COLLEGE FB PACKAGE: Johnson carries Boise State to cusp of a BCS berth

Updated: November 23, 2006, 2:32 AM ET
Associated Press

BOISE, Idaho -- Ian Johnson has a knack for finding the end zone and a talent for crochet.

Before this season, Johnson was better known at Boise State for his hobby than his running.

Not anymore.

With a breakout sophomore season, Johnson has become a Heisman Trophy contender, leading the nation in touchdowns as the 12th-ranked Broncos try to bust into the Bowl Championship Series.

"I hope Ian doesn't start feeling the walls closing in on him, and he starts buying into the hype," Boise State coach Chris Petersen said. "We want everyone else to buy into it, but not him and not this team."

With a victory over Western Athletic Conference rival Nevada on Saturday, the Broncos (11-0) will remain on track to become the second team from a non-BCS conference to land a berth in one of the big-money bowls. Utah from the Mountain West Conference was the first in 2004.

Boise State needs to finish in the top 12 of the final BCS standings to gain an automatic berth. The Broncos were 11th last week, right behind LSU and ahead of Texas and Auburn.

"If you look at the guys on this team, their hearts are bigger than anyone else out there," said Johnson, who is third in the country at 146 yards rushing per game. "That's something that sometimes those bigger name guys, those guys who have been given everything, don't have. If you're good, you'll find your way onto the field."

Johnson himself was a find, a talented high school back from California who got some notice from the Pac-10 but no firm offers. Boise State promised nothing, other than a chance to get onto the field.

He was a redshirt his first year with the Broncos, but his unusual hobby -- at least among football players -- made him a target for teasing by teammates.

Johnson's mother taught him to crochet as a teenager, when he wanted a new scarf. Instead of buying one, he made his own. Eventually, he started selling his handcrafted orange, blue and white beanies, and they became a popular item around campus -- though not everybody is lining up for one.

"Not yet," Petersen said. "I'm not a beanie guy."

Unfortunately for Johnson, stardom on the football field has killed his burgeoning business.

The NCAA has recently informed Boise State that Johnson needs to stop making the beanies -- even for charity -- because of his and the team's increasingly high profile, athletic department spokesman Max Corbet said.

Last season, Johnson found himself in a rotation of four backs, and Petersen now admits the Broncos should have used Johnson more. Coaches couldn't keep him from becoming the featured back this year.

Patience is key for Johnson, who is excels at finding creases in the line. When he finds one he likes, Johnson shows off his 4.4 speed.

Johnson stamped himself as a rising star early in the season with a 240-yard, five-touchdown performance in a win over Oregon State. His lofty numbers prompted the Broncos' athletic department to start a Heisman Trophy campaign.

Johnson said he didn't even know about the posters the school created to promote him for college football's most prestigious award until the night of the Broncos' 45-21 win over Fresno State, when one of the fliers came out of the stands and landed near him on the sidelines.

"That's sweet. It's a big accomplishment for me personally," Johnson said. "I never thought there'd be anything with my name and Heisman.

"There are five other guys out there that deserve their name on that and that's my linemen. I always do this for them."

Saturday's game will be Johnson's first in two weeks after spending five nights in a California hospital recovering from a partially collapsed left lung. The injury occurred with about nine minutes left in the Broncos' 23-20 win over San Jose State on Nov. 12.

Before the injury it was another typical game for Johnson, who bruised his way through the Spartans with his patient and punishing style for 149 yards and his 21st touchdown, as the Broncos rallied for a 23-20 win.

"We always knew Ian was special," center Jadon Daily said. "We just knew what he could do."

With another big game Saturday in Reno, Nev., Johnson and the Broncos could be off to the Fiesta Bowl for a chance to compete on the big stage.


Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press

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