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Cougars return to the home of storied plays from BYU football lore

Steve Young celebrates in the end zone after scoring the game-winning touchdown to beat Missouri in the 1983 Holiday Bowl.
Steve Young celebrates in the end zone after scoring the game-winning touchdown to beat Missouri in the 1983 Holiday Bowl.
Mark Philbrick, BYU football

SAN DIEGO — That end zone, that part of the field, that corner of the stadium in this coastal city is a kind of shrine to BYU football.

It can’t be called hallowed or sacred, because it is far from divine. It isn’t exactly like a ground of fame, but it is close. Perhaps the most accurate way of putting it is that piece of turf in Qualcomm Stadium, once known as Jack Murphy Stadium, is the Mount Rushmore of BYU football.

It is ground where some of the most storied plays in Cougar history were born and are forever captured in writ, film and in stories retold by eye witnesses and players who’ve danced on that stage for almost half a century.

It is the place Ty Detmer threw his final pass in a legendary career, an interception by Iowa’s defense near the goal line of a 13-13 tie in the 1991 Holiday Bowl.

It is a place where just four years ago in the 2012 Poinsettia Bowl, San Diego State’s Rocky Long and BYU’s Bronco Mendenhall, longtime friends and former coaches at New Mexico, watched as their respective squads entered a physical and intense defensive battle. They boxed to a 6-3 halftime advantage by the Aztecs.

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But that south end zone is where BYU exploded for 20 points, two of them defensive touchdowns (fumble recovery, pick-six) by linebacker Kyle Van Noy. It remains one of the biggest displays of late-game defensive playmaking in school history.

It’s a stadium where Detmer and Marshall Faulk led their teams to an amazing 52-52 tie in 1991, setting an NCAA record for combined points.

It’s a stadium where in 1979, in the north end zone, Marc Wilson threw four or five passes, and three of them went for touchdowns to Dan Plater, Bill Davis and Eric Lane in the first quarter for a 21-0 lead over San Diego State and eventual 63-14 win.

A month later, in that same north end zone, BYU missed a short field goal that would have beaten Lee Corso’s Indiana team and given the Cougars a perfect 12-0 record.

It is an end zone that late in the 1983 Holiday Bowl, future Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young caught a 14-yard halfback pass from Eddie Stinnett to defeat Missouri 21-17. It was a wobbly pass that just cleared the outstretched arms of Missouri’s Bobby Bell, and Young caught it on the end of his fingers. LaVell Edwards watched it in the air and thought to himself, “Oh, brother.”

It’s an end zone where the following year, in the 1984 Holiday Bowl, Robbie Bosco limped back on the field and threw a 7-yard fourth-quarter TD pass to Glen Kozlowski and then a 13-yard scoring strike to Kelly Smith, lifting the Cougars past Michigan to preserve a No. 1 ranking and undefeated season.

It is an end zone that featured one of college football’s most exciting comeback victories, a Hail Mary touchdown pass from Jim McMahon to Clay Brown to tie SMU in the 1980 Holiday Bowl. It is the spot where Kurt Gunther cemented the 46-45 win with the point after kick after BYU was down 45-25 with under four minutes left in the game.

It is an end zone where two quarters earlier in that BYU-SMU game, Vai Sikahema returned a punt 81 yards for a touchdown.

That game, listed by ESPN as one of the best comebacks in college history, is the subject of a book titled “Hail Mary,” by a player on that team, Ryan Tibbitts, who gives a glimpse from the inside of that magical comeback.

Deseret News sportswriter Lee Benson did the forward for Tibbitts’ book and describes the stunned silence in the press box and absolute surreal atmosphere in the stadium, locker room and parking lot after that event.

“I remember interviewing McMahon in the locker room,” wrote Benson. “I have never met, before or since, a more confident, self-assured, competitive athlete than Jim McMahon, who should have won BYU’s first Heisman Trophy in 1980.

“I don’t recall exactly what he said as he stood by his locker; what I do recall exactly is that as he answered my questions, and the adrenaline wore off, his hands were shaking.”

Historic, monumental moments, a cadre of huge plays frozen forever in time. This is the little patch of turf on one corner of the field in the stadium that hosts the 2016 Poinsettia Bowl between BYU and Wyoming.

It might be too much to expect a pile on of more dramatic plays, made for TV in this bowl game. Chances are, there will be plays, and some of them will be pretty exciting.

But don’t rule out the fact that this is absolutely a place of made memories for BYU football teams. There have been plenty of heartaches here, but there’ve also been a bounty of heart stoppers.

It’s BYU’s football Mount Rushmore.

In every sense, apart from Provo and LaVell Edwards Stadium, it is BYU’s home away from home.