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BYU football: Cougars’ epic upset of Miami is stadium’s No. 1 moment

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Brigham Young University quarterback Ty Detmer escapes from Miami's Shane Curry to throw the first Cougar touchdown against Miami, September 8, 1990.

Brigham Young University quarterback Ty Detmer escapes from Miami’s Shane Curry to throw the first Cougar touchdown against Miami, September 8, 1990.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

Editor's note: This is the fifth in an occasional series that will explore sports venues throughout the state and revisit their most memorable moments. Today: Provo's LaVell Edwards (formerly Cougar) Stadium.

PROVO — BYU fans have a long-standing reputation for being relatively staid when they attend football games at LaVell Edwards Stadium.

But on Sept. 8, 1990, at least for one night, that reputation was ruined.

That's when BYU upset No. 1-ranked and defending national champion Miami, 28-21, on national television at what was then known as Cougar Stadium, renowned for its picturesque setting. Fans uncharacteristically showed up in droves well before kickoff, and not only did they stay through the entire game, but they also celebrated raucously (in a stone-cold sober way) on the field after the Cougars' landmark victory.

It stands as the most memorable event in the 45-year history of the stadium and one of the biggest college football games in the history of the state.

"I've never been in anything like that before," quarterback Ty Detmer said afterward of the spontaneous postgame party, which saw fans transform the field into a giant mosh pit. "I was just trying to high-five everybody. I took more hits going in (to the locker room) than I did the whole game."

Some fans wore blue Ty Detmer "ties" to promote the Cougar quarterback for the Heisman Trophy. As it turned out, Detmer stated his Heisman case loud and clear. And he had plenty of backing from the then-record crowd of 66,235.

"They were on their feet the whole night," Detmer said of the fans. "The student section right behind us really kept us going."

The game was billed as Utah's version of The Game of the Century. BYU's sports information office issued 300 press credentials, including media outlets like Sports Illustrated (which did a story on the game in its next issue), and reporters from places like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Dallas.

The BYU-Miami showdown was preceded by months of hype and buildup as Hurricane players boasted that their quarterback, Craig Erickson, was better than Detmer, that the Cougar offensive line was slow and that they would run over and past BYU's defense.

The 'Canes were a 131/2-point favorite over the No. 16 Cougars, and all week leading up to the game, just about everybody predicted a Miami win.

Legendary BYU coach LaVell Edwards, not one given to hyperbole, admitted that this game was huge.

"It truly is a big event for us," he said. "What I think it is, is a tremendous opportunity, the kind of game you hope will come along for your program."

Afterwards, Edwards said: "It obviously has to be one of the biggest nights we've ever had, the biggest regular-season night we've had."

One Cougar player, defensive lineman Rich Kaufusi, wrote an entire book, "Calming the Storm," about that game.

"Were you there?" then-BYU offensive coordinator Norm Chow asked a reporter a few years later of that night. "It was like electricity."

Not only did BYU dethrone the top-ranked team, but Detmer's Heisman Trophy-worthy performance grabbed the nation's attention. Detmer ended up winning college football's top individual prize in December that year.

Against Miami, Detmer completed 38-of-54 passes for 406 yards, one interception and three touchdowns. Though Detmer was sacked a couple of times (he suffered a cut to his chin that required six stitches), he was still able to elude the ferocious Miami rush and, like a magician, made big plays that baffled the Hurricanes' defense.

Said Miami coach Dennis Erickson: "Ty Detmer, to me, is unbelievable. He made some great plays and throws with pressure in his face. Obviously, he's a great, great quarterback, and he showed it tonight."

"BYU's 28-21 stunner at Provo was devoid of the slightest iota of flukishness," wrote Edwin Pope of Knight-Ridder Newspapers. "It could have been inordinately worse. … Never fly 4,200 miles to play a good team at 4,500 feet — especially if they have Ty Detmer. Even Miami can't defend against perfectly thrown passes. If he isn't Heisman Trophy stuff, there's not a Mormon in Utah."

The Cougars coughed up five turnovers that almost marred the upset. But Detmer, and the entire BYU team, outplayed the defending national champs.

Detmer was so good that he overshadowed BYU's physical, opportunistic defense. The Cougars scored for the final time with three minutes left in the third quarter. Twice in the fourth quarter, the BYU defense came up with big stops. Alema Fitisemanu recovered a Miami fumble at the Cougar 15-yard line. Later, BYU fumbled at its own 37 and the 'Canes marched to the 13. On third-and-10, BYU cornerback Ervin Lee intercepted an Erickson pass to turn Miami away. Finally, with less than two minutes left and the Hurricanes driving deep into BYU territory, BYU held again after an incompletion on fourth down on a ball batted down by Lee.

The Cougars then ran out the clock, touching off a wild celebration in Provo, marking BYU's first — and only — victory over a No. 1-ranked opponent. Days later, the Cougars vaulted from No. 16 to No. 5 in the AP poll — their highest ranking since winning the 1984 national championship. Three voters were so impressed by BYU's win that they put the Cougars No. 1 on their ballots.

Fans in Provo talked about another national title.

"The victory was the most important in Brigham Young history," wrote Ed Sherman of the Chicago Tribune. "Even if Brigham Young doesn't win the title, it captured something equally as important Saturday: respect. It didn't come after the 1984 national championship, because then BYU was criticized for playing an easy schedule. Indeed, the Cougars didn't beat a ranked team that year. Brigham Young did Saturday. And it opened many eyes throughout the nation."

"Miami vs. Brigham Young. Sure. You figure 2 Live Crew vs. the Osmonds. Battery acid meets vanilla ice cream," wrote Mark Whicker of the Orange County Register. "(Miami) slips death threats under Notre Dame's door and gives the No. 1 sign before the game. … Perhaps Miami had talked too often, or maybe Brigham Young had heard too much."

Unfortunately for the Cougars, they lost a few weeks later at Oregon to spoil their undefeated season. BYU ended the 10-3 year with back-to-back blowout losses at Hawaii and against Texas A&M in the Holiday Bowl.

But on Sept. 8, 1990, fans in Provo saw the top-ranked Hurricanes reduced to a mere breeze. Mighty Miami huffed and puffed, but it couldn't blow down the house that Edwards built.

For BYU fans, players and coaches who were there, it was a night they'll never forget.

e-mail: jeffc@desnews.com