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IAN JOHNSON, Boise State's free-spirited running back, is a natural salesman. In high school he sold soup and candy to classmates for lunch, and he now has a thriving business on campus, where he crochets--that's right, he crochets--hats, scarves and blankets that he sells to friends and fans. It's not surprising that Johnson, a sophomore whose major is entrepreneurial management, is spearheading the sales pitch that's aimed at putting 9--0 Boise State in a BCS bowl game for the first time in school history.
The Broncos' biggest selling point is their undefeated record, which they kept intact with a 45--21 victory over Fresno State on Nov. 1. It will have to remain unblemished through the final three games, against Western Athletic Conference opponents San Jose State, Utah State and Nevada, for Boise State to have any chance of becoming the second team from a non-BCS conference to be invited to a BCS bowl. ( Utah, which beat Pittsburgh in the 2005 Fiesta Bowl, was the first.)
Although they refuse to delve too deeply into the possible scenarios that could make them BCS busters, the Broncos realized the importance of putting on an impressive performance for the Fiesta, Orange and Rose Bowl representatives who were in attendance at the Fresno State game. "We know there are a lot of eyes on us," says Johnson, who gained 136 yards on 24 carries against the Bulldogs. "Every game is a chance to make our case a little stronger." The WAC champion isn't guaranteed a BCS berth, but Boise State, which is ranked 14th in the BCS standings, has two ways to earn a spot. The Broncos will get an automatic bid if they finish in the top 12, or they could be invited if they finish in the top 16 and are ranked higher than the champion of a BCS conference.
In the latter scenario, it will surely help Boise State's r�sum� to have a runner like the 5'11", 200-pound Johnson, who leads the nation in scoring with 20 touchdowns and ranks third nationally in rushing with 1,317 yards. The Broncos have cranked up the Heisman Trophy campaign machinery, distributing 20,000 cheer cards promoting his candidacy at the Fresno State game. The recognition can only help raise Boise State's national profile, but first-year coach Chris Petersen wants to make sure it doesn't cause Johnson to lose focus. "We want everybody to believe the hype except him," says Petersen, who was promoted from offensive coordinator when Dan Hawkins left to take the Colorado job.
There have been no signs of arrogance from the eccentric Johnson, whose quirkiness endears him to his teammates. They nicknamed him Dog Food after he ate a four-ounce can of the stuff during a freshman talent show. The crocheting began at Damien High in San Dimas, Calif., after he asked his mother to buy him a hat and instead she taught him how to make one for himself. He enjoyed doing it so much that he began making them for friends.
The Broncos have more selling points than their unbeaten record and the touchdown machine at running back to recommend them to BCS bowl committees. Senior quarterback Jared Zabransky runs a prolific offense that has been held below 35 points only once, and senior Korey Hall has more interceptions (six) than any other linebacker in the country. Still, if Boise State reaches a BCS bowl while a team from a higher-profile conference with one or even two losses is shut out, there undoubtedly will be grumbling about the Broncos' strength of schedule.
But Boise State isn't interested in a debate, just in winning its remaining three games. "Whatever happens with the polls and computers is out of our control," Zabransky says. "All we can do is finish the season strong." In salesman's parlance, it's called closing the deal.