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"Take those f------ chips on your shoulder when you walk out there tonight," commanded Jeff Choate, who coaches running backs and special teams.
"Everybody doubted us," shouted Zabransky. "No one gives us any respect. We're going to take it tonight!"
They did take it. They took this game with chutzpah and execution--but only after Zabransky damn near gave it away.
The Broncos seemed destined to lose the Fiesta Bowl two ways: gradually, then suddenly. One play after Oklahoma had tied the score at 28--all, Zabransky was picked off by cornerback Marcus Walker, who returned the ball 33 yards for a touchdown. So intent had Zabransky been on looking off safety Nic Harris--"he'd been reading my eyes all night"--that he failed to notice that Walker had stopped backpedaling, correctly guessing the quarterback's intentions. Walker's pick-six gave his team its first lead of the game, while Boise fans experienced flashbacks to Sept. 3, 2005.
That was the day the Broncos, ranked 18th and in search of respect, ventured between the privet hedges at Georgia's Sanford Stadium, where they were spanked for their presumption. Zabransky was awful--he had six first-half turnovers in a 48--13 loss--and never fully regained his swagger the rest of the season. To get his mojo back, this son of an Oregon potato farmer began seeing a sports psychologist. He learned to meditate, to "clear away negative thoughts" and "to stay in a positive mind frame."
That's hard to do when you've seemingly just thrown away the biggest game of your career with one bad decision. "He was pretty down," Tharp recalls of Zabransky, "thinking about how he was going to feel, being responsible [for the loss to the Sooners]. When he saw he still had some time, he kind of changed."
"Some time" amounted to 54 seconds--all that remained on the clock after Quinton Jones returned the ensuing kickoff to the Boise State 22. Stepping up in the pocket on first down, Z--as he is identified by the tattoo on his right biceps--completed a 36-yard pass to tight end Derek Schouman, a senior from Eagle, Idaho, who, like more than a few Broncos, was playing the best game of his career.
Looping inside on the next play, Oklahoma defensive end Larry Birdine hurdled Johnson's block, sacking Zabransky for an eight-yard loss. Two incomplete passes left Boise State in a fourth-and-18, 50 yards from the end zone. That's when Tharp began juggling those imaginary balls. No one in the stands at University of Phoenix Stadium knew it, but the Circus was in town.
How much confidence did the Broncos have in Circus? The question was posed last week to seven players sitting around a table at Boise's Smoky Mountain Pizza and Pasta. They responded with uproarious laughter.
"To be honest," said reserve quarterback Bush Hamdan, "we run it once a week. On Friday. During the walk-through. It's like a basketball team practicing a half-court shot. It's a screw-around play."