A lot of strange things have happened in the years BYU has appeared in the Holiday Bowl, some of them favorable to the Cougars, some of them not so favorable.
It was a couple in the unfavorable category that did in the Cougars Friday in Holiday Bowl XII.There they were, mounting their usual Holiday
Bowl last-minute, save-the-game-or-bust rally. After looking, for most of the first three quarters, like a team that had been on vacation for a month - turning touchdowns into field goals whenever possible - BYU came to life late in the fourth quarter.
They were behind 41-26, but soon enough scored a touchdown on a Freddie Whittingham run to narrow the score to 41-33; and then, with Ty Detmer getting an early start on his 1990 Heisman Trophy campaign, narrowed it further, to 41-39, on a Detmer-to-Brent Nyberg touchdown pass.
It was then that the night got weird.
Detmer went back to pass in an attempt for a two-point conversion that would have tied the score. He threw into heavy coverage. The ball was intercepted by Penn State linebacker Andre Collins, who had the presence of mind to remember that this is the year the NCAA changed the PAT rules, allowing a defensive team to advance a fumble or an interception.
He was only 102 yards from the other end zone. He took off in full flight. By the time he got there, chased but not caught by several Cougars who hadn't remembered the rule change quite as quickly, the Nittany Lions had two more points.
Now the score was 43-39, Penn State.
But BYU wasn't through. After all, these are the Cougars who:
- In the 1980 Holiday Bowl, saw quarterback Jim McMahon throw a 46-yard touchdown pass with no time on the clock to engineer a 46-45 comeback win over SMU.
- In the 1983 Holiday Bowl, saw quarterback Steve Young direct a 94-yard drive that culminated with his catching a 15-yard touchdown pass with 23 seconds remaining as the Cougars came back to beat Missouri 21-17.
- And in the 1984 Holiday Bowl, saw quarterback Robbie Bosco come back from flat-on-his-back knee problems to engineer an 80-yard drive in the fourth quarter that won the national championship.
Bouyed up by all this tradition, current quarterback Detmer huddled his team at the 12-yard-line with 2:01 remaining - 88 yards from another chapter in the Cougars' happy Holiday book.
He marched his team downfield with expert precision, getting to the Penn State 38-yard line with still 45 seconds remaining. The Nittany Lions were clearly worried. They could sense they might be in the wrong place at the wrong time. They had instant empathy for Michigan, and Missouri, and SMU.
But other strange things had happened in BYU's seven other Holiday Bowl appearances.
- Like in the first one, in 1978, against Navy, when a punt intended for BYU was woefully short and bounced off the back of a BYU player into Navy's hands. The Midshipmen turned the turnover to their advantage en route to a 23-16 win.
- And like in the 1979 Holiday Bowl, when quarterback Marc Wilson marched the Cougars 69 yards to the 10-yard-line, only to see a last-second field goal get zapped short and to the left.
Not knowing just which kind of Holiday Bowl mysticism was about to befall BYU this time, virtually every one of the 61,113 spectators stayed in their seats at the 45-second juncture.
Then came the latest in the line.
For BYU it wasn't good.
This one won't be played and replayed in the stepdown lounge at the Wilkinson Center - as was McMahon's Hail Mary and Young's only reception of his college career.
As Detmer stepped back to pass, and as those in the stands wearing Penn State sweatshirts held their breath, Gary Brown, Penn State's strong safety (a position called "Hero" in Penn State's football jargon - appropriately, as it turned out), caught Detmer from behind. As he tackled him he saw the ball cradled in Detmer's arms. He grabbed it.
His attention quickly turned to the same endzone his teammate, Collins, had just recently visited. It was 47 yards away. He got started immediately.
When he got there his run, although just half the distance of Collins', was worth three times the points.
Penn State gave BYU the ball back with 39 seconds left - and an 11-point lead.
Which was how it ended.
As the mist rolled into Jack Murphy Stadium off of Fryar's Road, the Cougars departed the field, stunned as much by how they lost as that they lost. It isn't every game that defeat is snatched from the jaws of victory because of a 102-yard conversion runback by a linebacker and a strong safety's pickpocket maneuevers. But then, every game isn't a Holiday Bowl either.