On the same field where they last saw it frittering away in the San Diego mist, BYU regained the WAC football championship here Saturday night.
Almost three years to the day that they lost their decade-long stranglehold on the league title by losing 10-3 to San Diego State, BYU beat San Diego State 48-27. The Cougars got more than a grip. They got a re-grip.They also got an expenses paid trip back to Jack Murphy Stadium for the Dec. 29 Holiday Bowl, versus Penn State. To the WAC champion goes the Holiday Bowl spoils, and a $1 million payday (to be split with the other conference schools).
The Cougars' only misfire of the league season - a 56-14 defeat that occurred in late October while vacationing in Hawaii - didn't come back to haunt them after all. They had to coexist with that loss for a month. One more foul-up like that and they were outta there.
It may have been that the Hawaii loss served as a wake-up call. Against Air Force, Utah and San Diego State - its final three WAC games - BYU played some of its best football of the season.
The Cougars won this title much like they won their 10 in a row from 1976 through 1985 - which is to say by passing with precision. Or, as the inimitable Jim McMahon, who won three championships as a BYU starting quarterback (1978, 1980, 1981), once said in explaining BYU's offense, "We just line up a bunch of slow guys who know how to run routes."
Not that they wouldn't like to line up fast guys who know how to run routes, but, as LaVell Edwards, who won all 10 of those '76-through-'85 championships (plus another one in 1974) as BYU's head coach, said on that topic: "If they're fast, they go to Southern Cal."
Anyway, it was a fabulous flashback to the past for the University of the Air as they put an end to the three-year revolution in the WAC. Ty Detmer, following in the passing motion of Sheide-Nielsen-Wilson-McMahon-Young-and-Bosco, kept finding his teammates open on their appointed routes. Jeff Frandsen, Andy Boyce, Chris Smith, Matt Bellini and Brent Nyberg made Detmer look particularly good, and he made them look sensational.
In the first quarter, Detmer became the most prolific sophomore quarterback in NCAA history - by surpassing the total offense and passing records set a year ago by Utah's Scott Mitchell - and in the fourth quarter he came within 11 yards of being the most prolific passing quarterback in NCAA history, period, - by finishing with 4,560 yards for the season - just short of McMahon's record 4,571 yards in 1980.
In the meantime, the Cougars won the league championship that had eluded them since 1985.
Besides the passing, there was also the kind of good fortune that generally accompanies that championship feeling. Detmer wasn't the only one on target. A lot of unsung, non-quarterback type Cougars were in the right place at the right time Saturday night.
Among the not-so-prominent:
- Byron Beatty, a 220-pound sophomore linebacker from Laie, Hawaii, who had the presence of mind to check out exactly where the goal line was as a BYU punt was coming downfield late in the first quarter. He positioned himself approximately six inches in front of the end zone and caught the punt - after which he handed the ball to the SDSU offense. The Aztecs couldn't dig out of the hole, had to punt, and BYU soon scored to take its first lead of the game, 21-14, on a Detmer to Frandsen touchdown pass.
- Earl Kauffman, BYU's punter, who not only produced the above-mentioned punt that was downed by Beatty, but also (A) delivered a linebacker-esque tackle to save a kickoff-return touchdown in the third quarter and (B) won academy award consideration after being brushed following a punt later in the third quarter. A roughing-the-kicker penalty was called.
- And Dave Porter, a 255-pound sophomore from Delta, Utah, whose fumble recovery after the Aztecs dropped a punt set up a Detmer touchdown run that ran the score to 41-24 and turned the game clearly in BYU's direction.
Then, too, there was Cougar running back Stacey Corley, who IS fast and who maintained some respect for the running game by threatening to score a touchdown every time he was handed the ball.
A team victory, in other words. A title-time feeling all-around. A three-year layoff was enough. BYU found its title. It was right where they lost it.