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Boise States Its Case

Nov. 23, 2009
Nov. 23, 2009

Table of Contents
Nov. 23, 2009

GOLF PLUS
LEADING OFF
Inside: THE WEEK IN SPORTS
CHARGERS
  • Feeling good and finally content with a reduced role in the offense, LaDainian Tomlinson is rediscovering the joy of running as San Diego makes its move in the AFC West

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Boise States Its Case

The 10--0 Broncos, as overlooked as their lightly recruited quarterback, showed again that they're worthy of a BCS bid. But will there be a spot for Kellen Moore & Co.?

This is an article from the Nov. 23, 2009 issue

The neon-lit Princess Theatre is on the main drag in Prosser, Wash., a hamlet tucked away in the Yakima Valley. In the 1920s the Princess staged vaudeville and circus acts. Now it shows an entirely different spectacle: Boise State football, the greatest show on (blue) turf. Last Saturday afternoon, as Boise State played Idaho some 300 miles away in Bronco Stadium, a packed house at the Princess gazed up at the big screen and roared as Prosser High grad and Boise State sophomore quarterback Kellen Moore floated a perfect 20-yard pass to wideout Austin Pettis for his fourth touchdown throw ... of the first half. With another splendid performance by the hometown kid (299 yards, a career-high-tying five touchdown passes, no picks) and another Broncos beat-down (63--25 over the Vandals), it was a very good day in Prosser, where "you can't go out without seeing someone in blue and orange, and you can't turn on the doggone TV without hearing someone gushing over Kellen Moore," says the head of the local chamber of commerce, Jim Milne. "Here in Mayberry, we go geeky over stuff like this."

It's about time the rest of America went geeky over Moore and unbeaten Boise State. After thumping Idaho, the Broncos are 10--0 and ranked sixth in the BCS standings. But they are still on the outside looking in at a BCS bowl berth, especially after No. 4 TCU's impressive 55--28 victory over No. 16 Utah on Saturday, a command performance that positioned the unbeaten Mountain West Conference kings as this season's BCS crashers.

If TCU and Boise finish the regular season perfect (of the teams' remaining five opponents, only Nevada, the Broncos' Nov. 27 foe, is a serious threat), would the BCS suits hand out two of their four at-large invitations to—gasp!—teams from outside the six power conferences? Or would lower-ranked Boise State, which has pummeled all but one of its victims by double digits and trounced Pac-10 front-runner Oregon, get passed over?

The Broncos, who were left out of the BCS last year after going 12--0 (and then lost to TCU 17--16 in the Poinsettia Bowl), have long given up trying to figure out a system that Edwin Hubble would have a hard time understanding. After the win over Idaho—Boise State's fifth victory by at least five touchdowns—coach Chris Petersen deadpanned, "I think we'll probably drop three or four notches."

Like his team, Moore deserves more love. In an autumn without a clear Heisman front-runner, Moore should be included in the discussion for the stiff-arming statue for this simple reason: No quarterback is having a better season—not Florida's Tim Tebow, not Texas's Colt McCoy, not Moore's text-messaging pal at Houston, Case Keenum. Moore leads the country in passing efficiency (172.5) and touchdown passes (32), and has thrown for 2,558 yards with only three interceptions. Not that the mellow, soft-spoken quarterback is counting. "The other day I asked Kellen how many touchdowns he had, and he had no idea," says junior tight end Tommy Gallarda, one of Moore's roommates. "He just goes about his business, and he couldn't care less if he gets any recognition."

During his career at Prosser High, where he played for his father, Tom, Moore completed more passes and threw for more touchdowns than any other quarterback in Washington high school history, yet because of his size (6 feet, 170 pounds) only three schools—Boise State, Eastern Washington and Idaho—offered him a scholarship. (The Broncos did so reluctantly, only after defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, Moore's primary recruiter, told Petersen he would give up a scholarship on defense if the quarterback didn't pan out.) The scouting report on Moore read: so-so arm, below-average athleticism, too small, too slow. "The first time I saw Kellen [in the spring of 2006], he came with his younger brother, Kirby, and I'm thinking, O.K, he's not that small, we can work with this," recalls Petersen. "But then I realize I'm looking at Kirby. I look at the other guy and think, Oh, so that's Kellen?"

But he has turned out to be the perfect player to run Petersen's complex offense, even if in his second year as a starter he looks more like a hipster barista than a football stud, still baby-faced and mop-topped. "I've always known my limitations," says Moore, "but I've also known there are things you can take advantage of to be successful, and that's to be as prepared as possible."

Early mornings at the Boise football facility, Moore closes the door in the cramped video room, puts on headphones ("usually Jack Johnson or Matt Nathanson, something mellow," he says) and hunkers down for two or three hours of film review before comparing notes with coaches. He watches more football when he gets home; the TiVo he shares with his roommates is full of football games. "We came home one day, and a bunch of Family Guy episodes were deleted," says Gallarda. "We're like, Did you really need to see the Houston-Tulsa game that badly?"

Moore has always been, as Wilcox calls him, "a football nerd." He hung out with his dad at Prosser High practices as soon as he could walk. He was ordering NFL playbooks online as early as the sixth grade. He would buy game video with money he saved up. "He always had a notebook with him, drawing up plays as he watched," says Tom. By the time Kellen was being recruited by Boise State, he knew the Broncos' playbook inside out. (He had bought it as a freshman in high school.) Kellen and his father were in the stands for Boise's stunning 43--42 Fiesta Bowl win over Oklahoma in January 2007. When the Broncos lined up for the winning two-point conversion in overtime, Kellen recognized the formation. "Statue of Liberty," he said to his dad before Boise converted the trick play.

When Petersen announced that he was tapping a redshirt freshman as his starting quarterback before the start of the 2008 season, the coach says he had a "gut feeling," one that came primarily from watching Moore's day-to-day preparation. "The first time I knew that Kellen was going to be something special was when we were preparing for our bowl game [against East Carolina in 2007]," says Petersen. "I'm looking in to a meeting with our coaches and our offensive players. There's Kellen, in Hawaii during his redshirt year. It's obvious there's no chance he's going to get in the game. Most guys would sit back, but he's hanging on every word from the coaches, taking down notes, absorbing everything. I'm thinking, This kid's an animal."

Moore's greatest assets are his poise—"he's cold-blooded, utterly unflappable," says Wilcox—and savvy. During a video session last week, after noting that an Idaho safety could be beaten inside, he suggested that coaches tweak one play by changing a curl route to a post pattern. The first time the Broncos ran the play against the Vandals, Moore hit Pettis for a touchdown. "He sees things before coaches do," says Petersen. "I've never been around a player who's right as often as Kellen is."

Not surprisingly, Moore wants to follow in his father's footsteps and coach someday. Meanwhile the folks in Prosser are expecting more big things in Boise over the next two years, particularly now that Kellen is playing with Kirby, a freshman wideout who at Prosser broke the national high school record for receiving touchdowns. (The brothers connected on their first touchdown on Oct. 31 against San Jose State.)

For now, only three games—a road trip to Utah State, then home games against Nevada and New Mexico State—stand between the Broncos and their third perfect regular season in four years. The WAC recently announced that it has hired a public relations firm to help make the Broncos' case for a BCS bid. The kid from Prosser will be leading the way, and the patrons at the Princess will be paying close attention. Perhaps soon the rest of the country will take notice too.

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After Boise's fifth win by at least five TDs, Petersen quipped, "We'll probably drop three or four notches."
"He sees things before coaches do," says Petersen. "I've never been around a player who's right as often as Kellen is."

The BCS Race

Thanks to USC's latest loss, things might not be so dire for Boise State

TCU's resounding 55--28 victory over Utah virtually ended Boise State's hopes for an automatic BCS bid—one spot is reserved for the highest-ranked team from outside the six power conferences if it finishes in the top 12—and in the process the Horned Frogs made believers of Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. "I've been a head coach for five years, and that's the best team I've faced," Whittingham said of No. 4 TCU, which has the fourth-ranked offense and defense in the country.

But the news was not all bad for the Broncos last Saturday night. That's because USC, a prime candidate for one of the four BCS at-large bids, was throttled at home by Stanford 55--21. The Trojans allowed the most points in the 121-year history of their program, but more important was what the loss did to their BCS ranking. A team from a BCS conference has to finish in the top 14 to get an at-large bid; USC is 18th.

Ohio State became the first team to clinch a BCS berth, and the Big Ten figures to get a second bid, with Iowa or Penn State. But here's more good news for Boise: As much as the at-large selections are about TV ratings and ticket sales, no conference can receive more than two invitations. Who would get the second Big Ten bid? The Nittany Lions, who had to rally to beat Indiana at home last Saturday, were the beneficiaries of some curious voting last week, jumping from 17th to 12th in both the coaches' and the Harris polls. Penn State is now 14th in the BCS rankings, one spot behind the Hawkeyes. Both teams have two losses, but Iowa won the head-to-head meeting 21--10 at Beaver Stadium on Sept. 26.

If Boise State fans are looking for somebody to root for, they should think about getting in Oklahoma's corner. With four losses, the Sooners won't be going to a BCS bowl this season, but they can have a say in who does. Oklahoma State is 12th in the BCS rankings. Winning out would put the Cowboys at 10--2 and make them an attractive option for an at-large bid. But winning out would also mean beating Oklahoma in Norman on Nov. 28.

With selection day set for Dec. 6, here is SI's projected BCS lineup:

Title game: Alabama vs. Texas

Rose: Ohio State vs. Oregon

Fiesta: Iowa vs. Boise State

Sugar: Florida vs. Pittsburgh

Orange: Georgia Tech vs. TCU

TWO PHOTOSPhotographs by JOHN W. MCDONOUGHQUIET CONFIDENCE Throwing to playmakers such as Titus Young (right), the soft-spoken Moore is 22--1 as the Broncos' starting quarterback.SEVEN PHOTOSPhotographs by JOHN W. MCDONOUGHCATCH 2-2 To the delight of Petersen (below), Pettis (above in blue) performed a juggling act on one catch against Idaho.TWO PHOTOSBOB ROSATOPURPLE POWER Jerry Hughes (98) had reason to shout as TCU held Utah to 65 rushing yards.PHOTOPhotograph by JOHN W. MCDONOUGHUNDER THE RADAR Moore leads the nation in passing efficiency and TD throws, but he's not getting much Heisman hype.