The 1988 Freedom Bowl represented a kind of bridge for BYU football a tie between winning championships and a dearth of titles.
In 1988, Ty Detmer ushered in a renewed winning attitude with his off-the-bench performance against Colorado, which at the time was a program with national prominence.
Are there similarities between BYU's appearance in the Las Vegas Bowl as Mountain West champion on Dec. 21 and that Freedom Bowl 18 years ago?
Following the 1985 season, in which Robbie Bosco helped lead the Cougars to an unprecedented 10th straight WAC title and 11-3 record, BYU's football program spent the next three seasons outside the top spot in the WAC. The Cougars finished second in 1986 and 1987, and third in 1988. The overall records weren't horrible (8-5, 9-4, 9-4), but not earning championship rings was a humbling experience for a new generation of BYU football players, and fans were not happy.
After Bosco's tenure ended, Steve Lindsley, Bob Jensen and Sean Covey took on the burden of leading BYU's high-flying offense with varying degrees of success. Meanwhile, Detmer, the Texas high school athlete of the year at San Antonio's Southwest High his junior year in 1986, committed to the Cougars that summer and would be in Provo as a redshirt recruit in 1987.
The 1988 season was ordinary by LaVell Edwards' standards. Edwards and his followers were used to seeing big wins, big scores, records and domination, especially against rivals.
The three seasons following 1985 did not meet expectations. The league got better. Wyoming started playing championship football under Paul Roach. Other programs made improvements. It stopped being easy pickings for the Cougars over Utah, New Mexico and UTEP.
In 1988, Edwards sent in Detmer in relief of Covey no fewer than seven times, with a few of those due to injury. BYU finished third in the WAC that year but got a bid to play Colorado in the Freedom Bowl in Anaheim, Calif.
At halftime, with Colorado leading 14-7, Edwards inserted Detmer, and the Buffaloes were not prepared for his accuracy and playmaking abilities. Detmer completed 11-of-19 passes for 129 yards in the second half, hooking up with Chuck Cutler for big drive-saving plays. Scott Peterson's interception set up the eventual game-winning 35-yard field goal by Jason Chaffetz with 2:33 to play.
It marked the first time in school history that a BYU player won bowl MVP honors for just two quarters of work. It may never happen again.
The Cougars defeated Colorado 20-17 that day, and Detmer and a young running back named Matt Bellini found some magic in Anaheim. In seasons to come, they forged one of the most potent passing combinations in school history. Detmer won the Heisman Trophy as a junior and Bellini went on to break Phil Odle's career reception record.
But more importantly for the Cougar program, fans who wanted the head of offensive coordinator Norm Chow and questioned if Edwards had lost his touch were in store for some of the biggest moments in BYU football. Among them were a win over defending national champion Miami, Detmer's all-American career, an NCAA receiving record by tight end Chris Smith and an Outland Trophy for Mo Elewonibi.
Edwards watched his program go on to win seven more championships in eight years, finishing second in 1994 with a 10-3 record.
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