PROVO — Twelve years later, the memories, and wounds, are still fresh.
Former BYU tight end Chad Lewis remembers all-too-well walking off the field at Husky Stadium after a devastating 29-17 defeat at Washington in 1996.
"It was painful. I could tell it was going to be a special year, and to come out of Washington with a loss was so bitter," he recalled this week. "We let one slip away from us. It was such a disappointing feeling. I wanted to start the game over again."
Lewis, who went on to enjoy an All-Pro NFL career, can relate to the challenge this year's BYU squad is facing Saturday when the Cougars visit Washington. His is a cautionary tale because there are some similarities between the '96 and '08 Cougar teams and the circumstances surrounding the trips to Washington.
On Sept. 14, 1996, the Cougars ventured to Seattle with a 2-0 record and a No. 14 national ranking. BYU was looking to make a statement on the road and hoping for an undefeated season and a berth in a Bowl Alliance (a precursor to the Bowl Championship Series) postseason game. There was even some talk about a possible national championship.
In 2008, the Cougars are 1-0 and ranked No. 15, looking to make a statement on the road. BYU has hopes of an undefeated season and a BCS bowl bid.
Lewis' team lost the battle in Seattle, which turned out to be the final loss of his collegiate career. Washington scored two touchdowns in the first quarter, and BYU spent the rest of the day trying to catch up in front of a loud crowd of 70,000 fans. Cougar quarterback Steve Sarkisian was sacked eight times for minus-42 yards and Husky running back Rashaan Shehee rushed for 131 yards and scored two TDs.
The following Monday, the Cougars dropped out of the national polls. But they rebounded by winning 12 straight games to finish the season.
BYU won the Western Athletic Conference championship, played in (and won) the program's first and only New Year's Day bowl game (the Cotton Bowl), claimed an NCAA single-season record 14 victories and finished No. 5 in the final polls.
"It helped us to refocus as a team," Lewis said of the early-season Washington loss. "We decided to dig in and take one game at a time from there on out. It was a great lesson."
Yet Lewis can't help but wonder, what if the Cougars would have won at Washington? That setback prevented them from achieving a perfect season and playing in the lucrative Fiesta Bowl that season.
"For some reason, our focus was not what it needed to be. Our focus should have been on Washington — period," Lewis said. "We had a chance to be like the 1984 (BYU) team. When you go undefeated, you deserve it. I will always give that team credit. And I will always feel bad we came up short in Washington."
For the Huskies, memories of 1984 are somewhat painful. While BYU finished 13-0 and won the national championship, the team that finished No. 2 in the polls that season was Washington, which posted an 11-1 record, including an Orange Bowl victory over Oklahoma. The Huskies felt they had earned the national title that year, but voters awarded it to the Cougars.
The following season, in 1985, BYU pummeled Washington in Provo, 31-3, in the first meeting between the two schools.
Since then, the Huskies have pretty much controlled the series.
They trounced BYU in Seattle in 1986 (52-21), then won in 1996, in 1997 in Provo (42-20) and in 1998 in Seattle (20-10). The Cougars' only other win in the series came in Provo in 1999, when quarterback Kevin Feterik threw a 38-yard touchdown pass to Chris Hale for the game-winner with 1:16 remaining.
That was the last time the two teams met.
If Lewis could impart any advice to the '08 Cougars, what would it be?
"I'd tell them to have laser-focus on winning the game, with no distractions," he said. "No matter how loud the crowd gets, no matter what the weather is, it doesn't matter. Just take care of business and win the game. It's a fun place to play. The stands are steep, so it feels like the crowd is right on top of you."
Lewis pauses to ask a question of his own. "When's the last time BYU won at Washington?"
The Cougars are 0-3 in Seattle, he was told.
"I hope they turn it around. I think they will," Lewis said. "I hope they don't take Washington lightly because they lost last week (at Oregon, 44-10). This BYU team has great confidence and great rhythm. They know what's at stake. I'm very excited for this team to go up there."