As crazy as the story might seem, I’m just happy we came out on top. I’m so glad we could rally together in a tough environment against a tough team. —Tanner Mangum
LINCOLN, Neb. — No doubt, BYU’s last-second — literally — victory Saturday against Nebraska, in front a Sea of Red at Memorial Stadium, will go down as one of the most memorable in school history.
It also produced a final play that will live forever in Cougar football lore — a miraculous “Hail Mary” that rivals the Jim McMahon-to-Clay Brown touchdown pass 35 years ago.
And it may also go down as BYU’s most bittersweet win ever.
With starting quarterback Taysom Hill out of the game due to a season-ending foot injury in the season-opener, the Cougars trailed by one point, 28-27, and faced fourth-and-3 with one second left on the clock in a legendary stadium against a storied program.
Taking the snap was freshman quarterback Tanner Mangum, just three months since finishing his mission in Chile, and making his college football debut. Mangum calmly heaved a desperation pass into the humid Lincoln air, and into the wind, that fell into the arms of Mitch Mathews, draped by two Cornhusker defenders, just inside the goal line.
Final: BYU 33, Nebraska 28.
Except for the small pockets of blue-clad fans in the stadium, the crowd of 89,949 sat in stunned silence while the Cougars celebrated a miraculous ending.
“I’ve grown up as a huge BYU fan. Always watching every game,” said Mangum, who replaced Hill briefly in the first half and took over for good in the fourth quarter. “I guess to be in this moment, it is still a little surreal. More than anything, I’m just happy about the win. As crazy as the story might seem, I’m just happy we came out on top. I’m so glad we could rally together in a tough environment against a tough team. I’m glad we could come together and win.”
The game-winning play was more or less unrehearsed.
“Practiced it one time, never with Tanner,” Mathews said. “You just hope that you can go jump ball and get that thing. Tanner didn’t practice it but he ended up being in the perfect place at the right time and I had to come down with it for my guys. You see them on the sidelines and you see them look at you and you know what you’ve got to do.”
The six-play game-winning drive featured plenty of anxious moments as the Cougars drove from their own 24-yard line to the Nebraska 42. Time could have run out on BYU, but somehow, it was able to set up a play for the ages.
“I’m just proud of the resiliency of our team in an opening game on a big stage in a historic stadium and finding a way to pull it out,” said coach Bronco Mendenhall. “Pure elation is how it felt in the locker room. There hasn’t been a bigger win for me personally and maybe it’s just the way it came about I’m humbled and just lucky to be a part of it.”
Just like that, BYU snapped Nebraska’s 29-game winning streak in season-openers.
For Mangum, what a way to start a career. His first TD pass as a Cougar couldn’t have been more dramatic.
“Three incredible receivers to throw to. And (offensive coordinator Robert) Anae told me to buy some time, throw it up and let those guys make a play, which makes my job pretty easy,” said Mangum, who still has a slight Spanish lilt in his voice. “I rolled out and threw it. It wasn’t my best ball. It came out a little wobbly. But I’m just glad it got there. Mitch made an incredible catch.”
The last time Mangum had suited up for a game was in January 2012 for the Under Armour All-America game, nearly four years ago. Just before returning home from his mission, Mangum was preaching the gospel in the town of Tocopilla, Chile.
“A little bit different than Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Nebraska,” he said.
And, no, he’s not a typical freshman. He turns 22 on Tuesday.
“It was a blast,” he said. “It was fun to be out there playing again.”
Mangum completed 7 of 11 passes for 111 yards and a touchdown.
On the last play, Mathews lined up on the left side of the line of scrimmage and rolled all the way over to the opposite side of the field in the end zone.
“I think that guy came in from across the field,” said coach Mike Riley, who made his Nebraska debut Saturday. “And obviously we need to have someone in front of him rather than behind him at that point. We must have been out of position at that point. He came all the way from our sideline.”
After catching the pass from Mangum, Mathews remembers fellow wide receiver Nick Kurtz “laying on me just looking at the ref and just started screaming,” he said. “I felt more and more weight come on me and I knew it was game over.”
Even after Mathews caught the game-winner, the officials reviewed the play before the touchdown was confirmed to make sure he crossed the goal line.
“I saw it, so I was pretty confident,” Mendenhall said. “But until it’s confirmed, you don’t know.”
One thing the coach is sure of is the magnitude of the play by Mangum and Mathews, and the magnitude of Saturday’s win.
“It’s really, really gratifying because some of those tight ones don’t go your way sometimes. I’m really proud of our team,” Mendenhall said. “That story that becomes instant legacy I think for BYU football, a really compelling storyline. I’m proud of both of them.”
BYU hosts Boise State in its home-opener next Saturday night.