A year after pulling off one of the most dramatic wins in the history of the BCS, Boise State finds itself on a smaller stage as the bowl season rolls around.
The 24th-ranked Broncos will be playing their second straight game in Honolulu on Dec. 23 when they face East Carolina in the Hawaii Bowl.
Boise State (10-2) earned a berth in the BCS last season and completed a 13-0 season with a thrilling 43-42 overtime win over Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl. The Broncos tied the game with 7 seconds left on a 50-yard hook-and-ladder play in which receiver Drisan James, after catching a pass, pitched the ball to Jerard Rabb, who ran in for the score.
Then, after a fourth-down touchdown pass in overtime, the Broncos converted a two-point conversion on a version of the old Statue of Liberty play, as quarterback Jared Zabransky faked to the right before slipping the ball behind his back to tailback Ian Johnson.
That dramatic win silenced critics who questioned whether a team from the Western Athletic Conference even belonged in the BCS. And this season, another WAC team will be playing in a BCS game - but it won’t be the Broncos.
Boise State’s slim BCS hopes were dashed when it lost 39-27 in its regular-season finale on Nov. 23 to undefeated Hawaii, which will face Georgia in the Sugar Bowl. The loss ended a nine-game winning streak and a run of five consecutive conference titles for the Broncos.
“You’ve got to earn that,” second-year coach Chris Petersen said of playing in a higher-profile bowl game. “Those are special bowl games and you’ve got to be a special team to get that done. We’re obviously just not there quite yet. We’re still a bit young and inexperienced in some places to be in that position.”
Boise State had won 17 straight WAC games, with its last loss coming in 2005 at Fresno State.
“Hopefully we can redeem ourselves and have a little bit better memory of that field than we had the last time,” senior safety Marty Tadman said of returning to Hawaii for the postseason.
Still, the Broncos will be making their sixth straight bowl appearance and second in a row outside of Boise. The Broncos, 4-2 in bowls since moving to Division 1-AA (now the Football Bowl Subdivision), voted overwhelmingly to accept the bid to play in Hawaii rather than playing in the Humanitarian Bowl on their home field.
“I really think of a bowl game as a players’ reward,” Petersen said. “The tough part of it is we love playing in front of our fans … and we understand how important the H-Bowl is to us, this program, this community.
“But I think that opportunity isn’t going to come along every day for us to go to a different bowl. And when it is there, it’s nice to be able to have an option to go and experience something different.”
The Pirates (7-5), meanwhile, will be playing in their second straight bowl game after missing the postseason for four consecutive seasons. East Carolina lost to South Florida 24-7 last season in the PapaJohns.com Bowl in Birmingham, Ala.
The Pirates finished this season tied for second in the East Division of Conference USA with six conference wins - the most in a league for the program since winning six in the Southern Conference in 1973.
“This obviously will be a trip of a lifetime for many of us and a reward, especially for our seniors who have provided the program with leadership and stability during their career,” coach Skip Holtz said. “I’m looking forward to seeing all of us experience a different culture, one which I’m confident will provide many wonderful memories.
“Yet, with that said, it will also put us in a position to reach one of our goals this season which is a bowl championship.”
It will be the 14th bowl appearance for East Carolina, which is 7-6 in postseason games, splitting the past eight.
The Pirates are led by running back Chris Johnson, who rushed for 1,244 yards and 16 touchdowns on 208 carries this season. Johnson also caught 34 passes for 496 yards and five scores.
Johnson ran for 155 yards and two TDs on 27 carries and caught four passes for 85 yards and a score in East Carolina’s regular-season finale on Nov. 24, a 35-12 win over Tulane. He moved into second place on the school’s all-time scoring list with 252 points, 35 behind Jeff Heath’s mark of 287.
“Chris has been special for us this year. I’m really pleased to see how he’s grown over the past years,” Holtz said. “I keep saying this, but I am president of the Chris Johnson fan club.”
However, Johnson will be up against a Boise State rushing defense that ranked first in the WAC with 114.9 yards allowed per game. The Broncos also led the conference in total defense (326.5) and scoring defense (20.0).
Boise State’s offense was just as good, ranking fifth in the nation - and second in the WAC behind Hawaii - with 42.8 points per game.
Petersen’s remarkable success in his two seasons at Boise State means that rumors linking him to a number of coaching vacancies across the country could follow the coach into this game.
But while he has left open the possibility that he would consider an offer, he has reaffirmed his commitment to Boise State since the end of the regular season. Petersen specifically denied having had any discussions with athletic officials from UCLA over the Bruins’ coaching vacancy.
“It just would probably depend on the situation,” he said. “And the only reason I say that is you never say ‘never.’ Is there a school out there that I’m kind of going … ‘if they called?’ No, there’s not.
“This is a great place and I’m completely happy here and hope we can stay here a long time.”