Nobody really gave Bronco Mendenhall and his BYU Cougars a shot at beating the third-ranked Oklahoma Sooners Saturday night in the new Cowboys Stadium.
Analysts all over the country said polite things about Max Hall and the boys from Provo being able to hang with Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford and his boys in crimson and cream, but no one gave them a chance at winning.
23-point underdogs, the Cougars walked in under the massive video screen with nothing to lose. But the first college football game played in the billion-dollar stadium did not go according to plan.
Oklahoma started off shaky with three early penalties, ending their first drive with -5 yards and a punt. BYU responded by doing what they do best and moved the ball quickly through the air, but came up empty on a missed field goal.
None of this was unexpected. Oklahoma had a largely untested offensive line, and their All-American tight end, Jermaine Gresham, was out with an injury. BYU's offensive line was also fairly raw; their key returning lineman, Matt Reynolds, played with a cast on his arm; and their star running back, Harvey Unga, was benched—a game time decision—with a strained hamstring. Still, everyone expected the outcome to be the same: Oklahoma by a lot.
From there, it got grittier. Chris Brown, who had 1220 yards on the ground last season for the Big 12 champs, was largely ineffective, gaining only 59 yards on 14 carries. DeMarco Murray, Oklahoma's other thousand-yard rusher, only had 58 yards and 13 carries.
The Heisman Trophy winner? Bradford capitalized on a dropped punt return by McKay Jacobson and threw a touchdown to Ryan Broyles with 4:56 to go in the first quarter. But most of Oklahoma's early calls were on the ground. The Sooners even ran a couple of wildcat formations and a play with Bradford lined up as a receiver.
With 4:25 left in the first half, BYU forced and recovered a fumble on a one-yard pass from Bradford to Broyles. Then, the Cougars went 63 yards in five plays, pulling even with the Sooners on a TD pass from Max Hall to tight end Andrew George.
It was a messy game. Penalties and turnovers cost both teams. But the biggest surprise of the game was how BYU's defense met Oklahoma. Every yard they gave up, they did so grudgingly, and with a lot of sweat. They punished Bradford, Murray, and Brown every chance they got.
Then, everything stopped. With seven seconds left in the first half, Sam Bradford took another big hit on an incomplete pass to Ratterree. The Cougars defensive line, which was aggressive and unforgiving all night, changed the game. It was a clean hit, but Bradford and linebacker Coleby Clawson landed hard on Bradford's right shoulder.
Jimmy Stevens kicked a 35-yard field goal to give the Sooners a 10-7 lead at the half, but everyone's mind was on the Heisman Trophy winner.
With the start of the second half, the world began to turn again, but slowly and carefully, as Landry Jones, Oklahoma's freshman back-up, waited to take his first snap in a college football game. Bradford's sprained shoulder kept him on the sideline for the rest of the game, struggling in the role of a spectator.
The Cougars went three-and-out on their first drive, and Jones took the field. He handed the ball off to Brown twice (one run was called back on a penalty), threw a 13-yard completion to Caleb, and threw an incompletion on third down. Not terrible for his first drive, but not enough.
No one scored in the third quarter, but both teams slammed each other at every turn and every step—like two heavyweight boxers refusing to give up, waiting for a chance at a knockout blow, and trying to stay up long enough to capitalize.
With less than two minutes left in the third quarter, Oklahoma found a window. Linebacker Keenan Clayton intercepted Max Hall's pass, and the Sooners took over at the 27—almost in the red zone. The Cougars swayed with the swift blow, but they did not fall.
Two minutes and 19 seconds after giving up the ball, BYU stopped Oklahoma on the one-yard line, and the Sooners had to settle for a field goal.
That's when the world began to spin at full force—in the opposite direction.
Max Hall dissected the wearying Oklahoma defense, going 78 yards in 16 plays. Kariya, in for the sidelined Unga, ended the night with 42 yards on the ground and 76 yards receiving; Dennis Pitta caught 90 yards; and McKay Jacobson had 69 yards receiving—his biggest catch tying the game at 13 with three minutes left in the fourth. Mitch Payne, who missed a field goal early in the first quarter, and BYU's chance for the first points in the game, kicked the extra point to take the lead.
Down one point, the Sooners got a break when Payne's kickoff went out of bounds, giving them the ball at their 40-yard line. Two big completions helped get them to BYU's 32-yard line, and into field goal range, but two incomplete passes and a false start penalty pushed them back to the 37-yard line for the try.
Tress Way missed. The kick went wide left.
BYU took a knee three times and the giant went down.
No one gave BYU a chance at winning the game, but no one knew how fierce the Cougar's defense would be. No one thought they could contain the thousand-yard rushers, or that the Heisman Trophy winner would be be forced to the sideline, but it happened.
No one expected the game to go like it did, but that's the great reward of college football: every up is laced with passion and fire; every down is soaked in gut-wrenching disappointment; and every upset has an underdog who, however improbably, find themselves standing on the top of more than a great headline, more than a collection of highlights—they find themselves writing a new page in the history of great games.
On a Saturday night in early September, under the lights of Cowboys Stadium in the Lone Star State, the Cougars of BYU did what no one believed was possible. No one but them.
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