SAN DIEGO — In a season filled with miracle comebacks, in a bowl game where such has become almost the expected, the Brigham Young Cougars went to the well one more time to pull out another breathless victory.
With 1:23 left in Friday night's Holiday Bowl in San Diego's Jack Murphy Stadium, Robbie Bosco threw a 13-yard touchdown pass to give BYU a 24-17 victory over the University of Michigan. In the process the Cougars also completed an amazing 13-0 unbeaten season. And afterward, in the BYU locker room anyway, there was no doubt they had claimed the national championship.
"You're the greatest BYU team that's ever been," coach LaVell Edwards told the team afterward. "I guess if Barry Switzer says we're No. 1, then we're No. 1."
Earlier in the day, Switzer, the coach of No. 2 Oklahoma, had said BYU would deserve its claim to the national title if it beat Michigan. But with 11 minutes left in the game, it seemed clear the Cougars' No. 1 ranking was headed for the exits, and Bryant Gumbel was no doubt saying "I told you so."
The Cougars were trailing 17-10, and nothing was going right. They had committed five turnovers already, and racked up 9 costly penalties. Three times they had the ball inside their opponents' 36-yard line — once at the two-yard-line — and failed to score. To make matters worse, their quarterback was playing with a bum knee, a bum ankle and a badly bruised rib.
Almost miraculously, Bosco and Co. proceeded to put together an 8-play, 80-yard drive that was a flawless exhibition in ball control passing. Bosco completed passes of 9 yards to Kelly Smith. Then David Mills for 12. On third-and-8, Bosco found Adam Haysbert for 20 yards. Next he found Mark Bellini for 19 and Mills for 9 at the 7-yard line. And then one of the most memorable plays in Holiday Bowl history.
Bosco rolled wide and under pressure threw a high arching pass to Glen Kozlowski standing flat-footed in the back of the end zone. Kozlowski went up, Campbell went up with him and brushed against him. Kozlowski grabbed the pass and then crashed in bounds. Touchdown. 17-17 with 10:51 left.
The BYU defense, as it had all night, shut down Michigan again, but the BYU offense misfired again. Turnover No. 6. A pass slid through Kozlowski's hands and into Jim Scarcelli's at the Michigan 41-yard line.
Again the BYU defense held. With 4:36 left in the game, the Cougar offense got the ball back on their own 17-yard line for one more shot. The situation was almost identical to last year's Holiday Bowl, when Steve Young and Co. drove 94 yards in the final 4:08 to pull out the victory.
This was the history of the Holiday Bowl. In its seven-year existence now, six of them have gone to the wire, and five of them have been won or lost in the final minute.
All season long, the Cougars had pulled out last-minute victories — at Pitt in the season-opener, at Hawaii, against Wyoming and Air Force. And now they were poised to do it again.
Bosco, carrying the ball precariously with one hand, scrambled 13 yards. Moments later, he passed 20 yards to Mark Bellini, and a face-mask penalty tacked another 15 yards on to the play. Then a series of short passes: 8 yards to Lakei Heimuli, 5 yards to Kelly Smith, 6 yards to Haysbert. On second down at the Michigan 13-yard line, Bosco threw another short pass to Smith, but he dropped it at the 4. No problem. The Cougars tried the same play.
Smith went out to the sideline again, but was covered. Bosco was under pressure and scrambled to the left. Smith took off down the sideline and Bosco fired a strike to him in the end zone for a touchdown. The game-winner.
"I was covered," said Smith. "I saw Robbie was scrambling, so I looked for an open area. I looked down the sideline and saw an opening."
Afterward, the immediate question was obvious. Is BYU No. 1?
"I don't know if they are or not," said Michigan coach Bo Schembechler.
"I don't think there's any question we're No. 1," said Edwards. "Anytime you give up seven or eight turnovers and still come through with a victory against a team like Michigan you have something to be proud of."
With nearly 62,000 fans looking on — most of them cheering loudly for BYU — the Cougars managed to take a 10-7 halftime lead on a last-ditch drive, but nothing was going right. The Cougars moved the ball at will with the short passing game but were stymied by three personal fouls, one interception and a disastrous goal line fumble.
The Cougars' first two possessions started on their own 10-yard line. On BYU's first series, Bosco came through with a clutch third-down 19-yard completion to Glen Kozlowksi, and on the next play Lakei Heimuli turned a dumpoff pass into a 21-yard gain. Then mistake No. 1. Bosco forced a pass to Mark Bellini despite double coverage, and Brad Cochran intercepted it.
On the Cougars' second series, things went from bad to worse. Bosco lay writhing on the ground, holding his left knee after throwing a pass to Kozlowski, the result of a late blow from Michigan's Mike Hammerstein. He was carried off the field, and eventually out of the stadium to heave the knee examined by team doctor Brent Pratley.
Later, Pratley would say, "He has a partial medial collateral tear in the knee, and a Grade 2 ankle sprain. Neither will require surgery, but they hurt like hell. He also may have a fractured rib on the right side."
Bosco was in so much pain that immediately after coming out of the locker room, Edwards told reporters, "He's in a lot of pain right now. He can't talk to the media yet, but we'll try to get him ready."
Nevertheless, Bosco played magnificently much of the night. He completed 30 of 42 passes for 343 yards, 2 TDs and 3 interceptions and was named offensive player of the game.
While Bosco was being examined, the Cougars brought out Bosco's backup, Blaine Fowler, a squat 5-foot-10, 175-pound junior who had thrown just 34 passes all season. Fowler delivered a gutsy performance, completing 5 of 7 passes for 28 yards, but the drive stalled.
With 12:08 left in the half, Bosco returned for the second series, but he was still limping. BYU coach Norm Chow decided to switch Bosco to the shotgun. The Cougars hadn't used the formation all year, but Chow thought it would make it easier for him to drop back. Bosco found it difficult at first. The second time he dropped back in the formation, he was still shouting audibles out to his receivers when center Trevor Matich snapped the ball. Fortunately for him it was an accurate snap. The ball hit Bosco in the chest, and, startled, he still managed to complete an 11-yard pass to Kelly Smith.
Bad knee or not, Bosco then ran 13 yards up the middle of the Michigan defense to the 26-yard line. Heimuli slashed 12 yards off tackle to the Michigan 5, where Smith sliced up the middle for a touchdown and a 7-0 BYU lead.
Only seconds later, the Cougars seemed ready to put the game away. Leon White, who would be named defensive player of the game for his seven unassisted tackles and two sacks, made back-to-back tackles in the Michigan backfield. First he threw Rick Rogers for a loss, then he sacked quarterback Chris Zurbrugg. For White, it was a night for such performances. His dad, stricken with cancer, was watching from a bed on the sideline.
White's sack left Michigan with fourth down. Monte Robbins dropped back to punt, but under heavy pressure from BYU he suddenly darted to the left where he was finally chased out of bounds by Ladd Akeo. The Cougars were now five yards from a 14-0 lead. But after trying two runs up the middle, the Cougars found themselves faced with third down on the 2-yard line. Bosco bootlegged right, then cut inside and seemed headed for the end zone when suddenly the ball squirted loose before a defender could even touch him. Michigan's Kevin Brooks recovered in the end zone.
Until now, the Cougar defense had shut down Michigan and its big-back attack of Rick Rogers, Bob Perryman and Gerald White, all of the 6-foot-2, 220-pound mold who have given BYU so much trouble in the past. All night they would bail out the offense by holding Michigan to a mere 202 yards total offense. Early in the second quarter, Kerry Whittingham stopped Perryman for no gain on a third-and-one. But this time the Wolverines managed to assemble a drive, thanks mainly to penalties.
The Wolverines drove steadily upfield, thanks to a 32-yard run by Perryman, but the Cougars stopped them at the 13 and forced them to settle for a 32-yard Bob Bergeron field goal. But wait. A roughing the kicker penalty gave Michigan a first down at the 10-yard line. Two plays later, Rogers dashed into the end zone for a tie at 7-7 with 1:13 left in the half.
The Cougars struck right back. They drove clear to the Michigan 14-yard line. Bosco completed two 17-yard passes to Mills and a 16-yarder to Adam Haysbert. Kozlowski drew a pass interference penalty, and . . . the Cougars ran out of time. They had to settle for a 31-yard Lee Johnson field goal with four seconds left and a 10-7 halftime lead.
The BYU self-destruction act continued in the second half. With BYU on the move again, Bosco overthrew Heimuli on a dumpoff over the middle, and Mike Mallory made a diving interception at the 49.
Once again the defense came to the rescue. White, with most of his teammates in tow, sacked Zurbrugg for a 19-yard loss.
BYU on the move again. The Cougars drove all the way to the Michigan 26, thanks to a roughing the passer penalty and the running of Heimuli. But on first down, Bosco was blindsided while setting up to pass and fumbled. Michigan's Jim Scarcelli recovered at the 33.
The BYU defense again forced another Michigan punt, and the BYU offense again marched upfield. Heimuli busted the draw play for gains of 15 and 8 yards, and Bosco passed 15 yards to Thor Salanoa. But the Cougars stalled at the 36, and Johnson came on to attempt a 52-yard field goal. The kick was low, Michigan blocked it, and Eric Campbell returned 25 yards.
The Cougar defense, which by now had been on the field most of the night, failed to stop Michigan. The Wolverines drove to the 10-yard line. On third-and-tow, Zurbrugg rolled left. Kurt Gouveia pressured him, but was too late. He fired a strike to Perryman at the two. Perryman spun inside and crashed into a wall of Cougars, then, with Kyle Morrell desperately hanging on to his face mask, staggered into the end zone to give Michigan a 14-10 lead.