"Every time we got the ball, I just couldn't believe we were starting off at the 20-yard line again," said Mike Wagner, part of a running back trio that netted just 51 yards on 22 carries. "We didn't get past the 50 until we scored again. We had trouble moving the ball. They were getting pressure and I think that was a problem. We've got to be productive in some way and we couldn't find a way. Boise State contained every hole and played solid defense."
Boise State, which finished 12-1 overall and figures to improve on its #19 ranking, had no trouble with its offense all season while outscoring opponents by an average of 28 points. But its defense was also giving up 346 yards per game and was not known as a strong point.
That changed Tuesday in some dreary weather conditions. The Broncos pressured Cyclone quarterback Seneca Wallace early, forcing him out of the game temporarily with a knee injury, then held him to just 107 yards passing on 13-of-38 completions.
"He wasn't 100 percent," said ISU head coach Dan McCarney, who saw his team finish a tumultuous 2002 campaign 7-7 after losses in six of seven games. "He hyper-extended his knee. Somebody ran into his leg real early in the game. It was not real sore, but it was stiff. The doctors gave him the OK to play, but he was not quite 100 percent.
"Boise State had a lot to do with it. I don't want to put his knee being sore as the problem. Their defensive backs played really well. Even when we protected well, which we did a lot, we could not get open. Their coverage was really good." With Wallace ineffective, ISU had no other direction to go.
And Boise State's high-powered offense finally heated up, using its clear advantage in field position to score two touchdowns in a six-minute span of the third quarter.
"It's the highest scoring offense in America," said Cyclone cornerback Atif Austin. "When they have the short field to go, it's easier for them to put it in. They sped the tempo up a little bit and started running more screens and shorter things. Early in the game they tried to hit us deep. When they couldn't hit us deep, they started doing other things to beat us. They used changed up their running game just a little bit."
The Broncos took a 21-10 lead by scoring on drives that spanned just 51 and 54 yards, respectively. Tailback Brock Forsey scored on a two-yard run and quarterback Ryan Dinwiddie plunged in from a yard out with four minutes left in the quarter.
"We were just misfiring a little bit in the first half," said Boise State head coach Dan Hawkins. "We had a hard time completing some throws and making some things that way. There have been very few games this year when we've gone three-and-out, and we had a couple of series there when we did. But we were just able to convert and make a couple of plays, particularly on third down. Once we got into a rhythm we were fine."
BSU used Forsey (78 yards and three touchdowns on 24 carries) to wear down ISU's defensive front and got some timely passes from Dinwiddie, who completed 17-of-32 passes for 160 yards after misfiring on six of his first seven attempts.
The Cyclone secondary was without the services of first-team safeties JaMaine Billups and Marc Timmons, who were withheld from competition for not meeting Big 12 academic requirements. Anthony Forrest and Steve Paris each started in their place. Starting offensive lineman Collin Menard also was forced to sit out Tuesday's game.
Forrest made the most of the opportunity by making a game-high 14 tackles to go along with one sacked and a blocked punt.
"It's great to be named MVP by the people out here," said Forrest. "But I'd rather win the bowl game."
So would have starting center Zach Butler, who addressed the suspensions shortly after wrapping up his playing career at ISU.
"We knew the rules a long time ago and that's up to the student-athlete," he said. "There is no excuse for it. That's a part of college football. It didn't affect our outcome to it. That's not going to worry us, because we've known about what the rules are and what grades we had to get. And that's why we have so many guys on scholarship. Other guys have to step up."
Forrest did just that. His blocked punt late in the third quarter with ISU trailing 21-10 provided a much-needed momentum shift and change in field position for a struggling offense.
But the Cyclones' fate was sealed on the following play when Wagner fumbled into the hands of Boise State safety Quintin Mikell. ISU didn't threaten much from there, except for a four-yard touchdown pass from Wallace to Lane Danielsen with 2:34 remaining and the game out of reach.
"We felt like we could get one, went after it and blocked it," McCarney said. "That gave us some good field position and you could feel the momentum swing. The tradition we have at running back may be unmatched in the country with the few times that we ever fumble it. But it happened. Mike Wagner's human. They forced it and knocked it out. Then here goes the momentum right back to Boise State. That was a real big play."
The Cyclone coach was very matter of fact when discussing his team's play in the second half of this season, and indicated a few alterations could be made between now and the beginning of spring practice.
"The final record of 7-7 is not what we're looking for," he said. "We will make some adjustments in the program. A lot of the values, heart of the program, plan and things that we do—we're not going to change because we know how to win.
"But there are some things we have talked about in the last few weeks with some adjustments we will make for the future. We've got to be a bigger and stronger football team. We've got to get more physical. I've counted 62 kids that have got to get bigger between now and March. That's training table, weight lifting and taking responsibility for not being big and strong enough."
McCarney's team finished the season with consecutive losses to Kansas State, Colorado, Connecticut and Boise State. Back-to-back setbacks on the road to top-10 foes Oklahoma and Texas preceded ISU's 42-35 victory over Missouri on Nov. 2.