August Miller, Deseret Morning News
BYU running back Harvey Unga secures the ball as he rushes upfield in the Cougars' win over UCLA in the Las Vegas Bowl.

LAS VEGAS — BYU's offense ought to make a statue of freshman defensive nose guard Eathyn Manumaleuna. He saved the Cougars from the ugly play.

Manumaleuna's game-saving block of a field goal by Kai Forbath will stand huge in Cougar lore — alongside fourth-18 in 2007.

It erases the bad one.

Bad? It will go down as the biggest brain flatulence in Bronco Mendenhall's young career — a stunning play call by his offensive coaches to end the first half of Saturday's Las Vegas Bowl. All they needed was to take a knee at the end of the half and walk off with a statement-type first half over the Bruins.

The Cougars spent a tough, emotional 29.96 minutes of the first half establishing momentum over UCLA with a 17-6 lead. Then with 12 seconds to play before the break, handed it all back on an ill-advised handoff from Max Hall to Harvey Unga. UCLA's talented defense blew it up, forcing a fumble that the Bruins immediately converted into a touchdown that cut BYU's advantage to 17-13.

"The rest of the game, I felt like this was my fault, it was on me if we lost," said Unga.

"It was a fluke," said sophomore defensive lineman Jan Jorgensen. "They made a great play. One in a hundred, that happens to Harvey."

Mendenhall appeared so steamed over the turn of events, he briskly left the field for the locker room at the half and walked right past KSL sideline reporter Nate Meikle, a former BYU player with whom he is contracted with to give a few words at halftime.

That's how ugly that play was in the science of football. Mendenhall, of course, knew it.

Take a knee.

"We thought about it," said BYU assistant head coach Lance Reynolds, "but then we didn't do it."

Actually, that agonizing play call that led to the fumble was set up by another error in punt return special teams when usually steady Bryce Mahuika signaled for a fair catch of a punt by UCLA's Aaron Perez inside the Cougar 8-yard line. If allowed, the punt most likely would have gone into the end zone and BYU would have had the ball at the 20.

Up that point, BYU's special teams had been outstanding, winning the field-position battle, especially with Collie gaining 88 yards on three kickoff returns.

In the first half, UCLA's front seven appeared especially capable of breaking up BYU's stretch of handoffs to Unga, limiting him to a net five yards on 11 carries. While Unga had gained 18 yards, he had been caught for losses totaling 13 through the first half.

UCLA linebackers were consistent in shooting the gaps and getting into BYU's backfield. The Cougars were lucky to be up 17-6 at that juncture of the game.

Then came the handoff to Unga, right into the teeth of that Bruin speed inside the Cougar 10.

Fortunately for the offense, Jan Jorgensen and David Nixon had big second-half third-down sacks and Corby Hodgkiss got an interception to keep UCLA to just two field goals, both 50 yards or longer. Then came Manumaleuna and his saving dive to block the field goal with three seconds left.

That play erased the stinky one. Big time.

"We didn't play well on offense but credit them," said Reynolds. "We didn't do what we needed to do, but they were very fast, and we had trouble handling their speed. Playing on turf made their speed even more effective, and it showed.

"We kept battling, we battled. We got in a hole and found a way out, that's all we did."

E-mail: [email protected]