Moments after their 45-22 victory over Utah was official Saturday afternoon, the Brigham Young Cougars were getting on with the business of celebrating. What had been a foregone conclusion for weeks was finally official: the Cougars were champions of the Western Athletic Conference, again. Holiday Bowl officials - who are thinking of setting up a branch office in Provo - turned up in the locker room to extend an invitation to the team, then the Cougars huddled in the middle of the floor, their right arms extended, and shouted, "We're Champs!"
No one can argue that. The Cougars have beaten their conference opponents into submission this season, contradicting the annual crapola about how much better the rest of the WAC is getting. Saturday's 23-point victory over Utah was the closest any WAC team has come to beating the Cougars since their season-opener.No wonder they're feeling cocky. Several of the Cougars - defensive tackle Rich Kaufusi, among them - called for a matchup with No. 1-ranked Notre Dame as Holiday Bowl officials were mingling in the locker room, but that won't be necessary. Later in the day, Penn State upset Notre Dame, which means You-Know-Who probably will climb in the rankings.
With that, let's review your official 1990 Cougar Gridiron Checklist one more time. Saturday's victory gives the Cougars a 9-1 record (7-0 in WAC play); yes, Ty Detmer's Heisman campaign is still in high gear, seeing how the candidate completed 28 of 50 passes for 451 yards, 5 touchdowns and, oops, 2 interceptions on Saturday; and, yes, the Cougs are still in the national title chase, which has been reduced to four teams - Colorado, Miami (go figure), Georgia Tech and BYU.
That is, if the Cougs have any healthy players left. They were winners on Saturday, but they didn't look like it. Halfback Mark Bellini and defensive backs Irvin Lee, Tony Crutchfield and Norm Dixon were all injured.
"I can't think of a better place to clinch the conference title than in Salt Lake City," said BYU coach LaVell Edwards of his 13th WAC title in 19 years. But then his mind turned elsewhere: "Now that we have the conference title out of the way, our foremost concern is the injuries we had."
Until then, Edwards' biggest concern was Utah. There were fears that the Cougars would show up flat after last week's climactic showdown with Wyoming. "It was hard to get up for this game," said halfback Mike Salido.
The night before the game, the Cougars gathered in a conference room at the Salt Lake Little America Hotel to watch highlight films - complete with rousing music - as is their custom. But at the end of the film, somebody cut the music and slipped in clips showing Utah fans tearing down the goal posts following the Utes' stunning victory over BYU in 1988 - the last time they met in Salt Lake City.
"It was dead quiet in the room," said tight end Chris Smith. "You could hear a pin drop."
In the meantime, the Ute coaches were doing much the same thing. They showed their players videotapes of televised interviews with BYU players in which they appeared more than confident of victory over Utah.
Come game time both teams were jawing, shoving and woofing. Nearly every special teams play ended with extracurricular scraps, and the opposing sideline was off limits to outsiders. In the end, the Utes got carried away with their emotion and it cost them dearly.
The Utes - surprise! - were leading 10-7 late in the second quarter, BYU ball, when they made their first blunder. Bellini caught a short pass in the flat before being chased into the crowded Utah sideline. In all the jawing and pawing, the Utes were penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct. Instead of third-and-1 at the Utah 42, BYU was given a first down at the 25. From there, Detmer threw a TD pass to Micah Matsuzaki to put BYU ahead for good, 14-10.
Early in the second quarter, still 14-10, they did it again. A 24-yard pass play by the Utes was nullified by another unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, killing their drive before it started. Unable to answer BYU's score, they were forced to punt. The crime: Safety Sean Knox flipped a cup of water on a BYU player as he was working his way through the Ute bench back to the field.
"No, I'm not surprised I did it," said Knox, smiling deviously. "I didn't think water would hurt anybody.
Utah coach Ron McBride went beserk on the sideline, cursing at his players to control themselves, but the damage was done. "Those penalties came at key points in the game," he would say later. "They were critical penalties."
The Cougars proceded to open a 35-10 halftime lead, and it seemed the rout everyone had expected all week was back on schedule. But the Utes - 32-point underdogs - were still game in the second half, holding the Cougars to zero points and 89 yards in the third quarter. By the end of the quarter many of the 33,515 fans in attendance gave the Ute defense a standing ovation. But in the meantime, Utah's offense - the team's weakness all season - managed just two Wayne Lammle field goals (of 40 and 25 yards), and the Utes missed their opportunity to overtake the Cougars.
"I was convinced we were on our way back, but then things just didn't go our way," said defensive tackle Mike Lewis.
On the first play of the fourth quarter, Utah's freshman halfback, Charlie Brown, fumbled, and safety Josh Arnold recovered at the Utah 42. That set up a 33-yard field goal by Earl Kauffman and a 38-16 lead. The Cougars ended any chance of a Ute rally with an exhausting 82-yard, seven-play drive for a touchdown - a four-yard pass from Detmer to freshman wideout Eric Drage with 5:57 remaining.
The Utes drove up field for a final score - a four-yard pass from Mike Richmond to tight end Mike Anglesey - but of course it was much too little and much too late.
Nevertheless, the Utes, who finish the season with a 4-7 record, had made their point in the second half. Despite what the final score says, they gave the Cougars all they could handle much of the afternoon, and might have given them more if not for five turnovers.
"They always seem to turn it up a notch against us," said Edwards.
"The main problem was that Utah played so hard," said Boyce.
Richmond completed 27 of 50 passes for 326 yards, 2 TDs and 3 interceptions. Halfback Steve Abrams rushed for 87 yards on 18 carries. The defense held the Cougars to 86 yards rushing and broke up 10 passes, but allowed 537 yards. Linebackers Anthony Davis and Pita Tonga, who combined for 17 tackles and four tackles for loss, dogged Detmer and his running backs all afternoon.
"We tried to throw short," said Detmer, "but they took that away, so it forced us to go deep a lot. It's hard to get a good completion percentage doing that."
Detmer started fast enough. On the second play of the game, he was being thrown to the turf by Davis when he threw a screen pass to Smith alone in the flat. Smith ran for 46 yards, and got another 15 yards on a facemask penalty. Two plays later, Stacey Corley ran five yards for a touchdown. Four plays, 78 yards, touchdown.
But the Utes, playing their best first half since September, struck right back. Lammle kicked a 31-yard field goal, and Richmond threw a flawless 56-yard touchdown pass to Rowley to give Utah that 10-7 lead, and no one could help but think of the Utes' 1988 upset. "Deja vu!" Ute fans shouted at the Cougars standing on the sideline. "No way!" Smith shouted over his shoulder.
The BYU onslaught began, with help from Utah turnovers. Detmer and Matsuzaki hooked up for the go-ahead TD. Arnold intercepted a Richmond pass, setting up a 21-yard TD pass from Detmer to Andy Boyce. Less than two minutes later, Detmer threw a 55-yard TD pass to wideout Brent Nyberg. With 41 seconds left in the half, linebacker Rocky Biegel recovered a Richmond fumble at midfield to set up another score. Detmer found Salido in heavy traffic at the 22, and three plays later he threw a 6-yard TD pass to Smith, with 15 seconds left in the half.
Smith finished the game with eight catches for 125 yards, but on the very day he was officially named to the Kodak All-America team he dropped a couple of big-play passes. Detmer finally took Smith aside outside the huddle in the third quarter and chewed him out.
"He chastised me for not playing well," said Smith. "For three series, I was totally fazed out, and he let me know it."
And no one argues with the boss. Only a junior, Detmer surpassed the 10,000-yard mark on Saturday (10,121 career passing yards and counting). Numbers aside, what he really wants is a shot at a top-ranked team. Bring on Colorado.