Brigham Young football Coach LaVell Edwards came to town in mid-November pleased that Iowa and his old friend, Coach Hayden Fry, would be playing in the Holiday Bowl. He anticipated Iowa would be playing BYU.
Then the Cougars took the field against San Diego State to decide the Western Athletic Conference title, and Edwards saw his team fall 28 points behind.
"The middle of the third quarter against San Diego State, I started thinking, 'Iowa's gonna be here, and we're not,' " Edwards said with a smile. "For a while there I didn't know if we could get back in it. Like, for the first 55 minutes. But miracles happen."
They happen with more regularity when your quarterback is Ty Detmer, who that night engineered 35 points in the last 16 minutes to produce a 52-52 tie. When the Cougars beat Utah the next week, they clinched the WAC title and a 10th trip to the Holiday Bowl--their third consecutive with Detmer at quarterback.
In this one, they'd like to go out a winner. Last year Detmer went out on his shield, separating both shoulders in an embarrassing 65-14 loss to Texas A&M.;
That game followed a similar 59-28 loss at Hawaii in Detmer's first game after winning the Heisman Trophy, and when the Cougars lost their first three games this year the team--and Detmer--were pretty much written off.
But Edwards kept the faith.
The Cougars opened WAC play against unbeaten Air Force and held the Falcons in check, 21-7. They haven't lost since, forging a 8-3-1 record and going unbeaten in the WAC.
With all but a handful of key players having graduated after last season, Edwards felt it was unfair to lump last year's collapse with this year's slow start--the result, he said, of an inexperienced team opening over its head against the likes of then-No. 1 Florida State, UCLA and Penn State.
Even in those games, Edwards said, his team was competitive. "We played decently against Florida State (a 44-28 loss)," he said. "We had a chance to beat UCLA (a 27-23 loss), I really thought we were going to win that game. Then Penn State (a 33-7 loss), we had a good half. We were only down 10-7. That turned into a one-sided second half. But that was the only time all year I felt we hadn't hung tough and stayed after it."
Still, he knew, "People were saying we were 0-5. We played an ambitious early schedule and proceeded to lose all three, and (people) always tacked on the last two games of last year."
But rumors of BYU's demise were premature, as conference opponents discovered. A consistent receiver, sophomore Eric Drage, and tight end, junior Byron Rex, emerged. Senior running back Peter Tuipulotu--the most dependable runner and receiver out of the backfield--returned from an injury, and in his absence freshmen Jamal Willis and Mark Atuaia stepped in as valuable parts of the offense.
Five BYU defenders, three of them underclassmen, ended up on the all-WAC first and second teams.
"It's been a frustrating season but a very rewarding season," Edwards said. "The whole key was the game against Air Force. We got it all pulled together, we beat them, we went on from there. We continued to improve and we got healthy--especially on offense.
"The kids were always pretty good, they just hadn't been under fire. Then (how well Detmer was playing) became more evident. I've had very few teams progress like this one. Our offense finished about the same (level as) most teams we've had."
That's to say BYU finished second nationally in passing (343.8 yards per game), fifth in total offense (479.5 yards per game) and 11th in scoring (35-point average). Detmer, who passed for 340 yards or more six times, including 599 against SDSU, led the nation in total offense (333.4 yards per game) and was second in passing efficiency and made most All-American first teams.
Early in the year, Edwards said, "Our receivers were learning the system. So much is based on reading, adjusting, making the right decision, and quick decisions on the fly. Drage came on, he was the most obvious. And Rex really made some plays for us."
Drage, 6-feet-1 and 185 pounds, who puts up with constant references from teammates to his lack of speed, nonetheless led a long list of Cougar receivers with 46 receptions for 1,018 yards (22-yard average) and topped the team with 10 touchdowns. Tuipulotu was second in receptions with 41 and led the Cougars in rushing with 619 yards, gaining 1,206 yards in total offense. Rex, 6-3 and 230 pounds, who had to replace all-conference tight end Chris Smith, caught 38 passes, and Michael Matsuzaki and Nati Valdez more than 20 apiece.
Valdez suffered a broken collarbone against SDSU and was lost for the rest of the season, but sophomore Tyler Anderson stepped in to average 21 yards a catch.
"The first few games it was hard to get the timing down," Drage said. "(Lack of) experience was what hurt us. Once we got to the WAC we started to click. We started really just moving the ball. Once we get in a groove I wouldn't want to play defense against us."
Detmer said, "It was a gradual thing, we gained more control as the season went on. We just weren't ready to play those (first three) teams. But we learned, we grew. It was tough, but they kept a good attitude. Our last game we were probably five times better (than in the first three games), we were scoring a lot of points again. We were back to normal for us."
The defense, led by all-WAC linebacker Rocky Biegel, a 235-pound senior, had its ups and downs but made the big plays until the San Diego State game, when the Cougars came in with an injured secondary and gave up 568 passing yards to the Aztecs' David Lowery. Even then, the defense managed to slow the Aztecs to two touchdowns and a field goal in the second half, allowing Detmer to direct the dramatic comeback.
Defensive backs Tony Crutchfield, a senior, and Derwin Gray, a junior, were named to the all-WAC second team, along with linebacker Shad Hansen, a junior, and lineman Lenny Gomes, a 275-pound sophomore.