DALLAS — BYU's third-straight bowl win turned out to be a cluster grapple.
Many of Bronco Mendenhall's players battled to the wire to see who'd be the most valuable player. When the smoke cleared, the Cougars had etched out a dramatic 24-21 come-from-behind win over Tulsa, and many on the squad could claim its highest honor.
You have Cody Hoffman, the freakish, clutch receiver, who hauled in a Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl record three touchdown catches, including the game-winner with 11 seconds left on a called fake spike play.
Hoffman struck fear into Tulsa's defense, which had bottled up the Cougars almost all game long. Because of attention to Hoffman's pass-catching prowess on BYU's final drive, quarterback Riley Nelson was able to break loose for two key long runs, his only patented vertical sprints of the entire game.
Officially, bowl officials handed the MVP hardware to Hoffman after the game. It was well-deserved.
But wait? You have Nelson.
By his own admission, Nelson struggled mightily. He was hit on his third step after the hike on many plays. He had little time.
He bounced balls off the turf, overthrew a myriad of open receivers, threw two interceptions and completed less than 50 percent of his passes. "You look at the stat sheet, it's pretty scary," he told reporters.
He said his own family, which came en masse to the game, was on him.
Yet, in Tim Tebow-like fashion, Nelson re-created another exciting comeback, a final winning drive just like the one he orchestrated in the Utah State game. He accurately and correctly made reads, completed passes and converted dynamic conversions under pressure in drop-dead time.
Nelson almost willed BYU to a win in the final four minutes of the game. He alertly picked up a more traditional pass rush — one that he could attack for the first time in the game — with his legs on the final drive.
Nelson's fake spike read and audible with 11 seconds left is something he saw Dan Marino do on NFL films as a kid. He wanted to try it someday. It worked for the game-winner Friday.
Nelson's first touchdown pass was a Tebow moment. Just before half, sprinting out of the pocket for his life, his team trailing 14-3, Nelson ran for the sideline where tackle Matt Reynolds, void of helmet, peeled back for a block and Nelson directed Hoffman to a spot and found him at the Tulsa 3. Hoffman bulldozed his way over the goal line with a stretch dive.
That play, which narrowed the BYU gap to 14-10, left Tulsa stunned. "Our players entered the tunnel as if they were behind," said Golden Hurricane coach Bill Blankenship.
With blonde-haired Reynolds blocking like a banshee, Nelson throwing and Hoffman diving, Mendenhall told reporters he'd consider that play the signature sequence of the game.
But wait? Many would argue the real MVPs were those on BYU's special teams, which pinned Tulsa at or behind the 20-yard line seven times and saw Reed Hornung force a muffed punt that set up the Nelson-Hoffman touchdown before half. It was Riley Stephenson's punts, which time and time again were almost perfect.
Some would say it was BYU's entire defense, which limited Tulsa to an amazing 37 net rushing yards on 27 carries.
But wait? Still, a case could be made for sophomore linebacker Kyle Van Noy. He was a designated wrecking crew against Tulsa, which was victimized by his speed, agility and playmaking ability time and again.
Just before Tulsa missed a third-quarter field goal, Van Noy made three consecutive plays, including a sack and two big tackles, one for a loss. That trio completely blew up Tulsa's offense.
It could be argued neither Hoffman nor Nelson would have been able to pull off their heroics had Van Noy not carried the hammer of Thor Friday in Ford Stadium.
Van Noy has turned into something special for Mendenhall.
On BYU's sidelines, Pittsburgh Steelers tackle Chris Hoke stood during the game. Fresh off neck surgery, Hoke made the trip on his way to Cleveland for Sunday's Steelers finale.
"I told Kyle in the first quarter, if you want to be on SportsCenter, go make some plays. He did," said Hoke.
"There were a lot of MVPs out there today," said Hoke. But his choice was obvious because he is a defensive guy.
"Kyle Van Noy made plays all game long. He had sacks, he had tackles for losses, and on every key BYU defensive play, it seemed like he was in the middle of it. He has my vote."
Former NFL all-pro tight end Chad Lewis picked Hoffman, as he was given the trophy. "No question, it's Cody."11 comments on this story
Debate aside, Friday's game was a Mendenhall-type game. It was a defensive battle. It was gritty. It required guts and endurance, teamwork and putting everything on the line. Mendenhall told reporters his team was hungry in the end and made plays it had to because the players were prepared and wanted it and refused to lose.
It was the kind of game Mendenhall likes to hang his cap on any year, any time, any place, in any league or as an independent. He left Dallas with his fifth 10-win season in six years.
Mendenhall created many, including Reynolds, whose helmet-less pancake block led ESPN's Andre Ware to say he, indeed, was the game's most valuable player.
In the end, it all mattered.