THE LAST time the national spotlight shone upon Boise State was on New Year's Day in 2007, when the Broncos clinched their first perfect season by stunning Oklahoma in a Fiesta Bowl that ended with a two-point conversion by Ian Johnson on a Statue of Liberty play in overtime. Minutes later Johnson, the star running back, proposed to his cheerleader girlfriend on the field.
It was all very High School Musical—and, same as that song-and-dance juggernaut, Boise State is back this fall with a sequel. Third-year coach Chris Petersen's Broncos are again undefeated (they improved to 8--0 with a 49--0 romp at New Mexico State last Saturday), and at 10th in the BCS standings with four games remaining, against WAC teams that are a combined 13--22, they're in position to earn another BCS bid. What might surprise those who dwell outside potato country, though, is just how different this cast of Boise State characters is from the one that shocked the Sooners.
Against New Mexico State, 12 of the 22 starters were either freshmen or sophomores. Among that callow crew is the quarterback, Kellen Moore, a high school legend in the state of Washington whose diminutive stature (he's 6 feet, 187 pounds) caused major programs to overlook him. Now Moore is the only freshman to rank in the top 20 in the country in passing efficiency, at No. 7.
On defense Petersen likes to shuttle in two sets of linemen, partly to counteract the frantic spread offenses that have become prevalent. As a result, 13 Broncos have at least one sack, but no one has more than three. A more constant presence is leading tackler Jeron Johnson, a sophomore safety whose hard-hitting ways have given the D an identity, even as they've sometimes landed him in hot water. (He was ejected from a win at Oregon for a late hit and benched against San Jose State because of another.)
Jeron Johnson is the central reason that Boise State trails only USC with 9.9 points allowed per game and has surrendered just three TD passes. In Johnson's two seasons the Broncos are 14--0 when he starts and 4--3 when he does not. "He sparks everyone with those big hits," says Ian Johnson. "You see wide receivers getting alligator arms, you see guys making sure they get well out-of-bounds. Everyone gets riled up."
Now a senior, Ian Johnson has seen his role change, both on and off the field. A workhorse who plowed for 1,713 yards and 25 touchdowns in '06, he's getting far fewer touches with the emergence of talented sophomores Jeremy Avery and D.J. Harper. (Johnson has run for 490 yards and seven TDs.) He's also settled into a domesticity that his younger teammates don't understand. "Guys are like, Let's go out!" Johnson says. "I'm like, I'm going home and paying bills, going to sit down with my wife for dinner. That's way behind me."
What's not behind Johnson is the feeling he had after that BCS bowl win two years ago. And this Boise State team, as green as it is, could enable him to have it again.
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