SAN DIEGO — Brent Johnson stood by himself on the field, hands on hips, staring at the bright yellow goal posts that rose into the black night. With seven seconds left in Brigham Young's most glorious football season, he alone was left to decide the outcome of the Holiday Bowl. The Cougars trailed 38-37 and all they needed was for Johnson to kick the ball through the posts 27 yards away.
Johnson later recalled, "I wasn't worried about it. I tried not to think about it. I felt so good."
Indeed Johnson had been kicking straight and true all evening. His kickoffs were high and long and already he had hit all three of his field goal attempts, one from 46 yards. But not this time. The kick was never close. The snap was quick, the hold good, but the kick floated off to the left.
A half-hour later he was in the locker room, still fighting back tears, sometimes unsuccessfully, but trying to answer questions politely, sometimes with a smile. "I knew the minute I hit it what I did wrong," he said. "I didn't follow through. I punched at the ball. It was the worst I've ever missed in my life. That's what makes it so hard." Then, after a pause, "I hate to have it come down to my senior year and have it end like this."
It seemed unfair that Johnson would bear the burden of defeat forever despite the outpouring of affection and sympathy from fans, teammates and coaches. That what he probably will remember most about a great college career is The Miss. That moment he missed the kick will be frozen forever in his mind. He'll replay it over and over.
It is unfair that his blunder alone, above all others, will be remembered and cited as the reason for defeat. Forgotten will be the interceptions, dropped passes and fumbles throughout the game. Always the ending to any drama is remembered.
"Like I told Brent," said BYU coach LaVell Edwards, "that's one of the problems with being a kicker. He has to do it when it boils down to the end. There are a lot of other turning points during a game."
Indiana Coach Lee Corso unwittingly caught the situation best. He was walking briskly to a post-game press conference when suddenly he wheeled and ran back to the locker room through a trailing crowd of reporters, yelling, "I'll be right back. I gotta go say a prayer with my team." Truly, Corso had much to be thankful for.
BYU gave the Hoosiers several golden opportunities, and luck gave them the right bounces and the clock. The Hoosiers didn't return the favor.
Marc Wilson threw a bullet so hard and accurately at Indiana's Steve Mitchell that he had no choice but to catch it out of sheer self-defense. Wilson apparently misread the pattern or receiver Lloyd Jones. "He thought I'd cut underneath," said Jones. "But I kept going upfield. I had six if he had put it up."
Corso also can be thankful that time ran out in the first half just as Jones was catching a 39-yard pass at the two-yard line, where he was forced out of bounds.
When Corso counts his blessings, he'll want to include the third-quarter fumble of a punt by Doug Francis at the 10-yard line. The ball rolled to the one-yard line, where it was recovered, appropriately enough, by Lucky Wallace. That led to a touchdown and a 28-24 lead.
Moments later Tim Wilbur intercepted another Wilson pass and the Hoosiers drove 22 yards for a field goal. Even then not without the aid of BYU's only penalty of the night, a 15-yard personal foul.
But what Corso can be most thankful for is a fluke punt. Johnson's third field goal and Indiana's lone turnover — an interception by Tim Halverson that led to a 15-yard TD pass to Eric Lane — gave BYU a 37-31 lead. The Cougars seemed very much in control, but with eight minutes left were forced to punt. The ball sailed upfield and hit Indiana's Craig Walls on the back on the first bounce. The second bounce landed in the hands of Wilbur, who happened to be running by at the time and kept on running 62 yards for a touchdown. "It was like someone said, 'here,' and gave him the ball," said Corso.
So despite gaining 520 yards, compared to Indiana's 354, the Cougars trailed by one point and it was left once more for Wilson to drive the Cougars upfield.
Despite the interceptions, Wilson played well, completing 28 of 43 passes for 380 yards, and the offense was never stopped except by its own mistakes. Trouble was, the Hoosiers kept the ball away from Wilson as was their plan.
Before the game Corso said, "If it goes into a shootout, we'll get killed. We might come out into a basketball stall." The Hoosiers did just that, keeping the ball 10 minutes more than BYU.
When Wilson got the ball for the last time with two minutes left, he moved the team to within field goal range to set the stage for Johnson. In the end it was left to Johnson, who never asked for such a job to start with. Johnson asked for a tryout as a wide receiver five years ago, and by his sophomore year he was given a scholarship — but as a kicker exclusively. "I found my home in kicking," he said.
It was an anti-climactic end to BYU's dream season. The Cougars wanted desperately to win their first bowl game in four tries and solidify their top 10 ranking and unbeaten season. And they wanted to beat the Hoosiers, who BYU players thought were taking them lightly because of Indiana's Big 10 Conference membership. Even Corso's famous one-liners during the week leading up to the game were interpreted as taking the Cougars lightly.
Said Johnson, "People will make this hurt BYU's credibility."
Corso, not wasting any time nor the moment, said, "It's a great win for the Big 10. If BYU's No. 9, then we're eighth."
The Hoosiers, too, had something to prove. They were deemed an unworthy bowl opponent for BYU by many. The announcement of their selection to the bowl was booed by BYU fans.
"I hope people wonder about inviting Indiana now," said Corso. "Don't forget that a certain amount of humor is not a sign of weakness. We came here to win." So did the Cougars, who after losing two straight must think this bowl isn't such a holiday after all.