LaVell Edwards won his 200th game Saturday at Cougar Stadium - a milestone only a handful of the greatest coaches in college football history have reached - but his first reaction wasn't unbridled joy or even a justified sense of accomplishment.
"Sheer relief," is how Edwards described his first feelings after BYU's 49-47 victory over New Mexico.Relief that the game wasn't any longer. Relief his defense wasn't on the field in the final seconds. Relief that Stoney Case is finally going to graduate. Relief that Jamal Willis is on his team. Relief that the Cougars didn't lose a WAC game at home for the second week in a row. Relief that he can quit answering stupid questions from reporters about how he's going to feel after his 200th victory.
It also pretty much sums up how the 60,265 Cougar fans at the game felt as the clock expired. Rolaids should have been the sponsor.
"This was a typical WAC game," said New Mexico coach Dennis Franchione, whose team dropped to 0-4 overall and 0-1 in the WAC.
Actually, after some tense moments in the third quarter when the Lobos took their only lead at 27-21, Cougar fans were breathing relatively easy for a while. The Cougar offense came alive late in the third quarter and it continued into the fourth. A 39-yard Willis touchdown run gave the home team a 49-33 lead with just under four minutes to play.
But Case, the senior Lobo quarterback who's been starting since he was a freshman, was just getting started. He tossed a fourth-down 32-yard scoring pass to Zack Wesley with 3:16 remaining and, after a successful onsides kick, hooked up with Wesley again 28 seconds later for a 33-yard score. Suddenly the Lobos trailed by only two points.
New Mexico tried another onsides kick but this time Cougar tight end Chad Lewis recovered.
Willis, who finished with a career-best 204 yards rushing, put the game away by gaining three first downs as the Cougars ran out the clock.
"That was a real gut-check, but we're going to have some of those games," said Edwards.
"All I can say is Stoney Case is awesome," Cougar defensive end Travis Hall said. "He moves so well and every time they needed a big play he came up with it."
Case finished the game with 375 yards passing and a New Mexico record six touchdowns. He also rushed for 29 yards. The Lobos, who have now lost three games by six points or less this season, outgained the Cougars in total offensive yards 599 to 523.
"It doesn't matter how much offense you have or how much you score," Case said. "(What matters is) on the scoreboard. It's how many points the defense allows."
The Cougars used a balanced offensive attack against the Lobos, who showed why they entered the game last in the WAC in total defense. John Walsh completed 18 of 24 passes for 228 yards and three touchdowns, while Willis, Hema Heimuli (52 yards) and Mark Atuaia (29 yards) led the running attack to a season-best 295 yards on 50 carries. And best of all for BYU, after leading the WAC with 10 turnovers in three games, the Cougars didn't have even one Saturday.
"I'm happy with the way we played and glad we got Coach Edwards his 200th win," Walsh said. "He's a great coach - one of the greatest of all time - and I'm happy for him."
"LaVell is the biggest stud of all," said Lewis, who grew up as a BYU fan in Orem. "It's an honor to play for him and I have great respect for him. He's been my hero since I was a kid."
Lewis had his best game of the season at tight end - four catches for 39 yards and a touchdown - but was just as big on special teams. In addition to recovering the final onsides kick, Lewis blocked a 41-yard field goal attempt in the second quarter. A successful Lobo field goal at that time and the game might have been completely different.
Ironically, the game program's cover featured a picture of Lewis leaping up to block a kick. "Maybe the game program was an omen," he said. "I felt like I got up pretty good, I saw the ball coming and was able to block it."
The blocked field goal attempt came with the Cougs holding a 14-6 lead. Walsh hit Kaipo McGwire with a 19-yard scoring strike to give the Cougs a 21-6 lead with 54 seconds remaining in the first half - in other words, with plenty of time for Case and Company.
The Lobos marched 80 yards on six plays in 45 seconds to score with nine ticks left in the half. The two-point conversion attempt failed, so BYU led 21-12 at intermission.
"That touchdown they got just before half was a real downer," Edwards said. "And then we didn't do anything with our first two possessions in the second half."
But New Mexico did. The Lobos scored on long drives the first two times they got the ball in the third quarter to take a 27-21 lead.
That's when Willis took over. He rushed for 146 yards in the final 20 minutes of the game as he set up or scored himself four touchdowns during the stretch.
The Lobos kept coming back, however. A 29-yard fake punt run by reserve quarterback Jeff Houghtaling set up a touchdown to cut BYU's lead to 42-33 with 7:20 to play.
Three touchdowns - the first by BYU and next two by New Mexico - were scored in a 1:05 stretch to close out the topsy-turvy contest.
The post-game celebration featured Edwards being carried on his players' shoulders and doused with a bucket of Gatorade. "I think that's the second time I've been carried - it's a good thing I've lost some weight," he said. "I've never had Gatorade put on me before."
"LaVell is a class person and as fine a guy as I've ever been around," Franchione said of his coaching counterpart. "If I had to lose today, then it's an honor to be part of the 200th win . . . He's very deserving and has had a great career. Maybe some day I'll grow up to be like him."
The Cougs will have a short week to prepare for their next opponent, as they host Utah State Friday night due to LDS General Conference on Saturday.
GAME NOTES: Willis's 204-yard performance was the first time a Cougar has rushed for 200-plus yards in a game since Jeff Blanc ran for 215 in 1975. Willis ties John Ogden (1966) for the fourth best single game rushing performance in school history . . . Both BYU and New Mexico scored seven touchdowns, but Cougar kicker David Lauder was 7-for-7 on his extra points. New Mexico missed one kick and was unsuccessful on three two-point conversion tries. The Lobos were, however, successful on two other two-point attempts.