Double overtime wasn’t an option.
In what was Boise State’s biggest game in program history back in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl, the underdog Broncos held their own against college football giant Oklahoma for 60 minutes and counting — proving many doubters wrong.
Some may remember what happened next, as the play has since been replayed every bowl season in the form of a 30-second clip.
Star running back Ian Johnson took a perfectly executed Statue of Liberty handoff into the end zone untouched, launching the ball into the stands in celebration as the Broncos upset the Sooners 43-42. Johnson then proposed to his girlfriend, a Boise State cheerleader at the time, on national television — and she of course said yes.
“It took me a second to realize what happened,” said Marty Tadman, the defensive player of the game. “I didn’t actually see the handoff and I was watching the receivers’ routes. Then all of a sudden, I just see Ian sprint the other way and guys are running on the field. I just didn’t know what to do. I was frozen and was just in complete shock.”
The whole scene was reminiscent of a script out of a movie.
But while everybody remembers a storybook ending, it’s natural to forget the steps taken to get there.
Boise State’s 2007 Fiesta Bowl win was filled with improbable plays and magical moments that culminated in one of the most memorable endings of the BCS era. It opened the door for mid-major teams to get a shot at top bowl games and arguably had a major hand in the creation of the expanded College Football Playoff three years ago.
Now 10 years to the day later, players on that iconic team still feel connected to that game.
David vs. Goliath
The lore of the Jan. 1, 2007 matchup starts with the weeks leading up to the clash between Boise State and Oklahoma.
It was expected to be a one-sided battle. Cliches like “David vs. Goliath,” “little guys” and “underdog” were all thrown around by the media to describe the Broncos’ chances at an upset.
The Sooners, one of college football’s rich-tradition bluebloods, entered with an 11-1 record and a Big 12 title. Oklahoma had one of the nation’s top running backs in Adrian Peterson, who was playing in his first game in three months after breaking his collarbone.
Meanwhile, Boise State closed out a 12-0 regular season and earned a WAC title en route to its trip to Glendale, Arizona. But while the Broncos had an experienced roster, they didn’t receive much national attention. The Broncos only joined Division 1-A football a decade earlier and were only the second non-BCS conference program to earn a bowl bid of that level.
“I knew the name Adrian Peterson and obviously knew we were playing a pretty historic team,” Tadman added. “But as far as being the underdog, other than the fact we were playing a big school … once you started watching film on them and preparing for the game, none of us really felt like underdogs. We felt pretty confident in our approach to the game.”
Zabransky and Tadman weren’t alone in hearing this outside noise. But under the tutelage of first-year head coach Chris Petersen — now at the helm of Washington — they said the Broncos were taught to stay away from that talk as much as possible — to not to fire back or provide any motivational tools for the opposition.
But for the most part, this outside chatter was unavoidable. And many of the Broncos embraced this perceived underdog role and used it to fuel the fire ahead of the game.
“Of course there was a lot of little guy vs. big guy talk and we took that to heart,” former wide receiver Drisan James recalled. “We did actually use that as incentive to show everybody what we were about.”
Setting the tempo
For all the talk about Peterson’s return from injury and Oklahoma’s dangerous offense, it was Boise State that came out of the gates firing.
Just one play after the ensuing kickoff, the Broncos made its presence known as lineman Mike T. Williams stripped Sooners quarterback Paul Thompson of the ball and recovered it inside the 10-yard line.
Johnson then punched it in from three yards out on the second play of the drive, and suddenly, the underdogs were up 14-0 just 7:31 into the first quarter.
“That was one thing we did that season. Especially in our tough games, we came out and started fast and that was always a team goal,” said linebacker Korey Hall, who was in on the pass rush alongside Williams on the caused fumble.
“We definitely showed some character being able to start fast and get out in front of them.”
By halftime, Boise State held a commanding 21-10 lead after another touchdown from James.
“Being in that environment, you just try your hardest to be as much as a factor for your team as possible,” James said. “Scoring those two touchdowns from a personal perspective was definitely awesome. But on the other side of things, it was just being a catalyst to an overall machine.”
And that machine kept powering out of the break.
Tadman, the quarterback of the Broncos’ experienced secondary, added to the lead on his second interception of the day and Boise State’s fourth forced turnover to that point, halfway through the third quarter.
The play, which made it a 28-10 game, was a perfect culmination of Boise State’s preparation heading into the game, according to Tadman.
“We knew in that formation, when we studied the film, they’d only run one pass play that entire season. It was the same type of play — they’d throw a slant or a hitch or an out to the wide side of the field,” Tadman said. “Our defensive coordinator called a blitz that fit that kind of play perfectly where our two field side linebackers Korey Hall and Colt Brooks blitzed and I’m the one that pops down right to the area where that short pass would take place.
“A lot of people always joked that I was always in the right place at the right time and that’s how I did well, but all of that was due to preparation.”
‘Like a slow death’
Oklahoma overcame a lot of hurdles on its way to its Big 12 crown, whether it was the prolonged absence of Peterson or a controversial loss in the regular season to Oregon on a botched onside kick call. So it was no surprise when the Sooners crawled their way back into the game over the final one and a half quarters.
“Hell, it was Oklahoma,” James said. “We knew that we were going to have our shots and definitely that they were going to have their shots.”
While it was three interceptions and a fumble that allowed Boise State to take control early on in the Fiesta Bowl, it was a crucial turnover from the Broncos that woke up the sleeping giants out of Norman.
With 5:16 left in the third quarter, an Oklahoma punt bounced from inside the 10-yard line back near the 15-yard line where it unexpectedly tapped the back of the leg of a Bronco for a fumble to set up the Sooners inside the red zone. Peterson then finished the drive with his first touchdown of the day.
That would start a 25-0 run for Oklahoma.
After a Garrett Hartley field goal opened the final quarter of play, the Sooners than tied it at 28-28 with a Quentin Chaney touchdown catch and two-point conversion with 1:26 remaining.
Twenty-four seconds later, Zabransky was intercepted and the Sooners’ Marcus Walker returned it 33 yards the other way to give Oklahoma a shocking lead.
“The safeties did a good job of disguising it,” Zabransky said. “You don’t just look straight out to the corner in a 3-by-1 but he was soft pre-snap and as soon as I turned my head to let the ball go, [Walker] sat. It was a cover two look by the corner post-snap and that got to me.”
Now down seven with 1:02 left on the clock, it appeared the clock had struck midnight on Boise State’s Cinderella run to the Fiesta Bowl.
A 'Circus' ending
At the end of every week of practice back in 2007, Boise State would casually run a hook and ladder play where one player would catch a pass and then lateral it to a teammate — it was dubbed “Circus.”
Circus was never taken too seriously and was mostly practiced in T-shirts and shorts as a walk through the day before each game. It showed little success in terms of gaining extra yardage.
“We practiced our Hail Marys, our Big Ben and then Circus was another one that was practiced,” James said. “Guys need a release and whenever you prepare on Thursdays or Fridays, you do have your jack-around plays — and that was one of them.”
So, of course, with Boise State facing a fourth-and-18 from midfield with 18 seconds left and a seven-point deficit in the Fiesta Bowl, the Broncos called for Circus.
“Nobody looked at each other and said, ‘What the heck is this play call’ or ‘This never works.’ Everybody came to the line of scrimmage with the mentality of trying to execute that play,” Zabransky said. “I think that [belief] is what separated us from a lot of teams.”
From there, Rabb broke free down the left sideline for the final 35 yards before diving over the pylon to tie the game with seven seconds left.
“I caught the ball and it felt like it took forever to get into my hands. As soon as it did, I tucked it and sold the defense by taking a step upfield,” James said. “Then I see Jerard coming around. I’ve never seen him run that fast. Jerard wasn’t necessarily our blazer but he came around.
“I had no clue that he was going to score. It was like, I did my part in catching the ball, selling the defense and pitching it. The rest was up to Rabb. As soon as I pitched it, I turned around and was like, ‘Holy cow, he’s about to score.’”
In a span of 11 seconds, Boise State was revitalized.
A grand finale
Boise State’s quick momentum shift didn’t last too long heading into overtime. On the first play of the extra period, Peterson took the draw 25 yards for a touchdown on his longest rush of the game.
“Adrian Peterson got pissed off during overtime,” James said. “When he took that handoff and ran the way he did, everybody looked at each other and I looked at [coach Petersen] and we were all thinking that we had to go for two [if we scored] before he takes the game over.”
But before getting the chance to go for two, the Broncos first needed to reach the end zone against a Sooners unit that had tightened up since halftime.
Enter tight end Derek Schouman and backup receiver Vinny Perretta.
Boise State once again faced a fourth-down situation with the game on the line, this time needing to pick up two yards from the 6-yard line to continue its overtime drive. And once again, a trick play was dialed up.
Zabransky sprinted from under center to out wide left to leave Perretta alone under center to take the snap. Perretta received the ball and rolled right before lobbing a pass over a defender and into the arms of Schouman in the end zone.
It was a perfect throw from a skill position player that saw only limited action prior to overtime.
“I knew I had to be patient and when your number is called, you just have to go out there and perform and take advantage of it. It was definitely [a role] that I embraced. I was just grateful that in those last-minute situations for them to put their trust in me.”
Schouman said he had tremendous confidence in Perretta to make the right decision in that crucial situation. This trust was justified on the first play of the drive when Perretta was supposed to pitch a ball back to Zabransky but instead wisely kept it based on what he saw from the defense.
“If he didn’t think the throw was there, the whole team trusted that he’d run the ball and get us to where we needed,” Schouman said. “There was a lot of trust in him as a player and we all believed in him.”
There was also a lot of trust placed in Schouman on that final drive. The big tight end caught two other passes in overtime, including a key third and seven conversion to move the chains and set up the touchdown.
“I actually have reflected on this a bit since,” he said. “Since then, watching it, it’s a little bit humbling. I’m just grateful and fortunate that I was able to have a role.”
‘Just like Christmas’
The Boise State offense and defense remember how effective the Statue of Liberty was in practices. However, both sides of the ball looked at it differently.
The defense viewed it similarly to Circus. It was a play that never saw overwhelming success and wouldn’t be employed much in real game action — and definitely not in a game-deciding situation.
“They got some yards on it in practice but it wasn’t like a breakaway, slam dunk play,” Hall said.
“The Statue of Liberty never worked like that ever in practice,” Tadman added. “They might have gained a few yards but it never worked like that where there were no defenders there.”
But the offensive unit has more positive recollections of fooling the scout defense every time with the play. So when “Statue Left” was relayed into the huddle, there were plenty of smiles.
“You run a play with any sort of trickeration or misdirection, the scout team would pick up on it after two or three times seeing it. They never picked up on that play,” Zabransky said. “We weren’t really concerned with that play, or at least I wasn’t. I knew as long as we got that handoff and didn’t have any false procedures or penalties, we were going to win that game.”
“It was like Christmas for everybody in the huddle,” James added. “You see that present, you know what it’s shaped like and you know what’s in there. So when that play was called, everybody was like, ‘Hell yeah, this is the game. We won.”
What followed next was madness. For some, the celebration started even before Johnson, who couldn’t be reached for interview, giddily jumped into the end zone behind a clear lane made by All-Pro tackle Ryan Clady.
“It’s a rewarding feeling knowing when you fully invest in something, to have it go your way. You kind of just soak it in,” Hall said. “None of those plays ever worked in practice. We always laughed about that. It’s crazy that they put three of them together in a row that all worked. It’s definitely mind-blowing.”
Now a decade later, those feelings are still fresh in the minds of a Broncos team now etched into college football history. Just like the story of David vs. Goliath, Boise State vs. Oklahoma will forever be retold.
“We’re 10 years down the road and we’re still celebrating,” Zabransky said. “To know that stories are still being told about this game and to know that 10 years from now we’ll probably be talking about the 20th anniversary of one of the greatest games in college football ... We didn’t know that back then.”
“I thought by now it’d go away and be a distant memory, but it’s not. It doesn’t feel like it’s been like 10 years, and that’s because it’s never been in the past yet,” Tadman said. “It’s still a present event in our life. It’s like, ‘I just talked to someone about it last week, so how was it played 10 years ago.’”
A lasting legacy
“It’s really cool to see what Boise State is able to do now. It’s cool to see the cool jerseys and the campus and the enrollment rates,” said James, who now resides in Idaho. “Everything is just booming out here for Boise State where 10 years ago, it was just a town where everybody thought of potatoes when they heard of Idaho. Now it’s Idaho, Boise State, blue turf. It’s so awesome because of that football game.”
Outside the city of Boise, the 2007 Fiesta Bowl’s impact is evident across college football as well, according to Zabransky.
“We’re seeing a College Football Playoff system that’s been implemented now, and if you can target one game that probably shifted the old school thought, it was probably that game,” Zabransky said. “I truly believe that our team played a huge part in the transformation of Division I-A football.”