Wednesday, January 03, 2007

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- At the end of a game unlike any college football has ever witnessed, two of the great female icons in American culture staged a harmonic, hypnotic, borderline hallucinogenic convergence.

Boise State introduced Cinderella to Lady Liberty.

A head-to-toe, shining-beacon-to-glass-slipper miracle ensued.

The Broncos culminated an unrivaled string of gusto-laden, do-or-die trick plays with one of the oldest in the book, the Statue of Liberty. And when Ian Johnson grabbed Jared Zabransky's behind-the-back handoff, scooted around the left side and scored two titanic points to beat lordly Oklahoma 43-42 in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, magic bloomed in the desert.

"It doesn't even seem real to me," Boise State offensive tackle Andrew Woodruff said, perplexedly rubbing his burr-headed scalp on the field while the Broncos fans roared in the stands.

Reality was further challenged when Johnson followed his winning run with an on-field wedding proposal to his flabbergasted cheerleader girlfriend. But, please, one blockbuster story at a time.

The big picture: The Valley of the Stun was the stage as an indomitable bunch of dreamers in orange pants landed the mightiest populist blow of college football's modern era. They were Hickory High in helmets, George Mason in cleats. They knocked off a gridiron giant one decade to the day after the burial of Pokey Allen, the beloved Boise coach who brought the program up to Division I-A status just 11 years ago.

The doors to the sport's throne room seem thrown open as never before.

Check the plaque at the lady's feet on Liberty Island this morning and see if the familiar sonnet has been changed. See if it now reads, "Give me your non-BCS teams tired of being disrespected, your poor of football budget, your huddled masses of mid-major strivers yearning to play in the grandest bowl games." And see if Lady Liberty is wearing a Boise State jersey today.

The Broncos entered their first Bowl Championship Series game undefeated but unloved in some elitist quarters. The Western Athletic Conference champions were made a steep underdog to the twice-beaten Sooners, and were suspected by some of fraudulence. They carried not just their own quest for nationwide credibility into this game, but the hopes and dreams of every alleged mid-major team that had been snubbed by a system of the rich, for the rich and by the rich.

Boise got its respect by beating the seven-time national champion Sooners in an overwrought overtime. But beyond the big picture was the delicious, utterly improbable manner in which the Broncos did it.

The method was true madness. And true genius. No coaching staff has ever ended a game with so much daring.

Out of conventional offensive options, first-year head coach Chris Petersen and first-year offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin went straight sandlot. They showed a career's worth of guts in calling one gadget play after another, rescuing Boise in a game it first had seemingly locked up, then had seemingly lost.

Asked if there could possibly be anything left in the playbook after this, the 30-year-old Harsin shook his head and smiled.

"No, no," he said. "We threw it all out right there."

They threw it out in the following order:

The last of the 21 points scored in the final 86 seconds of regulation came on a preposterous play: a 50-yard hook-and-lateral pass from Zabransky to Drisan James to Jerard Rabb -- a combination that will be the Tinker to Evers to Chance of Boise State lore for the next century or so. Rabb crossed the goal line with all of seven seconds left to play, saving the Broncos from what seemed to be imminent defeat.

Boise practices the play every week in its final full practice before games.

"The guys love it," Petersen said. "We probably run it 10 times because they love it."

So it's a fun play to practice. Whether it's an effective play is another matter entirely.

"Can I say something?" interjected linebacker Korey Hall in the postgame press conference. "It doesn't work in practice usually."

Harsin confirmed this.

"It never works," he said. "Ever."

Pause. Another smile.

"Then we do it and it works."

Zabransky, who looked like he'd lost the game just a minute earlier with a brutal pick-six gift to Oklahoma cornerback Marcus Walker, fired a 15-yard pass to James. The wideout curled just a step or two toward the middle of the field before flipping a lateral to Rabb, who grabbed it and swiftly outflanked the Sooners secondary and sprinted the final 35 yards to the end zone.

It was as shocking a last-gasp play as anything but Cal's five-lateral slalom through the Stanford band. It might also have been the most daring last-gasp call (that worked) of all time.

But it was only the first in Boise State's trick play trifecta.

The next one came when the game was threatening to end with a violent anticlimax. On the first play of overtime, Oklahoma star back Adrian Peterson slashed off left tackle 25 yards for a stand-up touchdown. Suddenly the new life gained by the hook-and-lateral play was in danger of being extinguished.

A designed throwback from tailback Vinny Perretta to Zabransky was aborted on Boise's first play, as Perretta wisely ate the ball for no gain. Five plays later, the Broncos had crept to the Oklahoma 5-yard line, but faced a fourth-and-2.

Harsin went to the trick bag again. Zabransky went in motion to the left. Perretta, at quarterback, took the shotgun snap and rolled right, then lofted a lovely spiral toward the right corner of the end zone. Tight end Derek Schouman cradled it for the touchdown.

But that only made the score 42-41, which left Petersen with a decision: play for the tie or go all-in. Win or lose, in a single play.

Petersen left his kicker on the sideline. Oklahoma called timeout. Boise State's brain trust called the play: Statue Left.

When Zabransky called it in the huddle, confidence flowed.

"We just won this game," receiver Legedu Naanee announced.

When he said Statue I thought, 'Ohhh, brother, we're going to do it in style,'" Johnson said.

Boise had run the play once before this season, against Idaho, and gained a first down on it. In a credit to Oklahoma's scouting, Sooners linebacker Rufus Alexander said they'd seen the play on tape and had prepared for it.

But they weren't quite prepared enough to stop Boise's perfect execution.

Zabransky took the snap and feigned a throw in the right flat to Boise's three-man bunch formation. As the Sooners flew in that direction, Zabransky calmly stuck the ball behind his back with his left hand -- a twist on the conventional handoff he'd convinced Harsin would work earlier in the season.

Johnson then crisply reversed course, circled behind Zabransky and lifted the ball from his grasp. Virtually unimpeded by a bamboozled defense, the nation's touchdown leader crossed the goal line one final time in this dream season.

Bedlam, commingled with outright shock at the audacity of the call, ensued.

Johnson charged to the corner stands where his 56 family members were gathered. He jumped into their embrace, only to bring a banister falling down on him, cutting his leg. Pain was incidental at this moment, though. After hugging his father, the idiosyncratic star runner "started moseying over" to his girlfriend, Chrissy Popadics.

Johnson actually got the idea while attending the Insight Bowl at Sun Devil Stadium last week. One of the Fiesta Bowl committee members, Tyler Hanson, suggested to Johnson that he propose postgame.

"Maybe I will," Johnson told Hanson.

Still, he opted to leave the engagement ring at the team hotel. Just in case things didn't turn out well in the game.

"I didn't want to bring it and then always remember a loss," he said.

In the locker room after the game, Johnson embraced a beaming Hanson, thanking him for his inspiration. Here's the play-by-play from the proposal:

Running back Ian Johnson proposed to girlfriend and Broncos cheerleader Chrissy Popadics after Boise State's win.

With a national audience watching at home, Johnson dropped on one knee ("I nearly slipped") and asked for her hand in marriage. The poor girl, already delirious over the game's dramatic end, spluttered out a breathless acceptance. Johnson had pulled his finest misdirection play yet.

"I had my hopes up [for an impending engagement], but that was it," Popadics said. "We had talked about it and he said, 'Not for a while.'"

Explained Johnson: "There's no better time than on national TV after the game-winning two-point conversion."

Minutes later, Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops classily jogged up a tunnel to congratulate Johnson. On the victory, I think. Not the proposal.

Johnson's teammates were surprised by No. 41's move. But not shocked.

"I came in with Ian freshman year, and he's a little different guy," safety Marty Tadman said -- and when the heavily tattooed Tadman says you're a little different, you're a little different. "You've got to think of the weirdest circumstance he'd do that in, and this is probably it."

No bowl game has ever ended with circumstances this weird, piled improbably upon one another. When the final plot twist had played out and the final trickeration had worked, Boise State had beaten Oklahoma with a magical mix of determination and imagination.

Cinderella joined forces with Lady Liberty. The result was part fairy tale, part American Dream come true.

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Boise State's Ian Johnson is a spur-of-the moment kind of guy, so why not pop the question to his girlfriend on the field in the frenzied aftermath of the Broncos' 43-42 overtime victory in the Fiesta Bowl on Monday night?

Running back Ian Johnson proposed to girlfriend and Broncos cheerleader Chrissy Popadics after Boise State's 43-42 Fiesta Bowl win. Said Boise State quarterback Jared Zabransky: "I'm sure it probably wouldn't have been as romantic if we would have lost."

Moments after the sophomore running back raced to the end zone for the game-winning, 2-point conversion on a Statue of Liberty play, Johnson was thinking about asking his girlfriend, Broncos cheerleader Chrissy Popadics, to marry him.

He made the decision to go ahead with it, he said, "as soon as the camera got on me."

"I had the ring in my room," Johnson said. "I was waiting for us to go back to California but the moment just hit. There was no better time."

His girlfriend held his hand tightly on the field and couldn't quite believe what had happened.

"I'm in shock," she said. "I've got all these emotions in me. I think I'm going to pass out."

It took awhile or her to realize Johnson was asking her to marry her.

"I think it finally hit her and she finally figured it out," he said, "and she eventually did say yes."

Quarterback Jared Zabransky said he'd heard rumblings that Johnson was thinking about proposing.

"I'm sure it probably wouldn't have been as romantic if we would have lost," Zabransky said.

Defensive back Marty Tadman said Johnson "is a little different guy."

"When you think of Ian Johnson proposing to his girlfriend, you've got to think of the weirdest circumstance that he could possible do it," Tadman said. "I think this was it."

Boy did I ever see a football game!

As allot of people know I went to the University of North Texas. We are a member of the Sun-Belt Conference. Which means in NCAAF we are not even allowed to try for the BCS games. So when another mid-major Team Boise State beat Oklahoma 43-42. I was cheering for them and then when the marriage proposal went down on live TV with Ian Johnson proposing to his girlfriend. I SAW HIM GET DOWN ON ONE KNEE and his family and the Boise State crowd was cheering, The girl looked so shocked but when see said yes and jumped into his arms. I was cheering also. What a great game for the little guy of NCAAF! Now can we please get the playoff instead of this stoopid BCS (bs)system.

When are they going to make a movie about this TEAM?

Here it is as it went down...

January 02, 2007
5 p.m. — Cheerleader awaited Ian Johnson’s proposal for past month
Moments after the Broncos’ dramatic Fiesta Bowl victory Monday night, players pulled off one more surprise play for tailback Ian Johnson.

Some of the players sought to intercept cheerleading captain Crissy Popadics. Popadics “had no idea” Johnson wanted to propose to her on national television after the game, “but some of the football players were trying to find her,” said Jenna Lineberger, a Bronco cheerleader and a friend of Popadic. “They put her on their shoulders to go find Ian.”

After a short interview with a sportscaster, the Broncos star got down on one knee and proposed. Television cameras captured the moment and broadcast it to the crowd in University of Phoenix Stadium as well as a national television audience.

“We were all crying on the sidelines and all of a sudden she’s on the JumboTron and she’s engaged,” Lineberger said. “We all saw it on the JumboTron and started freaking out.”

Popadics was so emotional in the aftermath that she could do little more than spell her name to reporters. Now, the 21-year-old from New Jersey is on a whirlwind trip to New York City to appear on “Good Morning America” with her new fiancĂ©.

Though the proposal was anticipated for the past month, the actual moment came as a surprise. “We were speculating when it would happen, but we honestly had no idea,” Lineberger said.

Popadics received a hint from her mother after Johnson asked her parents for permission to marry her.

“Chrissy’s mom told her that it was going to happen pretty soon,” Lineberger said. “So for the past couple of weeks or almost a month, she’s been wondering.”

“We all thought that it was going to be at one of the home football games,” Lineberger said. “She thought it was going to happen for Christmas and then he went to Arizona, and she still didn’t have a ring. Our last clue was that it was probably going to be at the Fiesta Bowl if we won.”

The couple had looked at rings at the mall this past fall, Lineberger said. Johnson had asked her if she could pick out a ring, which would it be, then bought her a necklace instead. “That kind of threw her off,” Lineberger said.

When she finally got the ring, it fit too small, so she wore it on her pinky finger Monday night, Lineberger said. She was not wearing it Tuesday morning.

Lineberger said Popadics has talked about getting married in the early summer in California.

Since Popadics started dating Johnson a little over a year ago, “she always has a smile on her face,” Lineberger said, adding, “he treats her like a princess.”

The couple recently adopted a cat named Biff.

The outgoing Popadics provides comic relief on the cheerleading squad, making it fun to work hard, Lineberger said. “She tries to make everyone feel like they belong on the team. She’s really a kindhearted person. She and Ian are a lot alike in that respect.”

I hope you 2 live long and Prosper........

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