PROVO Lost in the dramatic, emotional conclusion of BYU's 17-10 victory over Utah last Saturday was the performance of freshman placekicker Mitch Payne.
Up until the final minute of the game, Payne had scored all nine of the Cougars' points after booting field goals from 22, 23 and 35 yards (he also missed a 48-yard attempt in the second quarter). For his efforts, Payne earned Mountain West Conference special teams player of the week honors.
Did Payne know before the game he'd play such a major role against the Utes?
"It's something I've been preparing myself mentally for for a long time," he said. "Before each game, I try to prepare myself and put myself in those situations. Saturday, I got a chance to do that a little bit."
On BYU's final drive, down 10-9 to the Utes, Payne almost had the opportunity to kick the potential game-winning field goal for the Cougars.
After converting on the instant-classic fourth-and-18 play from quarterback Max Hall to wide receiver Austin Collie, the Cougars drove to the Ute 11-yard line with 49 seconds remaining. Payne was on the sideline, pondering a possible rendezvous with destiny.
"It's something I've thought about growing up. It's something I would do when I was a kid, that last-second thing out in the backyard kicking field goals or playing basketball, wanting that game-winner against Utah," he said. "I was excited. I was just praying that we'd win, that we'd have an opportunity. I didn't care necessarily if I was the one to kick a field goal or what. I was getting ready. It helped that I had made three field goals previous to that. That gave me a little more confidence going into that. I knew if it came down to it, I was going to be ready and was going to put it through."
On second-and-seven from the 11, the Cougars called a running play to freshman Harvey Unga to try to set up the potential game-winning field goal. "The coaches were saying, 'Just hold on to the ball. We need to get some good field position for (Payne) and set up a field goal,'" Unga said.
Unga, though, was hoping to atone for a dropped pass on the 10-yard line on BYU's previous drive. Had he caught the ball, he almost certainly would have scored a touchdown. "In my mind, I wished I had a second chance and that was my second chance from the first time, when I dropped the pass. It was a time to redeem myself and I figured that I had to make the best of it and I ran with it," he said.
Turned out, Unga rumbled into the end zone for the game-winning touchdown with 38 seconds left to lift the Cougars to a 15-10 lead. Unga earned MWC co-offensive player of the week honors after rushing 23 times for 141 yards and scoring the game-winner.
Payne didn't even get the chance for the extra point as BYU went for, and converted, a two-point conversion on another Hall-to-Collie completion.
It hasn't been an easy season for Payne, the younger brother of former Cougar kicker Matt Payne. He suffered a torn groin muscle in fall camp and has been hampered by it most of the season. The injury has forced him to miss practices and during the season coach Bronco Mendenhall publicly expressed a lack of confidence in Payne's field goal range.
"I don't hear much about that," Payne said of Mendenhall's criticism. "I just go out and kick a field goal when they tell me to kick a field goal. I just concentrate the best I can to put it through."Unga is glad that Payne is finally receiving some positive attention. "Mitch, that's our man right there," Unga said. "He pulled through when crunch time came. Hat's off to him on his field goals and what he's done for us throughout the game. I told him earlier it's about time he got the recognition that he deserves. The kickers are the unsung heroes and when it came down to it, he did his thing and put up those points for us."
E-mail: [email protected]