So BYU saved its best for last, and it wasn't enough.
But only by inches the inches between Eric Drage's fingertips and John Walsh's last, potentially game-tying, pass.
If you'd taken a poll of what remained of the crowd of 52,108 at Thursday night's Thrifty Car Rental Holiday Bowl before that play, probably the vast majority would have guessed that BYU would complete that pass. But football games aren't decided by polls (or oddsmakers), the pass was a little long, and the heavily favored Ohio State Buckeyes got to take home the trophy for their 28-21 victory.
And BYU got to take home a little hard-earned respect.
"I think we quieted a few critics tonight," Drage said.
"We went out there and showed our stuff," said BYU noseguard Lenny Gomes.
All season long, as the Cougars stumbled to a 6-5 record, they maintained that they were a good team dealt a bad hand. With just about everyone finally healthy, the Holiday Bowl was going to be their chance to prove that thesis.
Count the Buckeyes among the convinced.
"We played a great team who, despite their record, were really tough," said Ohio State running back Raymont Harris, who shared Most Valuable Player honors with Walsh.
Harris acknowledged that in the waning minutes of the game, as BYU had several opportunities to put the ball in the end zone, he was "terrified." So was his coach, John Cooper, who had promised back in November that his team would win a bowl game.
"I was thinking, if we don't win, what a stupid fool I was going to look like," Cooper said.
The Cougars' first opportunity came with 3:41 left, when they took possession after an Ohio State drive that went 73 yards in 17 plays before floundering on a missed 38-yard field goal. Buoyed by that dodged bullet, the Cougs marched to a first and 10 at the Ohio State 25.
On first down, Kalin Hall ran for three yards. On second down, from the 22, Walsh underthrew Bryce Doman. On third down, Walsh's pass was tipped at the line of scrimmage but was still headed for Tim Nowatzke before OSU's Walter Taylor batted it away. And on fourth down, under pressure and on the run, Walsh overthrew Nowatzke.
It was Ohio State's ball, and the Cougar offense reacted like guys who'd just had their last chance. Lineman Evan Pilgrim slammed his helmet to the turf. They all trudged off the field. With just 1:57 left, it figured the Buckeyes would give the ball to Harris, who was averaging better than six yards per carry. And that they did, but the Cougar defense and those two words have looked as odd together this season as "military intelligence" held. They limited Harris to nine yards in three carries, and the Buckeyes punted.
With 43 seconds left, BYU was back in business. On first down, Walsh located Drage, who had been limited to two short catches, on a crossing pattern that went for 52 yards, to the OSU 6. Suddenly, it looked like Holiday Bowl 16 would be another BYU Magic Show.
On first down, Walsh rifles a bullet over the middle that Doman can't handle, and may have been deflected by a defender. On second down, Walsh misses Drage. On third down, Walsh rolls right to avoid the rush and guns to a wide-open Nowatzke in the end zone. The pass is a little behind Nowatzke, who is usually as sure-handed a receiver as BYU has, but he can't hang on.
Walsh says it was a bad pass. In replays, it looked catchable.
"Tim Nowatzke has never dropped a ball in his life and he dropped one today," said Drage. "He feels worse than anyone."
He needn't. His play was just one of many the Cougars could point to that made a huge difference. Less than three minutes into the ballgame, for instance, BYU punter Alan Boardman's kick was blocked by Tim Patillo, who picked up the loose ball and trotted untouched into the end zone for the first score.
BYU answered that score quickly, with a five-play, 65-yard drive that ended with a nifty 27-yard pass from Walsh to halfback Jamal Willis. But OSU came right back with its own seven-play scoring drive, and this was starting to look like a typical BYU vs. Anybody shootout.
Less than six minutes later, on the first play of the second quarter, the Buckeyes added another score and it was starting to look more like BYU vs. Notre Dame, or UCLA. Harris had gained 101 yards in the first period; the OSU offense had totaled 202 yards. The Cougars had shown they could score, but would they ever stop these guys?
Yes. They forced Ohio State to punt on their next three possessions of the half, while the Cougar offense was putting two more touchdowns on the board - one on a spectacular, one-handed grab in the end zone by freshman tight end Chad Lewis, the other on a 27-yard BB to Doman over the middle.
At halftime the Cougs were tied, 21-21, and had all the momentum, but they couldn't capitalize. On the opening drive of the third period, BYU moved to the OSU 14, but a sack put them in a fourth-and-14 hole, and Joe Herrick missed a 41-yard field goal.
The Cougars defense forced the Buckeyes to punt again, but again the offense faltered. On second and 15, Walsh (who appeared to have been bumped) threw a floater that was picked off by Tito Paul. Momentum back to Buckeyes. Nine plays later, Harris went up the middle for his third TD to make it 28-21.
BYU threatened again on its next possession, reaching first and goal at the OSU eight, but they misfired all over the place and a fourth-down pass fell incomplete. That set the stage for OSU's crucial, time-eating drive.
"We played well except when we got down there at the goal line," Walsh said. "We just weren't able to put it in."
Walsh said he took no consolation from his MVP trophy, which he earned by completing 25 of 44 passes for 389 yards, with three TDs, despite a near-constant Buckeye blitz.
Harris, the Buckeyes' one-man show, gained 235 yards on 39 carries. OSU quarterbacks Bobby Hoying and Bret Powers combined to complete six of 13 passes for 61 yards.
The victory puts the Buckeyes at 10-1-1 for the season and probably back in the Top 10. BYU falls to 6-6, but gained some hope for next season.
"It's been a tough year," said BYU coach LaVell Edwards, "but to come back and play defensively like we did gives us something to look forward to."