ANAHEIM — Never one to turn a bowl win into boredom, or into something easy, BYU stayed true to its nail-biting tradition Thursday night. The Cougars beat Colorado in the Freedom Bowl in Anaheim Stadium by the bare margin of 20-17, and just like every other bowl win in the school's history — there were four before last night, now there are five — the outcome came down to one big crucial play that took a BYU bounce.
For a quick historical review, you'll recall that BYU's first-ever bowl win, in the 1980 Holiday Bowl over SMU, came on a last-second Jim McMahon to Clay Brown Hail-Mary pass; and that the Cougars' second bowl win, in the 1981 Holiday Bowl over Washington State, came as a result of a McMahon pickup of his own fumble late in the game; and that the Cougars' third bowl win, over Missouri in the 1983 Holiday Bowl, came in the final seconds of play when Steve Young caught a flea-flicker pass from Eddie Stinnett.
And then, of course, there was the fourth bowl win, in the 1984 Holiday Bowl national championship game against Michigan, when Robbie Bosco threw a touchdown pass to Kelly Smith with 91 seconds to spare.
Now, add to the above list of big bowl plays a routine BYU pass play called simply "63" that transpired with just 8:50 remaining in last night's game.
All "63" did was make the Cougars' No. 5 lifetime bowl victory celebration possible.
It was second and eight at the time. BYU had the ball on its own 24-yard line, 76 yards from the end zone. Quarterback Ty Detmer, who had entered the game at halftime, replacing Sean Covey, called "63" in the huddle, took the snap from center, and dropped back to pass.
He looked to his right and saw his primary receiver on the play, Chuck Cutler, cutting across the middle, like he was supposed to. Detmer released the ball in that general direction.
"All I needed to do was get it high enough," said Detmer.
"But I didn't."
"As soon as I threw it I knew it was an interception," he said. "I knew the other guy had it. I thought, "Oh no, what have I done?' "
The "other guy" was Colorado cornerback David Gibbs, who was back-pedaling fiercely and, as Detmer sized it up, was going to converge with the ball like satellites on the same orbit.
It wasn't even going to be a difficult interception.
From his vantage point, Cutler could see the same thing.
He could see the ball, and he could see Gibbs, in that order, and he could see big problems for BYU in the event that the two got together as programmed. The Cougars were behind at the moment, 17-14, and in no position to turn the ball over that close to the other end zone.
So Cutler, who is 6-2, took flight, determined to jump from behind and try and outrebound Gibbs, who is 5-8.
"If I don't go over him, we're probably dead," thought Cutler, BYU's leading receiver this season who, it should be noted, is also a basketball junkie who would rather have played college basketball if he'd had his way.
"Besides," he added, "I wanted to show everyone my tremendous leaping ability."
How high did he get?
"High enough to get over him," said Cutler.
His Jordan-esque over-the-shoulder (Gibbs' shoulder) catch gave BYU a firstdown at the 39. A minute or so later, Jason Chaffetz kicked a 31-yard field goalto tie the game at 17-all. That set the stage for yet another Chaffetz field goal to win the game.
When Cutler came back to the huddle after his big grab, Detmer was waiting for him.
"You saved my life on that one," Detmer said. "That was the game, right there."
Roger French, BYU's offensive coordinator, agreed.
"On the sidelines, we all knew it was an interception," he said. "Cutler's catch saved the game."
It also saved the MVP trophy for Detmer, a most humble winner who contrasted the oh-what-a-feeling end of the year with his first experience at the start of the year in a four-interception debacle at Wyoming.
"This was better," he said.
"But I think what happened in Wyoming helped me get here," he continued. "I think I've learned that you make your own breaks. It's not luck so much as knowing what you can do."
Translated, that means that if you're going to underthrow a pass, at least be smart enough to underthrow it in the direction of your star senior receiver who has the ability to save the day, and the game, and the season.
Not to mention show off for the basketball coach.