As it turned out, the only undefeated team to go down on Black Friday was Boise State itself. Who saw that coming?
Following a fourth quarter comeback filled with nearly as many twists and turns as the Broncos' famed Fiesta Bowl game against Oklahoma, No. 19 Nevada (11-1) pulled off the stunner of the season here Friday, rallying from a 24-7 deficit to win 34-31 in overtime. The Wolf Pack sent the third-ranked Broncos from the brink of the BCS Championship to having to share the WAC championship. Boise State (10-1), which had its 24-game win streak snapped, went from a possible trip to the Rose Bowl to a probable date in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.
"It's just crushing," said Broncos running back Doug Martin, whose 231 yards of offense were for naught. Asked about the end of his team's national-title hopes, Martin briefly choked up. "I don't want to think about that right now."
Meanwhile, with Journey's "Don't Stop Believing" playing on the PA, thousands of Wolf Pack fans poured on to the field of 30,000-seat Mackay Stadium to celebrate what coach Chris Ault called "the greatest win this university has ever had." The Hall of Fame inductee, who came out of retirement in 2004 in part because he'd tired of seeing his team get crushed annually by Boise State, took umbrage with the notion his team was one of the so-called "Little Sisters of the Poor" on the Broncos' schedule.
"All year, all you'd hear [from the media] after Boise beat Virginia Tech and Oregon State, was they're going to the Rose Bowl and the BCS," said Ault, whose team first gained notice with a 52-31 upset of Cal early in the year. "People ask us, 'Do you use that?' We didn't have to."
For a half, Boise State played like the team most felt would cruise to another undefeated regular season. With Heisman candidate Kellen Moore completing 12 of his first 14 passes for 162 yards and Martin rushing for 155 yards before halftime, Nevada showed little sign it could slow down the Broncos' offense. And prior to an 18-yard scramble late in the third quarter, the Wolf Pack's normally prolific rushing quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, had amassed zero net yards.
By then, however, the tide had already begun turning. Nevada, upping the pressure on Moore, forced punts on four straight Boise State possessions. Kaepernick and running back Vai Taua -- who became the most productive rushing tandem in NCAA history during the game -- got the Pistol offense firing. With 5:14 left, Nevada kicker Anthony Martinez capped off a 15-play, 87-yard drive with a 23-yard field goal to tie the score at 24-24, the first time since Boise's Labor Day opener against Virginia Tech it was not leading in the fourth quarter of a game.
Fifteen seconds later, Martin caught a screen pass, broke a tackle and burst 79 yards for a touchdown to go back up 31-24. Order restored, right?
Wrong. Nevada went back to the ground -- it outrushed the Broncos 239-8 in the second half -- and drove back into the red zone, tying the game back up on a 7-yard pass from Kaepernick to Rishard Matthews with 13 seconds left. On to overtime, right?
Not yet. Taking over with nine seconds left and the ball at his own 38, Moore uncorked a 53-yard bomb to receiver Titus Young, who fell to the ground with two seconds left. Boise kicker Kyle Brotzman -- 14-of-17 on the season -- lined up for a chip-shot 26-yard field-goal attempt from the center of the field to win ... and missed, wide right. Television replays showed the ball sail higher than the upright, difficult to say whether it was good or not. On to overtime we went, where Brotzman got another chance from 29 ... and missed again, wide left.
"One play can win a game, but it can't lose it," a diplomatic Chris Petersen said of Brotzman's misses. "There's a lot of plays before that we didn't make."
In the past, Boise always seemed to enjoy late-game magic. This time, it was clear the Wolf Pack were charmed. Following Brotzman's second miss, Nevada's Martinez -- a freshman who'd made seven kicks on the season prior to Friday and nearly lost his job three weeks earlier -- drilled the game-winner from 34 to touch off the biggest celebration Reno has seen this side of a slot-machine jackpot.
"This is special," said Ault. "[Boise] is a dominant football team, and it hasn't been a one-year deal. They've got a target on their back. We made a shot for it. We got a little piece of it."
It was a fitting Senior Day sendoff for Kaepernick, whose first start came three years ago, as a freshman, in a 69-67 quadruple-overtime loss to Boise on the blue turf. As a sophomore and junior, his teams fell into similarly gaping holes against the Broncos, mounted comebacks but ultimately fell short.
By game's end, his team had racked up a staggering 528 total yards (they came in averaging 537.7) against a Boise State defense that had allowed just 229.2 yards on average during its first ten games. The only team that's fared better? TCU -- which, besides Nevada, was the biggest beneficiary of Friday's outcome.
Boise figured to slide above the 11-0 Horned Frogs in Sunday's BCS standings if it handled Nevada. Now BCS No. 3 TCU, which finishes against 1-10 New Mexico, is the lone remaining undefeated non-AQ, assured of a BCS at-large berth if it handles the Lobos. It will go to the Rose Bowl if Oregon moves up to the national championship.
Or, the Horned Frogs could play for the title themselves if Auburn or Oregon slips up. It certainly won't happen without one last heavy dose of arguments over schedule strength and ranked opponents, but it will probably be a far less heated debate than the one that's reigned over Boise the past three months. From the time of its high preseason ranking, Petersen's team became an unwitting lightning rod, eliciting backlash from dismissive fans in the SEC to certain television analysts to even a bow-tied president at Ohio State.
In the end, however, the Great Boise State Debate wasn't settled by pollsters or computers, sportswriters or bloggers. Chris Ault, Colin Kaepernick, Vai Taua and Anthony Martinez rendered it moot. One Cinderella dashed another.