A year earlier the Frogs had spoiled Boise State's perfect season, nipping the Broncos 17--16 in the Poinsettia Bowl. The following spring Patterson had few qualms about allowing Boise State's defensive staff to come to Fort Worth for a clinic on the 4-2-5. "It was nice," recalls Pete Kwiatkowski, now the Broncos' defensive coordinator. "They took us to a barbecue." As a recent convert to the 4-2-5, Boise State had much to gain from the visit. But the teams were in different conferences, so what was the harm in sharing? And what was the likelihood of their being paired in a bowl game for the second straight year?
Oops. "Had we known we'd be playing them" so soon, Patterson allows, the invite would've been yanked.
Upping the ante on the 4-2-5, the Broncos spent much of the Fiesta Bowl in a 4-1-6. Flustered, Frogs quarterback Andy Dalton was picked off twice by junior cornerback Brandyn Thompson, who returned the first of those interceptions 51 yards for a touchdown.
A product of Franklin High in Elk Grove, Calif., Thompson is typical of the young men who end up playing for Boise State coach Chris Petersen: bright, devoid of ego and underappreciated coming out of high school. Thompson took up the Broncos on their scholarship offer because no one in the Pac-10 was biting. "About the only thing I knew about Boise," he recalls, "was that they played on a blue field."
Thompson was a Parade All-America compared with Ryan Winterswyk, a 6' 4", 230-pound safety at La Habra (Calif.) High who suspected his natural position in college would be linebacker. Despite making 150 tackles as a senior, he got little love from recruiters. He was preparing to go the juco route when Broncos secondary coach Marcel Yates invited him to come on up to Big Sky country and ... walk on.
After enrolling in January 2006, Winterswyk was switched to defensive end that spring. Life on the line of scrimmage took some getting used to. "At safety you're 10, 12 yards off the ball. You see the play develop," he recalls. "At end it's in your face, right away."
The light went on for Winterswyk the following fall. Every so often, as a redshirt running on the scout team, he would beat left tackle Ryan Clady, "which would make me feel better about myself." Clady, now a Denver Bronco, started in the 2009 Pro Bowl.
Winterswyk has gone from walk-on to four-year starter. His 19 career sacks include a clutch fourth-quarter takedown of Dalton in the Fiesta Bowl. Once a clueless freshman who struggled to master a three-point stance, he's now the star of a defense returning 10 starters. His rapid ascent embodies the Boise State program, which in 15 seasons has risen from I-AA to serial BCS buster. If the Broncos can put together their third undefeated season in four years, they will be on the short list to make a return trip to Glendale, this time to play for a national title.
Boise State returns all but one defensive starter. Alabama returns one defensive starter. But the defending national champions are favored to get back to the BCS championship game because they restock their defense every year with big and fast defenders who thrive in a 3--4 scheme that utilizes their athleticism. One of this season's reinforcements is Dont'a Hightower. An inside linebacker, Hightower is said to be more physically skilled than his mentor, Rolando McClain, who won the Butkus Award last season.
Two years ago Hightower became the 11th true freshman since 1972 to start for Alabama in a season opener. A cut block thrown by an Arkansas player last September tore the ACL, MCL and meniscus in his left knee. Doctors told Hightower he'd be out seven to eight months. They were flabbergasted to see him back on the field, in full pads at spring football, in six. Nonetheless he says he'll start the season in a knee brace, "just to be safe."