, I’m not even looking at the ball, and I see there is nobody left on the whole half of the field. Man, I really hope I don’t trip.
Johnson walked into the end zone 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 on aisle six. Just wandering the field in amazement.
Johnson: I run to the stands, I’m sitting there, it’s the temporary stands and they actually break and all my friends and family land on me. It takes them a couple minutes to uncover me from this pile of mass humanity.
Chrissy Popadics, Boise State cheerleader and Johnson’s girlfriend: Meanwhile, I’m rushing around the field trying to find him. I just want to give him a massive hug and maybe sneak on camera for a second.
Johnson: As soon as I realize my legs aren’t broken, I bolt.
After his on-field interview with Fox, Johnson dropped to one knee and proposed to Popadics on national television.
Naanee: Everyone’s running around screaming. I’m trying to get over to where Ian’s at, and at that point he’s on his knee, so it’s 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, like, 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 the pass.
The next day, Johnson and Popadics flew to New York to appear on Good Morning America, while other media outlets ran highlight after highlight of the game.
Zabransky: Even if you weren’t a sports fan, it was on every single channel. You were going to see what happened.
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.
Tadman: When [the Sooners] found out they were playing Boise State, they probably looked at it as, it’s party time. They underestimated us. They were the ones who made us the underdog, and they’re the ones who paid for it.
Johnson: We were a bunch of two-star athletes that no one cares about, that everyone’s passed on. From day one, they 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 “small guy.” Makes you wonder, are there more teams like this?
Perretta: 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 re-write 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 just magical. Who would have thought?