Instant Analysis: Fiesta Bowl

Staff Columnist
Posted Jan 2, 2007

Decades from now, the first BCS bowl game ever broadcast by the FOX television network will likely remain the best. In the immediate aftermath of a breathtaking event, only one thing can be said: the 2007 Fiesta Bowl could be the greatest game in college football's 138-year history.

By Matthew Zemek

When do you know a game is something beyond special? How can a game rise to the very top of a sport that's been played since 1869? What is it that takes a mere sporting event and turns it into the experience of a lifetime? The answers to these great questions were all found in Glendale, Arizona, on a New Year's night for the ages.

Boise State's 43-42 overtime victory over Oklahoma represented a seminal sports moment... and not just for the deliriously happy state of Idaho. This game--which displayed all the very best elements of collegiate athletics--merits consideration for "Greatest Of All Time" (GOAT) status. The reason is deceptively simple: this game possessed so many stirring and stunning plot twists that the remarkable became forgotten at numerous points along the way.

In a game that took over four hours to play (even with new clock rules aimed at shortening a college football contest), a succession of bold narratives kept getting eclipsed by new events that created even more dramatic storylines. The 2007 Fiesta Bowl was an ecstatic experience that just kept getting better and better and better, and it was only because of Boise State head coach Chris Petersen that this contest ended as soon as it did.

As they say in show business, let's take it from the top, shall we?

Boise State's early 14-0 lead suggested the possibility of an upset blowout, which would have made for a sensational story in its own right. Then Oklahoma counterpunched and narrowed the lead to 14-10, suggesting that it was only a matter of time before the Sooners took over. This led to the "little guy puts up good fight but gets overwhelmed" narrative, which has a fair amount of poignancy to it. But after 25 minutes of entertaining and unpredictable football, the fun was just starting.

When Boise State quarterback Jared Zabransky got turned around and then threw a floater to the sideline on his back foot, no one in University of Phoenix Stadium could have thought that Drisan James would score a touchdown for the Broncos. But in a game where the unexpected became the expected on a routine basis, the BSU receiver faked out a slow Sooner cornerback, made a sharp cut inside, and then sprinted down the sidelines before diving inside the pylon for an incredible touchdown just before halftime. Boise State had been solid up to that point; Drisan James' touchdown gave the Broncos a new measure of momentum while adding to the stature of the WAC champions. As the teams walked to the locker room, the folks in Boise were getting noisy--they knew their team had crossed the threshold from "playing over their heads" to "being legitimately great." But as the night's events would show, the Broncos still had a lot of greatness left to achieve.

After continuing to take advantage of a meltdown by Oklahoma quarterback Paul Thompson, the Broncos claimed a 28-10 third-quarter lead. The screaming irony from the first three quarters of play was that Thompson played with the same paralyzed look that Boise's Jared Zabransky displayed in a nightmarish performance at Georgia in 2005. Zabransky--the MVP of this Fiesta Bowl--saw a psychologist this past spring to address anxiety problems that hampered his performance in 2005. The Georgia loss--in which Zabransky threw four picks--represented the low point in the Boise quarterback's year. As the Broncos amassed their 18-point bulge, Zabransky watched as an opposing quarterback drowned in mistakes. This instance of role reversal created an even more compelling Fiesta Bowl narrative.

Then, just when the Broncos seemed poised to run away and hide, a sick joke from the football gods stunned the little guy against the big-name program from Norman.

Five minutes and 31 seconds remained in the third quarter. Oklahoma chose to punt on fourth down, an act of resignation as much as anything else. A beaten Sooner team and its thunderstruck coach, Bob Stoops, seemed to be throwing in the towel. It was at this moment that the 2007 Fiesta Bowl began to assume mythical proportions as a game that would break all the rules and defy all the odds.

Precisely when Stoops and Oklahoma were conceding yet another possession, the ensuing Sooner punt hit a Boise State blocker. The Sooners recovered the loose ball, pounded the ball into the end zone, and closed the gap to 28-17. And even while Boise State's physical and imposing defense continued to stuff Oklahoma's rushing attack, the Sooners did manage to tack on a field goal and creep within eight points as the fourth quarter began. The moment had to be humorous for seasoned observers of football: Stoops, an undeniably great coach, had a horrible night as a decision maker; yet, his worst decision of the night turned out to provide him with the best results. Once again, it seemed as though Goliath was finally beginning to wear down David, only in a more dramatic way with the clock ticking down. The noose got tighter for everyone involved in this increasingly intriguing affair. Midway through the fourth quarter, Stoops would eschew another fourth-down near midfield, as he chose to punt the ball to Boise State once again. When the Sooners foolishly used up their timeouts just before the four-minute mark of regulation, the Oklahoma outlook darkened considerably. The dramatic tension inside the domed stadium grew exponentially.

And then things got reallyinteresting.

Oklahoma earned one final possession with the football, and the Sooners marched downfield to score a touchdown inside the two-minute mark, with Thompson finally steadying himself and acting like the superb signal caller he had been for the duration of the 2006 season. But with OU out of timeouts and down by two points, it seemed that Stoops' poor game management decisions would finally catch up with him. This was made even more likely when an illegal shift penalty forced the Sooners to attempt their game-tying two-point try from the Boise State 7. That penalty came on a play when Oklahoma thought it had converted the tying two-pointer on a fade pass. And thatfade pass came one play after Boise State had seemingly won the game by denying OU's firsttwo-point try, only to find that defensive pass interference was called on a Boise State cornerback. The call was questionable, given that the ball seemed uncatchable (a recurring theme on the night as far as pass interference penalties were concerned). Moreover, the Boise defender seemed to be doing nothing more than playing patty-cake with Sooner receiver Quentin Chaney. The flag--being dubious and somewhat late--was reminiscent of the questionable flag thrown against Miami in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State. It only added to the drama that was unfolding in the Desert.

All told, the ball was snapped on three separate two-point attempts. And on OU's third try from the BSU 7--after one penalty against each team--Thompson found a receiver in the middle of the end zone to tie the game at 28 with 1:26 remaining. OU--down big at one point, outcoached all night long, and turnover-plagued for most of the proceedings--had somehow staved off defeat for the moment. The Sooners survived a host of miscues, deficient line play, an injury to star receiver Malcolm Kelly, and Boise's excellence to dig out of the 18-point ditch they faced a quarter earlier. By enduring three two-point conversion attempts, Oklahoma produced three unbearable stomach-punch reactions that toyed with the emotions of everyone who had a strong emotional investment in this game. This story--a rollicking epic novel of a football fight--just kept getting better and better... though it didn't seem humanly possible that it could.

The narratives just kept getting more poignant and powerful as the proceedings continued to the amazement of all.

Right after Oklahoma finally tied things up in the dying minutes, escaping near-certain death in a Houdini act of extraordinary proportions, Jared Zabransky--so much of a rock all night long--suddenly crumbled in one devastating and achingly brief moment. Out of the blue, Boise's brilliant quarterback threw a pick-six to Oklahoma's Marcus Walker with 1:02 left to give the Sooners a 35-28 lead. After a virtually perfect night under center in a performance that destroyed all his career demons, Zabransky--with just one errant flick of his wrist--had seemingly doomed the team he led to the brink of gridiron glory. The power of the moment was undeniable; so, too, was the sense that the little guy's run was done. The fatal, final error had been committed. The armor had cracked. The big mistake was made. The heavyweight favorite had broken the will of the upstart that had proved its worth... but would not have a victory to show for it. The little guy belonged on the big stage, but after Oklahoma took the lead on that stunning interception return, it was the Sooners who seemed ready to stand on the victory stage. The narrative--at this point--was enough to make Broncos-Sooners a great college football game and a well-above-average BCS bowl that was far better than anyone could have hoped for.

The best, improbably but undeniably, was yet to come. (Are you beginning to sense how special this game was as you review it in your mind? If a friend of yours didn't see it, make sure a tape gets to his VCR.)

With Boise State facing a 4th and 18 at midfield with under 20 seconds left, a dream was about to die after coming oh-so-close to reality. At least, that's what happens in 99.9 percent of all college football games that have ever been played in human history. On this night, one great game evoked the memory of another great game, as Boise State-Oklahoma--in a brief but astonishing sequence--turned into Chargers-Dolphins from the 1981 NFL playoffs. No, it wasn't Don Strock to Duriel Harris to Tony Nathan, but it sure felt like it. Zabransky threw for 15 yards to Drisan James, who--while cutting to his right and exploding toward the middle of the field--lateraled to Jerard Rabb, who was sprinting toward the left sideline while shellshocked Sooner defenders were wrong-footed in their pursuit of James. Rabb's sprint ended in triumph, as he dove inside the pylon (much as James, his fellow receiver, had done at the end of the first half of play) to score a touchdown with seven seconds remaining. Anthony Montgomery's extra point sent this game into overtime. With perfect execution on a play few teams dare to attempt, the Broncos--perfectly drilled by Petersen, their coach--had done the unthinkable: no, not winning, but tying a game on a hook-and-lateral after being counted out just seconds earlier.

After a madcap finish to regulation time, it didn't seem possible that anything could surprise anyone who was watching this game, in person or on television. But as this game continued to prove until its very last moments and beyond, each turn of events was a surprise unto itself.

The end to this game came quickly, but not in a way anyone ever could have imagined. After Adrian Peterson scored a touchdown on Oklahoma's first and only play of overtime to give the Sooners a 42-35 lead, the Broncos--with their backs to the wall--would use two more incredibly creative plays to win a game that had been within their grasp several times before.

On a 4th and 3 from the OU 6, Petersen--who now owns the town of Boise the way few men could ever own any municipality, anywhere and anytime--ordered up a halfback pass from receiver Vinny Perretta to tight end Derek Schouman. It scored a touchdown to bring the Broncos within a point. Then, instead of following conventional wisdom, Petersen decided to go for two and end the game--win or lose--on one play from the three-yard line. After showing one look to OU's defense, Stoops responded by calling timeout for Oklahoma.

No problem for the Boise State head coach.

Petersen used a different formation, confident in the knowledge that the Sooners wouldn't be ready for the next best offering from his bottomless bag of tricks. Sure enough, they weren't.

Zabransky--who went from the brink of victory to the brink of defeat to overtime and back to the brink of defeat--executed a Statue of Liberty play, and star running back Ian Johnson strolled into the left side of the end zone for the winning--yes, winning--two-point conversion. Had the Sooners won, justice would have been served in the sense that Oklahoma would have profited from favorable officiating after a year of suffering the worst and most outrageous calls imaginable. But in an even stronger sense, Boise State's win was the fairest outcome of them all. The effort, physicality, resilience, perseverance, creativity and fearlessness of the boys from Boise deserved to be rewarded with a landscape-changing, small conference-affirming, playoff-validating moment in the history of college football. The fact that the little guy beat the brand name made an astonishing sporting event that much more satisfying and significant.

And when the game was over, there was still one more moment that added to the superabundant spectacle in the suburbs of Phoenix. Ian Johnson, scorer of the game-winning two-point conversion, gained a victory even bigger than the football conquest he had just completed: he proposed to his girlfriend, and she said "yes."

Want to know what makes a game special on a legendary scale? This game had it all... or at least, as close to everything as humanly possible.

You can't beat a late comeback. Wait, this game did.

You can't beat three two-point attempts for a tie in the final minutes. Wait, this game did.

You can't beat the heartbreakingly late mistake by the big underdog. Wait, this game did.

You can't beat the underdog pulling off a hook-and-lateral reminiscent of an epic NFL playoff game to tie the score with 7 seconds left. Wait, this game did.

You can't beat a decorated running back (Adrian Peterson of OU) scoring a touchdown in overtime of a game he didn't have to play after suffering a midseason injury. Wait, this game did.

You can't beat a fourth-down halfback option pass for a touchdown to keep an overtime game going. Wait, this game did.

You can't beat a Statue of Liberty play to win the game on a ballsy two-point try, one play after a fourth-down halfback option pass for a touchdown to keep the game going in the first place. Oh, wait: this game did!

And you just can't beat that kind of "can you top this?" finish when it's followed, off the field, by the football hero proposing to his cheerleader girlfriend, who accepts the proposal and leaps into her man's waiting arms.

Nope--you can't beat that.

The Boise State Broncos didn't just become the hero to the WAC, all non-BCS conferences, underdogs everywhere, and kids who love to dream big. Chris Petersen's team didn't just complete a 13-0 season while validating the BCS's decision to install a fifth game that provisionally allowed for non-traditional teams to have their moment in the college football spotlight. No, as big as Boise State's victory is in the college football world of today, the magic of this moment lies in the fact that it gave a treasured American sport the best game in its long and colorful history. Just four years after the Civil War ended, the story of college football began. On the first night of 2007, the Boise State Broncos gave that story its most beautiful and breathtaking chapter.

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