Some eyebrows were raised when Boise State was selected for the 2007 Tostitos Fiesta Bowl. The Broncos were a perfect 12-0 during the 2006 season, but some questioned the caliber of the schedule they played in the Western Athletic Conference.
Their opponent would be Oklahoma, which came into the matchup with an 11-2 mark after winning the Big 12 Championship Game.
Bill LeMonnier headed the Big Ten officiating crew that included umpire Rick Nelson, head linesman Brent Durbin, line judge Dana McKenzie, back judge Tom Herbert, field judge Mike Cannon and side judge Jon Lucivansky. Nelson, Herbert and Lucivansky had been part of LeMonnier’s crew during the regular season.
LeMonnier notes that at least one member of the crew was concerned the game would be a blowout.
“When we were doing the conference call before we went out to Phoenix, one of the officials made the comment, ‘Gosh, we’ve got Boise and Oklahoma,” LeMonnier recalled. “The general feeling was, ‘Why is Boise State in this game? Why are they in the Fiesta Bowl? I just hope they can play with them for a quarter or a half.’”
Instead of a blowout, what fans got on the night of Jan. 1, 2007, was one of the most memorable bowl games in history.
Prior to kickoff, LeMonnier and Nelson visited with Boise State coach Chris Petersen and, per custom, asked him if the Broncos had any unusual plays the crew should be aware of. LeMonnier remembers Peterson’s response as, “Nothing you haven’t seen before.”
The game did start as a blowout, but it was Boise State that took command by building a 28-10 lead with 8:05 remaining in the third quarter.
LeMonnier says the fact the underdog Broncos took an early lead helped the crew maintain its focus. “If Oklahoma had come out and taken that big lead, it probably would have just confirmed what we felt about them coming in,” he said.
Over the last quarter and a half of regulation, however, it was Oklahoma that took command. The Sooners scored 25 consecutive points and took a 35-28 lead when Marcus Walker intercepted a Jared Zabransky pass and returned it 33 yards for a score with 1:02 remaining in regulation.
At that point, LeMonnier thought the issue was settled. “I’m saying to myself, ‘Man, Boise really came close,’” he recalled. “‘Great ballgame, but that’s a shame they came so close.’ Little did I know.”
Following the kickoff, the Broncos had 54 seconds to cover 72 yards. A long completion moved the ball to the Oklahoma 42 yardline, but a sack pushed the Broncos back to midfield, where they found themselves facing fourth down and 18 with 18 seconds remaining.
On the next snap, Zabransky connected over the middle with Drisan James, who caught the ball at the 35 yardline and executed a perfect hookand- ladder play by tossing a backward pass four yards behind him to Jerard Rabb. He raced to the end zone with seven seconds remaining in regulation. A successful extra point tied it.
Boise State won the toss before overtime and chose to start on defense, allowing Adrian Peterson to give the Sooners the lead when he dashed 25 yards for a touchdown on the first play. The extra point gave Oklahoma a 42-35 lead.
Now it was the Broncos’ turn. After six plays, they found themselves facing fourth and two from just outside the five yardline.
With the game on the line, Petersen reached into his bag of tricks once again. Wide receiver Vinny Perretta moved into the backfield to take a direct snap while Zabransky, the quarterback, went in motion to the left side. Perretta took the snap, rolled to his right and found tight end Derek Schouman on the right side of the end zone for a touchdown. With his team now trailing, 42-41, Petersen made the decision to go for two points. The Fiesta Bowl would be decided in the next few moments.
“I think they purposely went for two, not just because they had one more trick play up their sleeve,” LeMonnier said. “I think maybe Coach Petersen realized that, ‘At this point in the game and the way things are going, maybe the big boys have got us now. We need to put it all on the table.’”
Which the Broncos certainly did. With the ball just inside the left hashmark, Zabransky took the snap from under center. He took a three-step drop and cocked his arm as if to throw to his right before tucking the ball behind his back and handing off to running back Ian Johnson on a Statue of Liberty play in the opposite direction. Johnson had nothing but open space in front of him as he sprinted to the end zone to give the Broncos a 43-42 victory.
“I can remember that play like it was yesterday,” LeMonnier recalled. “It looked like it was in slow motion. I saw the fake and what caught my attention was the back (Johnson). If this was really going to be a true pass play, he would have stepped up in front of the quarterback and not stayed behind. That caught my attention immediately, it was like slow motion to me.
“My back judge told me that everybody, including the officials, bit on the fake and everybody went to the right corner, then all of a sudden they were like, ‘Where’s the ball?’”
Following the game, Nelson put an exclamation point on the evening. “We were in the locker room,” LeMonnier said. “Rick Nelson said to me, ‘Coach Petersen was right, we have seen all those plays. We never saw them all in one ballgame though.’”
The result of the 2007 Fiesta Bowl had significant ramifications. It gave added weight to the push for a true Division I football playoff, which became a reality after the 2014 season.
LeMonnier, who worked more than two decades in the Big Ten before retiring in 2014, remembers the game for a more personal reason. His family was with him in Phoenix for the game and the morning afterward they exchanged gifts in a belated Christmas celebration. At one point, LeMonnier’s son and daughterin- law announced they had one more gift for him and his wife.
“They handed each of us a tissue-wrapped thing with a bow on it,” LeMonnier said. When LeMonnier opened his, he found a baby’s bib. That was how he learned his daughter-inlaw was pregnant with his first grandchild.
“That game was one of my most favorite experiences ever on a football field,” LeMonnier said, “but the next morning was even more special.”
Rick Woelfel is a freelance writer from Philadelphia.
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