DALLAS — All game long, BYU's defense and special teams kept the Cougars in the Armed Forces Bowl against Tulsa.
But when the clock was winding down, and BYU desperately needed a touchdown, quarterback Riley Nelson, who experienced plenty of struggles Friday, wide receiver Cody Hoffman and the offense somehow willed their way into the end zone.
Nelson led the Cougars on a 12-play, 48-yard drive in the final four minutes that culminated with a 2-yard touchdown pass to Hoffman — on an audibled trick play, no less — with 11 seconds left in the game to rally BYU to a dramatic 24-21 victory over the Golden Hurricane.
The crowd of 30,258 at SMU's Ford Stadium was probably expecting a shootout on a sun-drenched day in Dallas. But the defenses for both teams stepped up big in "Big D." And so did the special teams.
But in the final seconds, Nelson stood at the line of scrimmage on second-and-2 at the Tulsa 2-yard line. BYU's coaches had called a spike play to stop the clock. Instead, Nelson decided to call an audible and execute a "Red Alert," or a fake spike.
"There is a play that we have, Red Alert, that he called on his own, which is fake spike it, then throw a touchdown — or he better throw a touchdown, put it that way," said coach Bronco Mendenhall. "He did that completely on his own. I do believe in the freedom of players, and I trust them to do what they think is right to help our team win."
Nelson's fake spike caught Tulsa's defense off guard, and he found Hoffman open in the end zone.
"I yelled to our outside guys the call and gave them the signal and we ran it," said Nelson. "Cody's stance was not a receiver's stance at all. He was standing there waiting for it to get hiked. When Cody took off, the first thing the corner did was spring back to not get beat on a fade. I had Cody's eyes. He stopped. I was able to put the ball back shoulder. Great play by him."
Hoffman earned Armed Forces Bowl Most Outstanding Player honors after catching eight passes for 122 yards and three touchdowns. He also caught BYU's first TD of the game with 12 seconds remaining in the first half after shedding tacklers and stretching the ball over the goal line. Hoffman also hauled in a 30-yard touchdown pass with 1:41 left in the third quarter.
"He's a special player, love having him on my team, love being able to throw to him," Nelson said. "This ballgame would have been a lot different story if it weren't for him and his tough play."
Hoffman's third TD is the one that will go down in the annals of Cougar football history. Nelson knew what was at stake when he called the audible.
"That's the way I play the game. Coaches coach and players play," he said. "I kind of felt it inside. I felt it was a high-reward, low-risk play. It was on me. I look like the hero. But it very easily could have been me and I'd have been the goat. I've been the goat before. That's what happens when you're the quarterback."
"It's an alert that he's not going to spike it and he's going to throw it up for someone," center Terence Brown said of BYU's last offensive play. "Everyone on Tulsa kind of stood there. I was like, 'This thing better be working.'"
On the game-winner, Nelson summoned footage of old NFL Films. He remembered, as a kid, watching NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino executing a fake spike in a playoff game years ago.
"His throw was a lot more impressive obviously because he's Dan Marino," Nelson said. "His was from a lot farther out. It was something we practiced. We had a signal for it. We hadn't practiced it in a couple of months, but we had it in our bag of tricks."
"Yeah, they caught us by surprise," said Tulsa defensive back Dexter McCoil, who picked off Nelson twice. "They caught everybody by surprise."
Nelson completed only 17-of-40 passes for 250 yards and two interceptions to go along with three touchdowns. He rushed 13 times for 25 yards.
"I think Riley battled. Nothing came easy for him today," said Mendenhall. "Tulsa was able to get good pressure on him and they hit him a lot. They played our run game effectively. There were a number of errant throws. Yet when it came down to driving the team to win the game, including the instructions to down a ball, he fake downs it and throws a touchdown, he just wasn't going to be denied helping our team win. That's who he is. I was really impressed."
BYU's defense was also impressive. After surrendering a touchdown on Tulsa's opening drive, the Cougars clamped down on the Golden Hurricane, allowing just 37 yards rushing. They limited senior quarterback G.J. Kinne to 214 yards passing, though he did throw for three touchdowns.
"The biggest thing I think is we couldn't win on first down enough," Tulsa coach Bill Blankenship said of his team's inability to pick up yardage early in its possessions. "We certainly fell on the wrong side of it at the end. We just came up a little short today."
With the win, BYU (10-3) reached double-digit victories in its first season of independence and won three straight bowl games for the first time in school history.
The loss snapped a three-game bowl winning streak for Tulsa (8-5).
The Cougar defense held the Golden Hurricane with a little more than four minutes remaining in the game, giving the offense one last chance to pull out a win. BYU took over after a 22-yard punt return by J.D. Falslev, putting the ball at the Tulsa 48-yard line, trailing 21-17.
"We were in that same situation earlier in the year with Utah State," said Hoffman. "We needed a touchdown to win. So we all had great composure and we really had faith in one another and scored and came out on top. … We kept positive the whole time. We knew that Riley's a good leader and has what it takes to win. That's what we just kept doing. We stayed behind him and he stayed behind us. Our defense helped us with the big plays that they made."
On that drive, BYU faced a fourth-and-9 with just under three minutes when Nelson tucked the ball and gained 14 yards and a first down. Then Nelson and the offense kept making plays, marching the Cougars to the 2-yard line in the waning seconds.
"We've had a lot of great games, a lot of great finishes," said senior left tackle Matt Reynolds. "This one is definitely going to be unforgettable."
Reynolds said he had no doubts that the final drive would result in a touchdown.
"I've played in too many games that have been close that have come down to the last play to think that it's over. We knew going in that until that clock hit zero, we had a chance."
For Reynolds, it was an amazing way to close out his collegiate career.
"It really is a great feeling," he said. "It's a great way to end a season and end a career. Anytime you can win like that, it's a really huge deal."