The Kansas State football team remained strangely quiet during numerous joint gatherings with BYU players this week.
At the video arcade at the West End MarketPlace, at various luncheons and dinners and even when both teams went to see the comedic stylings of Sinbad, very little friendly interaction took place between the players. The Wildcats wouldn't even shake hands or make small talk, apparently in an attempt to psych out and/or show disrespect to BYU.
At least that's the way the Cougars took it.
But once the 61st Cotton Bowl started, the Wildcats became more talkative. In fact, their mouths were yapping like crazy.
"They wouldn't shut up," said the Cougars' senior quarterback Steve Sarkisian. "They were saying things like, "Hey, Sark, this isn't the WAC. This is the big time.' "
It appears, however, that the Cougs were ready for the so-called "big time," even if K-State — not to mention the bowl alliance — may have previously thought otherwise.
BYU scored a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns to stage a come-from-behind victory over the Wildcats, 19-15. The Cougs became the all-time single-season winningest team in NCAA history in the process. Fifth-ranked BYU improved to 14-1 with its first-ever victory in a New Year's Day game, becoming the only Division I-A team to win more than 13 times in a season.
"Winning 14 games is a great accomplishment," said running back Brian McKenzie. "It could be duplicated in the future, but we'll always be the team that accomplished it first. It's something that you can look back on and tell your kids."
The Cougars have finished the season ranked in the country's top five only once — when they won the national title in 1984. Friday, when the final polls are announced, BYU will likely be somewhere between third and fifth.
"We proved we're for real," said senior linebacker Shay Muirbrook, the game's outstanding defensive player as selected by the media.
Defense, so often overshawdowed during the 25-year LaVell Edwards coaching regime in Provo, was the key ingredient in what is arguably one of the top two or three wins in the annals of BYU football.
"A Christmas gift" — as Muirbrook called it — and one other long pass provided the only scores for 14th-ranked Kansas State in front of 71,928 fans, most donned in Wildcat purple.
If it hadn't been for a fling-and-a-prayer bomb on the last play of the first half and a short pass that was turned into a 72-yard TD in the third quarter, the Cougars would have kept K-State scoreless.
"This is probably the best defense we've ever had at BYU," said Edwards.
But because of those two big K-State plays and BYU's inability to get much going offensively, the Cougars found themselves trailing 15-5 in the fourth quarter against one of the nation's top defenses. As if that didn't make the Cougs' odds long enough, Sarkisian — who had been treated like a rag doll by the Wildcats — was playing with a sore right (throwing) shoulder.
K-State wasn't entirely healthy either. All-American Chris Canty, who was arrested for drunken driving last month, apparently hadn't had enough to drink Wednesday, as he was forced to leave due to dehydration. One play later Canty's replacement, Demetric Denmark, was burned deep by BYU's James Dye. Sarkisian found him for a 32-yard touchdown with 10:55 to play. Cougar kicker Ethan Pochman's point after was good to cut the gap to 15-12.
The Cougars got the ball back at their own 40 with five minutes remaining. Two quick completions to Chad Lewis and Kaipo McGuire gave the Cougs first down at the K-State 31. A three-yard scramble by Sarkisian and an incomplete pass to McGuire — in which the Cougar receiver's helmet was knocked off by a vicious hit by safety Mario Smith — and BYU was faced with a 3rd-and-7 at the 28.
Canty was still out with dehydration, however, and the Wildcats' other star cornerback Joe Gordon left the game after getting banged up. That left freshman corner Lamar Chapman in man-to-man coverage against BYU senior K.O. Kealaluhi.
It was a mismatch the Wildcats would pay dearly for. Kealaluhi headed inside and Chapman bit. When Kealaluhi cut back outside he was wide open in the end zone and Sarkisian hit him in stride for the 28-yard score, giving the Cougars the lead with 3:39 to play.
BYU wasn't out of the woods yet, however. The Wildcats moved the ball on a sustained drive for the first time all game in the final minutes. Twice Wildcat quarterback Brian Kavanagh completed fourth-down passes to All-American receiver Kevin Lockett to keep the chains moving. Lockett even hauled in a pass in the back of the end zone, but it was ruled incomplete because his foot was out of bounds when he landed.
With a 1st-and-10 at the 12, however, cornerback Omarr Morgan saved the day for the Cougars. He picked off a pass intended for Jimmy Dean at the three with just 55 seconds left.
"After I caught it," Morgan said, "I cradled it like a baby. I wasn't going to drop it. It was the greatest feeling of my life."
When Sarkisian finished putting his knee down for the third time and the clock read :00, the Cougars could start celebrating their second bowl win in three seasons.
There seemed to be some bad blood between the two teams before the game even started.
"They were disrespecting us at all the events — not shaking our hands and stuff — and we took it personally," said cornerback Tim McTyer, who had a first-quarter interception and six tackles on the afternoon.
Added Sarkisian, "At some bowls the teams hang out and are friendly to each other, but they didn't seem to want to be friends with us and I guess that's their business."
Sarkisian completed 21 of 36 passes for 291 yards and a pair of scores to earn co-outstanding offensive player honors (with Lockett). He was punished physically, however, as he was sacked seven times for minus-45.
"Steve was playing in a lot of pain in the fourth quarter," said Edwards. "It was a gutsy performance."
The Cougars dominated all but the final six seconds of the first half. Muirbrook started the scoring when he sacked K-State quarterback Brian Kavanagh in the end zone for a safety with 3:34 to play in the first quarter. Shortly thereafter Pochman nailed a 39-yard field goal to put BYU up 5-0.
It appeared the Cougars would go into the halftime locker room with a lead until Kavanagh did his best Jim McMahon-in-the-'80-Holiday Bowl impersonation. Kavanagh, on the final play of the half, threw the ball up for grabs in the end zone. Morgan got his hand on it, but it bounced into the arms of KSU's Andre Anderson for a touchdown. Running back Mike Lawrence scored the two-point conversion to put the Wildcats up 8-5 at intermission.
The Wildcats padded their lead in the third quarter when a short pass to Lockett turned into a 72-yard touchdown. Lockett broke a tackle by Chris Ellison and scampered down the left sideline to give the 'Cats a 10-point lead before the Cougars' comeback.
Kansas State coach Bill Snyder came away impressed with the Cougars. "They're ranked No. 5 in the country and deserve to be," he said.