MADISON, Wisconsin — Let’s be honest. Nobody believed that BYU, 22-point underdogs to No. 6 Wisconsin, had any chance at all to pull off an upset.
Except for the Cougars themselves.
BYU defied the odds and earned its biggest win of the independence era and one of the biggest triumphs in school history Saturday afternoon at Camp Randall Stadium.
The Cougars jumped on, and around, and past the mighty Badgers, earning a 24-21 victory before a stunned crowd of 80,720.
“We kept telling everyone to believe,” said BYU linebacker Sione Takitaki.
And that matched their attitude during the game.
“Let’s go have fun and play our heart out," said quarterback Tanner Mangum. "I love playing that way.”
For the Cougars, it was their first win over a top 10 opponent in a true road game since a 20-14 victory over No. 3 Pitt in 1984. The last top 10 team BYU defeated was No. 3 Oklahoma at Cowboys Stadium in 2009.
The Cougars’ win also snapped Wisconsin’s 41-game winning streak at home against nonconference opponents (dating back to 2003) and it ended the Badgers’ streak of 20 straight regular-season victories.
Remember, this is the same program that stomped BYU in Provo a year ago, 40-6.
“I have a lot of respect for Wisconsin’s program. I’ve talked about the smash-mouth style of football that they play,” said coach Kalani Sitake. “We pattern what we do as a team after what they do. I’m really excited we came out with the win but more than anything, I’m excited that our guys were a lot more physical than we were last year.”
Yes, BYU took Wisconsin’s blueprint and essentially beat the Badgers over the head with it, employing a Wisconsin-like physical style of play on offense and defense. Instead of wearing down against the Badgers, the Cougars fought on in the trenches for four quarters.
“This was huge for me. I could barely walk off the field because I was so tired,” said defensive lineman Corbin Kaufusi. “It was this feeling of gratitude because this is exactly what I want for the team. That’s huge for us.”
Heading into the final quarter, BYU was loose and relaxed. On the sidelines, the Cougars participated in Wisconsin’s traditional “Jump Around,” a song they had blaring all week on the loudspeakers on the practice field in Provo.
During the game, BYU had a pair of 40-plus-yard runs by Squally Canada, who scored on a couple of short TD runs and finished with 118 yards. As a team, the Cougars racked up 191 yards on the ground. Who saw that coming?
Offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes dialed up a trick play — Aleva Hifo’s halfback pass to Moroni Laulu-Pututau for a 31-yard touchdown pass that gave BYU its first lead of the game, 14-7, in the second quarter. The coaches nicknamed the play "Bucky," after the Badgers' mascot.
And the defense, playing without starting middle linebacker Butch Pau’u due to injury, limited Heisman Trophy candidate Jonathan Taylor, the nation’s leading rusher coming into the game, to 117 yards, 82 under his average.
“The coaches prepared us well during the week,” Takitaki said. “We had to play sound and big up front. They like to pound the ball.”
“That was a physical game. It was a physical fight,” said Mangum, who completed 12 of 22 passes for 89 yards. “I loved watching their fight. To hold them to 21 points is huge.”
BYU linebacker Zayne Anderson recorded an interception early in the third quarter, setting up one of Canada's touchdown runs that propelled the Cougars to a 21-14 edge.
In the decisive fourth quarter, BYU true freshman Skyler Southam booted a 45-yard field goal with 9:58 remaining.
“It was kind of a bad snap. (Senior holder) Gavin Fowler has been solid for us for so many years has always been a team guy,” Sitake said. “He goes unnoticed, but he takes it seriously. That’s what won the game. He took the errant snap and put it down calmly.”
Southam had missed a 52-yarder earlier in the second quarter, but he received another chance in the final period.
“I really wanted to go for it on the first field goal attempt. He wanted, it so I gave it to him,” Sitake said. “After he missed, I told him to get ready again. He’s such a mentally strong kid. I’m glad he’s here.”
Meanwhile, Wisconsin senior placekicker Rafael Gaglianone missed a 42-yarder with 41 seconds remaining. Had the ball gone through the uprights, the game likely would have gone into overtime. Instead, it missed, touching off a joyous celebration on BYU’s sidelines.
“It’s a little nerve-wracking. It’s out of my hands,” Mangum said of the Badgers’ field goal attempt at the end. “We were all talking on the sideline that Corbin was going to get his long arms on it. Either he was going to get it blocked or (Gaglianone) was going to miss. We were staying positive, assuming the best.”
What made this win even more shocking was the Cougars’ performance last week in a 21-18 setback at home to Cal.
“We weren’t going to let last week’s game carry over to this week," Mangum said.
BYU (2-1) now has two road victories this season, both against Heisman Trophy candidates. Go figure.
“To play against a great opponent and come out victorious feels good,” Mangum said. “A lot of work goes into it. A lot of effort and sweat, a lot of grinding. That part feels great. It feels really rewarding. It definitely gives us a lot of confidence as a team.”