PROVO — For much of three quarters at LaVell Edwards Stadium, the first meeting between BYU and Stanford was about as enthralling as watching grass grow or paint dry.
Pick your metaphor.
It wasn't so much a defensive struggle as it was a display of offensive ineptitude. That shouldn't have come as much of a surprise, though, considering both teams started freshman quarterbacks who were making their first career starts.
Still, the Cougars and Cardinal packed a game's worth of drama into the final quarter and treated the 61,446 fans in attendance to a thrilling finish that saw Stanford escape with an 18-14 victory.
While Cardinal quarterback Trent Edwards struggled overall, completing just 10 passes for 25 yards, he scored what turned out to be the game-winning touchdown with 3:51 remaining on a 14-yard run.
BYU's freshman QB, John Beck, tried to rally the Cougars on their next possession, marching them 68 yards to the Cardinal eight-yard line, but the drive was halted in inglorious fashion when, with under 30 seconds remaining, on a last-ditch fourth-and-18 play, he was sacked by Stanford's Jared Newberry.
No, it wasn't a conference game, but the pain of the defeat stung just the same for the Cougars, who fell to 2-2 on the season.
BYU coach Gary Crowton has been seen frequently on a series of television commercials since last summer, but his best acting performance came during the postgame chat with the media. He tried hard to hide his acute frustration.
"You're talking to me right after a loss, and I am so angry," Crowton said. "I'm trying to be poised here. To be honest with you, I'm just eaten up inside because I hate losing and I know the team's that way."
Crowton stressed over and over again that he doesn't want to make excuses. BYU entered the contest without starting quarterback Matt Berry, who broke his hand during last week's win at New Mexico, and center Scott Jackson missed the game with a knee injury.
No matter, Crowton said.
"We are who we are," he explained. "If we go out making excuses like we're young and this and that, we're not helping our team get any better. If we're young, then we have to learn fast. If they're an older guy, they've got to help. We had a young quarterback and (Stanford) did, too. It was a close game. They won and we lost — that's the bottom line."
Tight end Daniel Coats, who scored a 31-yard touchdown on a halfback pass from Lance Pendleton late in the third quarter, implied that he and the Cougars were sluggish in the days leading up to the contest.
"We had a real rough week at practice. I don't think we came out fully ready. We just need to work harder," Coats said. "Myself, I feel like I was getting a little too cocky, like we were doing good. In a way, this loss was good for us so we can go out and practice harder."
As poorly as the Cougar offense was playing — BYU gained minus-5 yards rushing and a lackluster 305 total yards — it still was in position to win in the fourth quarter. Leading 14-12, the Cougar defense forced Stanford to punt for the 10th time. On first down from BYU's 20, Crowton opted to call a pass play rather than try to run down the clock and let the defense take over.
Beck's pass was tipped, then picked off by Cardinal linebacker David Bergeron with 4:10 remaining. "That changed the complexion of the game," Crowton said. Three plays later, Edwards scampered untouched into the end zone on a bootleg.
BYU defensive lineman Brady Poppinga said he doesn't blame the offense for the loss. "We're not pointing fingers at the offense," he said. "We felt like we could have gone out there and not allowed them to score a touchdown and held them to a field goal. That would have taken a lot of pressure off the offense to score a touchdown."
"I want to give Stanford a lot of credit," Crowton said. "They took advantage of opportunities that came their way." The Cougars play their second conference game next Saturday against Air Force at Edwards Stadium (1 p.m.).