LAS VEGAS — Going into the Las Vegas Bowl, the pressure was squarely on BYU.
The No. 19-ranked Cougars boasted a Mountain West Conference championship and a nine-game winning streak. Plus, they hadn't won a bowl game in a decade. To lose Thursday night to Oregon, a team that finished in a fifth-place tie in the Pac-10, and a team mired in a three-game losing streak, would have meant another blue Christmas in Provo.
As it turned out, though, it was the Ducks who quacked under the pressure — of BYU's dominating defense and prolific offense. The Cougars made Oregon look like just another MWC opponent with a convincing 38-8 victory before a Sam Boyd Stadium-record crowd of 44,615.
With that, BYU's bowl-win drought ended emphatically. The Cougars won their first postseason game since defeating Kansas State in the Cotton Bowl after the 1996 season. With the win Thursday, BYU put the finishing touches on a memorable 11-2 campaign.
"I couldn't think of a more fitting ending, one that this team deserved," head coach Bronco Mendenhall said.
And it all came at the expense of the Cougars' former head coach, Gary Crowton, who is now Oregon's offensive coordinator.
"Our dream," said senior quarterback John Beck, "has been fulfilled. This is the way we wanted to end the season, winning the conference, winning a bowl game and sending the seniors out on a winning note. This senior class went through so much, and this program has seen such a tremendous turnaround since coach Mendenhall arrived."
As they have all season, the Cougar seniors led the way against the Ducks, from Las Vegas Bowl MVP tight end Jonny Harline's highlight-reel, career-best performance (nine catches, 181 yards), to running back Curtis Brown's two touchdowns, to Justin Robinson's two interceptions (which tied a Vegas Bowl record).
And Beck broke his own Las Vegas Bowl record, passing for 375 yards and a pair of touchdowns. BYU rolled up 548 yards of total offense and limited Oregon to 260.
The Cougars were looking to validate their outstanding season, and they accomplished that in impressive fashion before a national television audience.
"We wanted to show we could come out and compete with anyone," Harline said.
Still, it took a while for BYU's offense to get revved up, but once it did the Cougars did against Oregon what they had done against MWC opponents this season.
BYU receivers uncharacteristically dropped passes in the game's early moments. But Beck calmed them down and eventually they got into a rhythm.
"I know these guys so well," Beck said. "If they drop a ball, I will always go back to them."
After going scoreless through the first quarter for the first time all season, BYU had Jared McLaughlin boot a 24-yard field goal to cap a 92-yard drive early in the second quarter. The Cougars struck again on their next possession on a 6-yard touchdown run by Brown, and they added another TD on a 41-yard pass from Beck to Harline.
At halftime, BYU led by the relatively comfortable score of 17-0.
After driving into Oregon territory on the Cougars' first drive of the second half, Beck threw his second interception of the night. But the Cougars responded by stopping the Ducks on a Robinson pick that set up another Brown touchdown run late in the third quarter.
Oregon's score came on a long TD pass with 10:27 remaining.
"We didn't play very well. I think we got outcoached, outplayed and outhustled," Duck coach Mike Bellotti said. "We didn't win the battle at the line of scrimmage. I give credit to BYU. They played with great discipline and they are a very, very good team. We knew what they were going to do. We worked on stopping it. We also performed very poorly offensively and were undisciplined in the first half. I thought we had practiced very well leading up to this. The fact that we didn't do some things, that is what surprised me."
While much was made of Oregon having the eighth-best offense in the nation, BYU's defense rose up once again.
"People seem to forget, this is a defense that allowed just 15 points a game all season," Mendenhall said.
Following the game, fans rushed the field. Bowl officials awarded BYU the Las Vegas Bowl trophy as fans, players and coaches savored the moment.
"It felt like a home game for us," Beck said. "We went undefeated this year at LaVell Edwards Stadium, and it felt like Edwards Stadium to us tonight."
For now, the pressure is off.