The Boise State Broncos weren't expected to do anything in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl -- not against the Oklahoma Sooners, the best team from the highly-touted Big 12 Conference. Boise State came in with an undefeated record and the second-longest winning streak in the nation (behind only Ohio State), but because they played in the unassuming Western Atlantic Conference, the Sooners were still favored by over a touchdown. And yet it was the Broncos, and not the Sooners, who had complete control of the game up until the fourth quarter.
Boise State made quick believers out of everyone by jumping out to a 14-0 start, thanks in large part to a pair of critical Oklahoma turnovers. And after Oklahoma quarterback Paul Thompson began the second half with back-to-back interceptions, the second of which was returned for a touchdown, Boise State led 28-10 with 8:05 remaining in the third quarter.
The score was the same with a little over five minutes left after Oklahoma punted on their next set. The Sooners were well on their way to losing in a blowout, a shocking result for a team that had played for the national championship in 2004 and 2005, and would again play in the title game a year later, in 2008. But Oklahoma got a huge break as Marty Tadman, who had intercepted Thompson just minutes earlier, failed to catch the punt and neglected to tell his teammates to back away. The ball hit the leg of a Boise State player, allowing Oklahoma to recover it and regain possession. Two plays later, Adrian Peterson ran eight yards to the end zone to cut the deficit to eleven.
After producing a field goal, Oklahoma trailed 28-20 with 2:40 left in the fourth. Thompson was excellent on the drive, completing all five passing attempts for 68 yards and capping it off with a tipped completion to Quentin Cheney that got in as a touchdown. With the score now 28-26, the Sooners went for the two-point conversion. They were held up initially, first by a pass interference call and then by an illegal shift of the offense, but with the ball on the seven, Thompson found Juaqin Iglesias in the center of the end zone, knotting the score at 28.
The Broncos and quarterback Jared Zabransky took over. After having a big first half, Zabransky had thrown for just 22 yards in the second stanza and the Broncos' offense had gotten stagnant. Zabransky had had a big first half but had thrown for just 22 yards in the second stanza. Unable to stop the momentum, Zabransky's first pass of the drive drifted behind the intended receiver and was intercepted by Oklahoma's Marcus Walker, who tight-roped the sideline for 33 yards and the touchdown.
The Sooners had their first lead of the game, and it came with only 1:02 left in regulation.
"It would have been easy to give up on us with a minute left, but we had a lot of magic left," Zabransky said after the game.
"After I threw that interception, I had probably 10 guys come up to me and say, 'There's a minute left, you can do it.' And you know, we did it."
(Jeremy Childs, Jerad Rabb and Jared Zabransky celebrate Rabb's late touchdown. Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
Following Walker's touchdown, the Broncos regained the ball and were driving into Sooner territory before a costly sack put them in an impossible situation. With 18 seconds remaining, Boise State was looking at fourth-and-18 from the middle of the field, and still needed a touchdown to make it even. In an incredibly gutsy call, Zabransky threw it to receiver Drisan James on fourth down, who caught it two yards short of the first. Still on his feet, James lateraled to teammate Jerard Rabb, who found the sideline and streaked 35 yards for the stunning game-tying touchdown.
"When he caught it, he sucked the defensive backs, safeties and corners, they all came straight to him," Rabb said of the hook-and-ladder play. "He held it just long enough for me to escape around the side. ... As soon as I got the ball and took about two steps, I was gone. Other than the time I was getting chased by a pit bull, it was the fastest I’ve run in my life."
The ensuing punt took up the remaining seven seconds and the game headed to overtime.
Adrian Peterson opened the extra session with a 25-yard touchdown run on the first play from scrimmage. It was the final play in the collegiate career of Peterson, who would go on to have noted success in the NFL. Boise State took over, down seven, and once again held their life by a thread. Near the goal line on fourth-and-2, wide receiver Vinny Perretta took the snap in place of Zabransky, moved towards the right and found tight end Derek Schouman for the touchdown. The Broncos trailed, 42-41, after another surprising trick play.
(Boise State tight end Derek Schouman scores a touchdown in overtime. Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
But Boise State wasn't done. Rather than kick the extra point and send it to double overtime, Broncos coach Chris Petersen decided to go for the win. On a two-point conversion attempt, Zabransky ran the Statue of Liberty -- faking a pass to the outside while dishing it to running back Ian Johnson, who coasted in for the winning score as the Broncos sideline erupted. Boise State had won, 43-42, in one of the most thrilling editions of the Fiesta Bowl in history.
"We were trying to get to it earlier, to tell you the truth," Petersen said after the game. "We needed a play like that to get it over with."
"It could be argued as the best game ever," Zabransky said.
After the game, Ian Johnson -- who led the nation with 24 touchdowns -- proposed to his cheerleader girlfriend, Chrissy Popadics, who promptly accepted. "I had the ring in my room," said Johnson, who would appear with Popadics on Good Morning America the next day. "I was just waiting for us to go back to California, but the moment just hit. There was no better time."
Zabransky was not alone in proclaiming the greatness of the 2007 Fiesta Bowl. Between the high scoring, Oklahoma's 18-point comeback, the improbable plays at the most crucial parts of the game and the very nature of the upset itself, the '07 Fiesta Bowl was universally recognized as an instant classic. In 2009, Sports Illustrated named the Statue of Liberty play the signature college football moment of the 2000's, saying, "the fairy-tale ending also changed college football. Boise's win, which followed Utah's Fiesta Bowl-crash after the 2004 season, earned immeasurable respect for the sport's mid-majors and brought them one step closer to a legitimate shot to compete for the national title."
Even members of the Sooners had to admit that the game was one for the ages.
"I'm sitting on that bus and my [college] career is over," OU linebacker Rufus Alexander recalled in a Sports Illustrated article. "We'd lost to a team everybody said we were supposed to beat. ... But then I started thinking about it. This was a great game -- a game people will be talking about 30 years from now. I wish it had gone the other way, but you know something? It was an honor just to play in that game."
In spite of their unblemished 13-0 record, Boise State became yet another team to finish undefeated and not get a shot at the national title. "They should be up there playing for a national championship," said Oklahoma linebacker Zach Latimer, who wasn't the only Sooners player to feel that way. "At least a chance. That's all you can ask for is a chance. You never know what can happen."