BYU, the best sequel team in America, the football team that might look bad on a given Saturday at home, but never on two given Saturdays, didn't play like its old self yesterday afternoon in Cougar Stadium. For the first time in 21 years, Provo is waking up today under the heavy mental mantle of back-to-back home losses.
Business as usual it wasn't. If this is the most-hated team in the country, then the country is having a terrific September.It appeared BYU would avert its 17-10 loss to 15th-ranked UCLA when, in the final three minutes, the Cougars marched down the field as if on a mission. The 65,761 in attendance had seen this act before: The BYU offense 10 yards away from the end zone, the stands in a fever pitch, the parking lots as still as the Queen Mary, a touchdown pass so close you could reach down and touch it.
Which is what UCLA's Marvin Goodwin's did when Steve Clements, relieving John Walsh and still wondering where he was, threw what might have been the game-winner to his ace wide receiver, Eric Drage, but somehow got it first to Goodwin, who was closer.
Clements was stunned. The crowd was stunned. UCLA was back in the offensive business with just 1:13 remaining in the game - hardly enough time for the Cougars to get the ball back, score, make a two-point conversion, and avoid losing two-in-a-row for the first time since before the Beatles broke up.
You have to go back to the 1971 season - when BYU didn't lose just two in a row at home, but three, to New Mexico, Arizona and Utah - to find a recession of the sort the Cougars now find themselves in.
After - and because of - that 1971 season, Tom Hudspeth was fired as head coach and LaVell Edwards was hired. In the 21 seasons since, Edwards has been the Minnesota Fats of college football. The rule is: Don't play him in his home stadium.
Going into yesterday's game the Cougars and Edwards were the proud owners of a 21-year Cougar Stadium record of 94 wins, 17 losses, and never two losses in a row.
Historically, Edwards' Cougars had always responded quite violently to losses at home. They'd get defensive. They'd get offensive. They'd treat the next team that came to town like a new steel factory. If there's anything to the most-hated claims, Cougar Stadium could have a lot to do with it. The average score for "game-afters" has been 25 points.
Only once, in fact, has a home game after a home loss been at all close. That was in 1975. The Cougars lost 23-21 to Bowling Green in their home-opener and then, in the next home game against New Mexico, they were seriously behind in the second half. Third-string quarterback Gifford Nielsen came off the bench, however, to complete 10-of-11 passes and direct a 16-15 comeback win.
There have been times two home losses looked like a distinct possibility. In 1985, for example, BYU began the home season with a 27-24 loss to - once again - UCLA. With top 10-ranked Washington in next, trouble loomed on the horizon. But Washington was never in a game that ended 31-3 for BYU.
The Cougars have had eight entire seasons go by without one loss at home - most recently, the 1990 and 1991 seasons.
UCLA coach Terry Donahue was not aware of all the above details as yesterday's game wound down to its conclusion. What he was aware of is there are better places to be than digging in on defense in Provo, Utah, in the fourth quarter in a one-touchdown game.
"What was I thinking at the end?" said Donahue. "I was thinking `Oh my goodness, what a terrible way to have this game end.' " Meanwhile, on the other sideline, Edwards was thinking that even though his offense had spent the day having trouble telling the clutch pedal from the brake pedal, this wasn't looking too bad.
"I thought we were going to pull it out," he said. He told coach Robbie Bosco to alert coach Norm Chow in the press box to be thinking about a two-point conversion play - because once the Cougars scored, they weren't going to go for a tie.
They needed a win for the home team. They needed a win to do what they'd always managed to do before. When it didn't happen, there was no joy in Provo, where the antidote for a loss, until yesterday, had always been a win.