How Have They Fared Since?
The rest, really, has been one meteoric rise after another for the Broncos after suffering through their tumultuous first season at the I-A level. Houston Nutt took over in 1997 for the deceased Allen, led the team to a two-win improvement in 1997 (that later became a 5-6 record after I-AA Cal State-Northridge’s win over the Broncos was forfeited due to infractions) before bolting for his home-state Arkansas Razorbacks.
In came Oregon offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter in 1998, continuing the momentum with a 6-5 record in his first year to give the Broncos their first winning season at the I-A level. His sophomore season would continue the surge, as Boise State won their first Big West title — with a 45-14 win over the rival Idaho Vandals in Pullman, Washington on the final day of the regular season, no less. They immediately took to the I-A postseason format, knocking off Louisville 34-31 on their home turf in the Humanitarian Bowl to complete the first of many double-digit seasons to come.
The Broncos would repeat the feat the following year in their final season of Big West play, going 9-2 in the regular season (with losses by a touchdown apiece to former head coach Houston Nutt and his Arkansas squad in Little Rock and at Washington State). Playing another bowl game at home, they defeated UTEP 38-23 in Koetter’s last game before taking the job at Arizona State. While the Broncos were on their way to becoming one of the dominant team of the first decade of the 21st century, it was still a steppingstone post for ambitious head coaches rather than a destination in and of itself.
Trying to stave the talent drain by promoting from within, Boise State assistant Dan Hawkins was handed the reins to the program to begin the new millennium — and the Broncos’ decade of dominance in the WAC. The first season offered only one true setback, the 48-42 loss at Louisiana Tech on November 3 proving the difference between first and second in the conference race.
It would be the last time for the next half-decade that Boise State would fail to miss out on the WAC crown. In 2002 a loss against Nutt and the Razorbacks in Fayetteville was the only blemish on a 12-win season that ended in a top-15 finish in the polls. Perfection was denied in 2003 by a two-point loss in Corvallis to Oregon State, the team improving their single-season win record to 13 by defeating TCU 34-31 on their home turf in the Fort Worth Bowl.
2004 was the year that got away from the Broncos. With a perfect 11-0 regular season, Boise State was ranked 9th in the BCS standings and anticipated an opportunity at facing a powerhouse blueblood of the sport in one of the premier bowl games. Instead it was #6 Utah, champions of the Mountain West, who earned the first-ever berth by a non-AQ team and inaugurated the BCS Buster label with a 35-7 win over Pittsburgh in the Fiesta Bowl. Instead Boise was pitted against another team that felt it had been snubbed, C-USA champion Louisville. Meeting in Memphis at the Liberty Bowl, the Broncos coughed up a 10-point halftime lead to the Cardinals to lose 44-40 for their only blemish on an otherwise-perfect season.
In 2005, Boise would be forced to share the WAC title with longtime rival Nevada. Again playing in a bowl game at their home stadium, Boston College ultimately proved too tough a test as the Broncos lost 27-21 to finish the year 9-4. It would be Dan Hawkins’ last year, as he had accepted the offer to take the head coaching position at Colorado even before Boise had played in their bowl game. It would also be the last time to the present that the Broncos would finish with fewer than ten victories.
Chris Petersen, who had spent all five seasons of Hawkins’ tenure in Boise as the offensive coordinator, was elevated to the head coach position on December 16, the chain of succession in place before the bowl defeat. Once in the leadership role, Petersen would keep the ship so steady that it went through the regular season unblemished for the second time in the team’s I-A history. Unlike two years prior, though, there was no Utah to usurp their path to a BCS berth.
Boise State’s “Welcome to America” moment would come in the Fiesta Bowl against Oklahoma in prime time on New Year’s Day 2007. With seniors Jared Zabransky and Ian Johnson leading a potent offense among the best at the FBS level, the Broncos galloped out to a 21-10 at halftime. After the intermission Marty Tadman intercepted Sooners quarterback Paul Thompson and returned the pick 27 yards to put Boise ahead 28-10. But the Broncos sputtered, and Oklahoma would score 25 unanswered points to pull ahead 35-28 after Zabransky’s interception was returned by Marcus Walker for the go-ahead touchdown.
Zabransky, cool after his mistake, guided the Broncos’ offense in the final minute to tie the game. After the quarterback hit Drisan James with a 4th-down pass that was pitched on the hook-and-lateral play to Jerard Raab to run in for a 35-yard touchdown with 7 seconds left, Anthony Montgomery put the extra point through the uprights to send the game to overtime. Oklahoma got the ball first in OT, Adrian Peterson running the ball in on the first play for the Sooners. Garrett Hartley’s extra point put the Big XII champs up 42-35 as the Broncos got the ball.
While many people remember the hook-and-lateral and the play that is soon to be mentioned, Boise State’s most critical trick play came on 4th and 2 at the Oklahoma 5. With Zabransky running in motion, backup receiver Vinny Perretta wrote his name in the history books with a rollout pass that fell into Derek Shoumann’s hands for the touchdown that presented the option to tie — or to win. Petersen, gambling against a second overtime, gave his offense the license to win. On a final Statue of Liberty play, Zabransky faked a pass right while giving the ball backhanded to Johnson for the two-point conversion that vaulted the Broncos into fifth in the final AP poll.
Zabransky and Johnson had graduated after the crescendo of the 2006 season, yet 2007’s rebuilding campaign still yielded a ten-win season for Petersen and his crew. 2008 began the Kellen Moore era in Boise, as the diminutive quarterback guided the team to another undefeated regular season. Snubbed by the BCS in favor of Utah once again, the Broncos were matched against 10-2 TCU in the Poinsettia Bowl. In what would prove to be a burgeoning rivalry, the Horned Frogs knocked off Boise State 17-16 in San Diego to tarnish what otherwise would have been a perfect season.
Boise would get their vengeance the following year. Now a sophomore, Moore opened his year by coolly guiding a few scoring drives against the Ducks offense as his defensive teammates stifled Oregon on the Smurf Turf in Chip Kelly’s first game as a head coach. (This was also the game where LeGarrette Blount decked Byron Hout in the postgame meeting in the middle of the field.) Powering through their WAC slate, Boise finished the regular season undefeated with their seventh conference crown in the past eight years. Unable to deny the Broncos, the BCS pitted Petersen’s crew… against Mountain West champion TCU, which also had an undeniable case for a BCS berth. Squared against one another in the Fiesta Bowl, Boise atoned for the Poinsettia loss the prior year to vanquish the Horned Frogs 17-10 and finish 4th in all the final polls.
Nevada would deny the Broncos another BCS berth when they defeated Boise in Reno 34-31 on November 26 after Kyle Brotzman missed a field goal that would have tied the game at the end of regulation. Sent to Las Vegas to face Utah in the Utes’ final game before joining the expanding Pac-12, Moore and company took their consolation prize and romped 26-3 on the Mountain West champs. The next year, Petersen’s team was vying for the Mountain West as Utah’s replacement, but a 36-35 home loss to — who else? — TCU gave Gary Patterson’s team the historic BCS Buster berth in the Rose Bowl while Petersen and his veteran Broncos squad (led by senior QB Moore) were relegated to Vegas once again. Ever professional in the postseason, they made short work of Arizona State in the 56-24 blowout to put the Sun Devils below .500 in the final standings.
Despite losing at Michigan State on opening weekend in 2012, the Broncos had engendered enough good will that it looked as though they would still be the favorites to become the first one-loss BCS Buster in history. Then San Diego State’s Colin Lockett ran back the opening kickoff 100 yards, the Aztecs finally found their offense in the second half, and Moore’s replacement under center Joe Southwick failed to complete the two-point conversion that would have tied the game. Running out the clock, San Diego State pulled a Nevada and ended yet another dream of perfection for Boise.
Eschewing a move to the remnants of the Big East that eventually became the American Athletic Conference, Boise State returns to the Mountain West in 2013 ready once again to face its old foes. Petersen, who has turned down overtures from the crustiest of upper-crust programs around the country, remains a genius at the helm, content guiding the Broncos into the evolving landscape of college football’s future. Of all the teams that have vaulted from I-AA to the I-A ranks, Boise State’s story is the dream to which all other teams in transition aspire.