PROVO — The loss still perplexes — and troubles — BYU senior safety Andrew Rich.
And he's not the only one who feels that way.
A year ago, everything seemed to be on the Cougars' side going into the Sept. 19 contest at LaVell Edwards Stadium against unranked Florida State. BYU, ranked No. 7 in the polls, having notched a huge upset over No. 3 Oklahoma to open the season, which was followed up by a 54-3 demolition of Tulane, figured it would continue to roll against a Seminole team that was 1-1 and coming off a narrow win at home over lower-division Jacksonville (Ala.) State. Plus, it was the Cougars' home-opener, and they were boasting an 18-game home winning streak.
But legendary coach Bobby Bowden — who, as it turned out, was in his final season at the helm — guided his FSU team to a stunning 54-28 rout, spoiling BYU's dream season. For the Cougars, it was a golden opportunity squandered. It was a devastating defeat, diminishing much of the national respect BYU had built up after the triumph over the Sooners. The day after losing to FSU, the Cougars plummeted 12 spots in the rankings to No. 19.
"I think they played harder longer than we did," recalled coach Bronco Mendenhall this week. "I didn't prepare our team for that kind of fight."
The Cougars say that loss to the Seminoles was a tough, strange experience.
"It was bizarre. I never felt comfortable in the game," Rich recalled. "It was one of those things where we weren't in sync with each other. We blew a lot of assignments. We thought we were so good and we weren't as good as we thought we were. We underestimated how good we thought they were going to be."
How did things go so horribly wrong for the Cougars?
"We didn't have the energy we had when we played Oklahoma," said wide receiver O'Neill Chambers.
That, and FSU quarterback Christian Ponder, tore apart the Cougar defense. He was sensational, completing 21-of-26 passes for 195 yards and rushing 11 times for 77 yards.
"He was more athletic than what I had thought. I underestimated his mobility," Mendenhall said of Ponder. "I think he's an excellent thrower and a good decision-maker. What surprised me most last year and caught me most off-guard was his ability to scramble for first downs. That was very frustrating. Even when coverage held, he pulled it down and was able to run."
Meanwhile, running back Ty Jones gained 109 yards on 12 carries and, amazingly, the Seminoles converted 12-of-15 third-down opportunities. Florida State's offense held the ball twice as long as BYU's — 39:51 minutes to 20:09. And the Cougars had five turnovers on three interceptions and two fumbles..
Mendenhall blamed himself for his team's mindset, and woeful effort, against FSU.
"I grossly underestimated their offensive line. They were much more athletic than I expected," he said. "And we were overconfident. I think I allowed our team to be overconfident.
"We played very well up to that point of the year. My assessment was with very little increased attention on Florida State's talent that we'd be just fine. But really, their offensive line, their running backs and their quarterback were all better than I had evaluated and expected. I didn't prepare our team for that caliber of opponent."
This week, BYU travels to Florida State for a rematch. Ponder is still FSU's quarterback, though he's coming off a dismal performance last week in the Seminoles' 47-17 loss at Oklahoma. Not that the Cougars will make the same mistake of underestimating him again.
BYU is counting on doing a much better job against Ponder this time, perhaps using similar tactics and schemes that worked against another mobile quarterback — Washington's Jake Locker — in the season-opening win over the Huskies.
"He's somebody who can throw the ball extremely well, but he can also pull it down and run for a first down if he needs to," said Cougar linebacker Shane Hunter. "We're going to have to be aware of that. We're going to have to stay in our rush lanes and make sure we play together as a team and not try to go out on our own."
Mendenhall learned some hard lessons against Florida State, remembering the sound thumping his team absorbed last year in Provo.
"Collectively, they were a better team on that day," the coach said. "They beat us physically and they beat us in some talent components ... I was kind of feeling good myself. I was not immune to thinking — I don't know why when you think Florida State we'd be looking past them, because I'm not saying we did that. But I thought maybe we were better than what we were."
Cougars on the air
BYU at Florida State
Saturday, 1:30 p.m.
Bobby Bowden Field at Doak S. Campbell Stadium, Tallahassee, Fla.
TV: ESPNU Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM