Last year, Ron Collins stood at the front of Boise State’s team room with a message about preparation.
Now a defensive analyst for the Broncos, the 59-year-old Collins has seen a lot in this game. A former safety at Washington State in the 80s, Collins served as Boise State’s defensive coordinator under head coach Dan Hawkins from 2002-2005 and later led the defense at Colorado and Ohio. His voice means something.
On this day, his message was simple: Practice execution becomes a game-day reality. In other words, your effort in practice and in the film room translates to the field. To illustrate his point, Collins pulled up an old clip from his time at Boise State.
And on the big screen, Boise State’s team watched a highlight from the 2004 Liberty Bowl, when a 215-pound senior linebacker rocking a neck roll and a visor knew precisely what the quarterback was going to do.
Then the Broncos watched as 23-year-old Andy Avalos picked off a pass and returned it 92 yards to the house.
“That’s a legendary clip,” Boise State linebacker DJ Schramm said. “The tinted visor and the big shoulder pads. … It’s a clip we’ve all seen a ton.”
It’s also a clip that has surely been played a few times around the Boise State locker room this week. On Saturday, for the first time since that Liberty Bowl, the Broncos will play a game in Memphis when they’ll face the Tigers (3-1) at 2 p.m. MT on ESPN2.
Nineteen years ago, Boise State’s trip to Memphis was its opportunity before its opportunity. Two seasons before the Broncos became national darlings with an upset win over Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl, they traveled to the Liberty Bowl for their first Top-10 vs. Top-10 matchup in program history.
No. 10 Boise State (11-0) was pitted against No. 8 Louisville (10-1) and the Broncos were searching for their first undefeated season since they were junior college national champions in 1958.
The matchup was hyped up for a month. Two mid-majors with the chance to duke it out on New Year’s Eve.
“Everybody has been waiting to see this bowl game,” analyst Kirk Herbstreit said as the game opened on ESPN, “it’s because of the offensive play.”
Louisville was the highest-scoring offense in the nation. The Broncos were No. 2.
Louisville had a senior quarterback, Stefan Lefors, who threw for nearly 2,500 yards and led the country in completion percentage. The Broncos had a surprise sophomore in Jared Zabransky, a dual-threat dynamo who was nearing 3,000 yards passing but prone to interceptions.
Louisville was led by second-year head coach Bobby Petrino, a highly respected offensive whiz. The Broncos were headed by Hawkins while a relative unknown, Chris Petersen, ran the offense.
“That was probably one of the best offensive teams I’ve ever seen,” Collins said of Louisville.
“That’s probably the best roster I’ve ever played against,” Avalos said of the Cardinals.”
“It was pretty cool going in and playing those guys,” said former Boise State receiver Drisan James. “They (Louisville) definitely had a chip on their shoulders. They were cocky as hell.”
Nearing the end of the first quarter, all the hoopla about offensive fireworks seemed overblown. With just over a minute remaining in the opening period, Louisville led 7-3. For being this highly-touted offense, the Cardinals looked like a methodical ground-and-pound team that was trying to control the clock.
Louisville’s third offensive possession seemed like it was never going to end. The Cardinals ran 11 plays, converted a trio of 3rd downs while milking six-and-a-half minutes off the clock. Eventually, inside the red zone, they faced a 3rd-and-12.
That’s when the magic happened.
LeFors: “I remember the play. We called it ‘84.’ “We had an under route, a dig route and maybe a post over the top. I tried to fit one into the dig.”
Collins: “We knew that out of this formation, they ran it as a red-zone route. We kind of tweaked the coverage a little bit to get (Andy) out to the ‘curl’ area because they were running double (in routes) to that side.”
Avalos: “Coach (Collins) had switched Korey Hall and put Korey Hall to the short side of the field and put me to the wide side of the field against a certain formation.”
Collins: “We hadn’t run that coverage versus that formation at all that year. So it was a tweak for Louisville.”
Avalos: “We hit reps on (that play) up until the Thursday practice before (the game) … As soon as I saw the formation, I knew it was coming.”
Collins: “Andy did a great job of holding (the under-route receiver) off, making that quarterback think, ‘OK, he’s gonna hold that and off and I’ve got the No. 2.’”
LeFors: “I never saw Avalos working from the middle out. He kind of got underneath it. It was a bad read by me — or lack of a read.”
James (Boise State WR ‘03-’06): “(Andy) steps in front of Stefan LeFors’ pass. And he has this huge wall of Broncos in front of him.”
Marty Tadman (Boise State safety ‘04-’07): “(I) was trying to chase him down. That was like the fastest he’s ever run in his life.”
Mike Sanford Jr. (Boise State backup QB ‘00-’04): “The thing not a lot of people knew about Andy is he was a really good running back in high school. And, of course, Andy would tell us that in the locker room. That was his one opportunity to prove it — and he sure as heck did.”
Collins: “And, again, that was after a 12-play drive.”
Hall (Boise State LB ‘03-’06): “During that time of the year, bowl-game season, we’re going to Memphis and we’re used to playing in 20-degree weather and practicing in 20-degree weather. It’s kind of a climate change … It definitely takes its toll on you.”
James: “It was the craziest return I’ve ever seen. There was not another Louisville guy in sight.”
LeFors: “I remember I felt like I was held on the return. I do remember that I didn’t get the call.”
Sanford: “The last 10 to 15 yards, I distinctly remember seeing his running technique break down a little bit. Maybe fatigue set in.”
James: “(Andy) was the heaviest out of the pack. You knew he was sucking wind.”
Avalos: “I’m just very grateful I made it to the end zone.”
Hall: “By the time he got to the end zone, we were all worn out.”
James: “As soon as (Andy) gets done, he needs a sub — I think he was on kickoff. Either way, he’s on the bench on the oxygen tank as soon as he’s done.”
LeFors: “I just remember making my way to the sideline thinking, man, that was a blown opportunity. And Petrino is a guy who will let you know if you screwed up. He’s gonna get on you. … I remember he didn’t really rip me that hard. He was just calm and like, ‘Hey, just didn’t see him?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, I just never saw him.’”
The bad news about Avalos’ 92-yard return to the end zone: An already-winded Boise State defense had to get right back on the field.
On the first play of Louisville’s next drive, with Avalos still resting on the sidelines, the Cardinals ran a double reverse. Lefors handed it to future NFL tailback Michael Bush, who flipped it to Harry Douglas.
Douglas ran 65 yards to the end zone and, at no point, was a Boise State player even within five yards of him.
The Cardinals would go on to win 44-40 after Zabransky’s last-second Hail Mary was picked off in the end zone. Louisville finished 6th in the final AP Poll. Boise State ended at No. 12. It was the highest both programs had ever ended a season.
For Boise State, the trip to Memphis had two crucial effects.
First off, it gave Avalos — the leader of Boise State’s defense — his Hallmark moment. Think about this: Avalos ran into the end zone just one time in his college career. It came in his final game.
“It’s a helluva way to go out,” James said.
“Looking back at Andy’s career at Boise State, to be able to have a moment like that as you end it,” said Tadman, who recovered a fumble and scored in his final collegiate game, “on one hand, it does overshadow everything else you did. But what a great memory to go out on.”
Secondly, the 2004 Liberty Bowl set the stage for the biggest moment in program history.
“A lot of (the) guys on that team were sophomores that then became the seniors that won the first Fiesta Bowl,” Avalos said. “We banked the experiences.”
“It certainly set us up for the Fiesta Bowl,” said James, who had two touchdowns in the win over Oklahoma. “I think that Liberty bowl is pretty foundational. … I think if we don’t compete with those guys, we’re no longer being talked about.”