How good a football team is can be judged by its performance when the heat is on. Turn on the TV cameras, pump up the volume from the crowd, and many teams wilt. Now how one defines a "big game" is subjective, but I've selected some key games in the history of the Broncos to address their performance. For the purposes of discussion, I've defined a big game as a I-AA national championship game, a postseason bowl game, a landmark regular season game with a crowd exceeding 45,000 or an ESPN game generating considerable national interest.
1980—The National Championship in Division I-AA—The Broncos had just upset Grambling and their "Trees of Terror", whom most said would walk all over Boise State. The Colonels were the defending national champions. Thanks to a late drive engineered by quarterback Joe Aliotti, Boise State prevailed on this game broadcast nationally by ABC-TV, 31-29 and won the title.
1994—National Championship in I-AA—Boise State had won the title the last time they were in this game, but it had been 14 years previous. After three heart-stopping victories in Bronco Stadium over North Texas, Appalachian State and Marshall, the Broncos earned the right to take on Youngstown State in Huntington, West Virginia. Coming in to the game, Boise State had upset the #1, #2 and #3 teams in the nation but in the final, they fell behind Youngstown State early and never recovered, losing by a count of 28-14.
1996--Capital High School's Jake Plummer had decided to go to Arizona State, and he had the Sun Devils ranked at #4 in the nation when they took on his hometown school, Boise State. 49,108 watched in delight as Plummer and the Devils picked apart the first-year I-A Broncos, 56-7.
1997—Boise State had just moved up to Division I-A the year before, and already they were taking on nationally-ranked Wisconsin before a crowd of over 73,000. Led by quarterback Nate Sparks, the Broncos grabbed the lead and held on to that lead the entire game—that is until the final minute, when Wisconsin scored to escape with a 28-24 win over the upstart Broncos.
1999—Head Coach Dirk Koetter led his charges into Los Angeles for a test against the UCLA Bruins. With a crowd of just under 47,000, the Broncos did not fare well, losing 38-7.
1999—After the UCLA loss, Boise State regrouped to win 9 of its next 11 games and earn a berth in the 1999 Humanitarian Bowl against Louisville. Once again, the odds were against Boise State as no one thought they would compete with the Cardinals. Starting quarterback Bart Hendricks picked apart the secondary, Shaunard Harts had a key interception of Chris Redman and some freshman named Brock Forsey churned up chunks of yardage on running plays and kickoff returns as the Broncos shocked Louisville, 34-31.
2000—Boise State traveled to Little Rock for a game with Arkansas and former Bronco coach Houston Nutt. The Razorbacks jumped out to a 21-0 lead to the delight of 54,286 faithful and seemed to have things well in control when all of a sudden, the Broncos started mounting a comeback. The Broncos gave the Hogs everything they could handle and more, pulling to within 7 at 38-31 with minutes remaining. Boise State got the ball back and strove to drive the length of the field to attempt to tie the game up. Bart Hendricks' pinpoint passing moved the team down the field all the way inside the 10. With 54,000 nervous Razorback fans on the edge of their seats, two-yard line to end the game and preserve the Arkansas victory.
2000—Once again, the Broncos bounced back from a disappointing loss, winning 7 of 8 to again qualify for the Humanitarian Bowl. This time, Boise State battled UTEP, and Hendricks ran, passed and caught the Broncos to a 38-23 win over UTEP.
2001—A new young coach named Dan Hawkins replaced Koetter, who left for Arizona State. His choice at quarterback was an unproven player from Elk Grove, Washington, Ryan Dinwiddie. The first game for the new coach and his young quarterback was another SEC foe, the South Carolina Gamecocks and Coach Lou Holtz, before 83,000+. The first half was a struggle, with South Carolina leading 13-7 and the Broncos lining up for a short field goal that would make it 13-10 heading to the locker rooms. Instead of that 3-point deficit, the kick was blocked and run back for a South Carolina touchdown that made it 20-7 instead and the Broncos went on to lose 32-13.
2001—It was October of that year, and highly-regarded and future NFL quarterback David Carr had Fresno State on the verge of a BCS Bowl. The undefeated Bulldogs had beaten some quality teams and had advanced to #8 in the nation. In came Boise State to Fresno and led by Dinwiddie, Forsey and an amazing catch and touchdown run by Jay Swillie, the Broncos pulled off the biggest upset of their history, 35-30. The game was played before a Fresno crowd of nearly 43,000 and on ESPN before a national television audience.
2001--Just the following, month, the Broncos faced another crowd in excess of 45,000, as Boise State was taking on Hawai'i. David Mikell's 98-yard kickoff return was one of the highlights as Boise State downed the Rainbow Warriors 28-21.
2002—Despite that upset over #8 Fresno State and an 8-4 record, somehow the Broncos had been left out of the bowl picture in 2001. They adopted the motto, "Leave No Doubt" and set out to make a bowl no matter what. They had a return match against Arkansas set as the second game of the year, this time in Fayetteville. However, the Broncos made mistakes early, Dinwiddie suffered an injury that would keep him out for the next four weeks, and this one was never close. Arkansas pounded Boise State 41-14 before a packed house of over 70,000 fans.
2002—October of that year, and the Bulldogs of Fresno State were hungry for revenge. ESPN recognized early the appeal of the game and sensed a rivalry brewing. They announced they would again cover the game live on nationwide TV. Prior to the game, Athletic Director Gene Bleymaier announced the beginning of a new tradition, calling for fans to wear orange to the game; he called it an "Orange Out". Fans responded by the thousands in orange sweatshirts, and the pre-game atmosphere was electric. A Bronco Stadium record crowd of 30,924 was on hand. B.J. Rhode had filled in more than admirably for the injured Dinwiddie, winning all four games leading up to the much-awaited tilt with Fresno State. But word came a few days before that Ryan was ready and midway through the first quarter, out trotted #7 to the delight of the jam-packed stadium crowd. The rest of that night was either an incredible dream by Bronco fans or one of the greatest performances ever put on by any quarterback at any level. Dinwiddie simply could do no wrong. He threw for 10-yard completions, but most of the time his throws were 30, 40, 50 yards on the money to an open receiver. He completed a Boise State-record 86.4% of his passes, connecting on 19 of 22 passes for 406 yards and 5 touchdowns that evening, thoroughly dissecting a very talented Fresno State secondary. At least 1 of those incompletions was dropped by a receiver—he was as close to perfect as a quarterback ever has been. Boise State won by a score of 67-21.
2002—All Boise State did after that loss was win 10 games in a row to again qualify for the Humanitarian Bowl. This time, a school from the Big 12, Iowa State was their opponent. Despite their 10-game winning streak, fans across the country said there was no way Boise State could beat a "BCS school". Wrong. Final score: Boise State 34, Iowa State 16 before a Humanitarian Bowl record 30,446 fans.
2003—Boise State had never beaten a PAC-10 school, and when they headed to Corvallis for a game against Oregon State and its star future running back Stephen Jackson, the odds once again were against them. Yet surprisingly, the Bronco defense contained Jackson, and went into halftime with a lead. It was quarterback Derek Anderson that beat them instead, hitting his receivers who outjumped the smaller Bronco defense for completion after completion. With OSU pinned down deep in their territory in the 4th quarter and a 3rd and 19, the Broncos could not hold the Beavers. Oregon State picked up the first down and continued to grind out the clock until they had reached Boise State territory with a 4th and inches. Instead of giving the ball to Jackson, OSU elected to have Anderson keep it. He jumped in the air, stretching the ball forward. But before he came down, the Broncos knocked it out and recovered the loose football. However, the officials ruled (later incorrectly, they admitted) that Oregon State had made a first down and the Beavers ran out the clock to edge the Broncos 26-24.
2003—Later that year, Boise State went up against former national champion BYU in front of over 60,000 fans in Provo, Utah. ESPN televised the game nationally and most of the game was played in snow. Nearly everything the Broncos did was right, and the bewildered Cougars could only look on as Boise State ripped BYU 50-12.
2003—Boise State had reeled off 10 wins since the Oregon State loss and advanced to the top 20 in the country. For the first time, the Broncos were invited to a bowl other than the Humanitarian Bowl, drawing the hometown TCU Horned Frogs in the Fort Worth Bowl. It was a seesaw game throughout, and a battle to the end. Boise State scored its first bowl win away from home, downing TCU 34-31.
2004—Boise State had a rematch with Oregon State on ESPN nationwide, and hoped to take the game out of the officials hands. Early on, it didn't look promising as OSU built a 14-0 lead. The Boise State offense once again could not score and possession went to OSU deep in their own territory. Derek Anderson dropped back and threw a pass over the middle to receiver Mike Hass. The ball was tipped, then tipped again, then ricocheted into the arms of sophomore linebacker Korey Hall, who streaked past the shocked Beavers for Boise State's first score. The interception and return by Hall lit a fire under the Bronco players and fans, Hall went on to intercept 2 more Anderson throws, and Boise State had scored their first win over a PAC-10 school.
2004—Boise State never looked back, threatened by some great performances by opponents along the way during the 2004 season, but ended up with an undefeated regular season. And, for the third straight year, the Broncos were ranked in the top 15. In fact, Boise State had reached #10 in the country and at one time and #7 in the BCS Standings that determine the teams that qualify for the four top bowl games. A #6 ranking would have automatically qualified Boise State for one of those prestigious games but instead, the nation's coaches and media, unabashedly led by Trev Alberts and Craig James, collectively decided that they were ranked too high, and dropped them in the rankings despite the undefeated season. Nevertheless, the tradition-rich Liberty Bowl had an opening and the Broncos were selected to take on #8 Louisville. As had been customary with previous mountains to climb, prognosticators claimed Boise State was no match for Louisville, who had nearly beaten mighty Miami earlier in the year. Bronco critic Alberts even predicted a blowout by 20 points or more. Cardinal turnovers, highlighted by a Liberty Bowl record interception return by Avalos, kept Boise State in the game. The seesaw battle between the top 10 teams was called by many as the best bowl game of the year and set a record for the most total points in the history of the Liberty Bowl. In the end, Louisville had a little too much and turned back the Broncos 44-40 when a Jared Zabransky pass was intercepted in the end zone in the game's final seconds.
The above has summarized the biggest games for the Boise State football program. But really, many of those games were played years ago, when none of the current Broncos were around. They weren't even born yet when Boise State won the I-AA National Championship. They were about 10 when Boise State was taking on Wisconsin and UCLA and were barely in their teens when the Broncos were playing South Carolina and Arkansas.
So really, for most of the Bronco players, the only "big games" in this context are the final two listed above, of which they won one and lost one—that is their record in "big games". With several key contests scheduled this season, the current Boise State players will try to add to this total in the 2005 season.