PROVO — Two red-jacketed Poinsettia Bowl officials couldn’t wait to get to BYU’s locker room and give the one sure identifiable team their official San Diego spiel after BYU’s 37-7 win over Southern Utah on Saturday.
The win lifted the Cougars to 6-4, qualifying BYU for a bowl trip.
After a rare day game in Provo, Poinsettia Bowl executive director Mark Neville and bowl president Ted Tollner said they’d watched BYU football all season long and certain characteristics stood out.
Neville said BYU’s last-second nail-biters made him go bald.
“They never quit,” he said. “They never give up.”
Tollner, once an assistant coach to LaVell Edwards then head coach at San Diego State and Southern Cal, said Kalani Sitake’s team proved they had guts and resiliency through some tough situations.
The Cougars amassed nearly 600 yards total offense in dispatching FCS Southern Utah. But a 1-3 start back in September had Neville and Tollner wondering how the Cougars would be in November.
“’When we saw their schedule early on, we were a little nervous, going through a transition and everything,” said Neville. “But I’ve watched them more than any other team in the country this season, and the energy they have is unbelievable. They never give up and the games they’ve played are amazing. It’s the perfect team you’d want for a bowl game.”
Tollner said his friend Neville has been a nervous wreck watching the Cougars in 2016. There have been more twists and turns than a presidential election.
“You know what stood out more than anything about this team?” asked Toellner. “Going 1-3. As a football coach who has been there and knows how it is, if you start like that and lose very close games, it is easy to lose a team,” he said.
“Somehow this staff, the players and the leadership they have, there’s a character thing there that’s not easy to have. When you jump out 1 and 3 and have a chance to win 8 or 9 games and win six of your eight? Come on. It takes something special.”
Tollner said he knows there are certain strengths of players. “But to me, this character thing is what’s stood out about this BYU football team. It is what allowed them to come back from that one win start. What happens when you lose close games is you start going over everything you could have done, you go over every play that could have gone the other way.”
It can eat you alive, said Tollner.
But after Saturday, BYU took on the first of a three-game home stand with the expected spanking of SUU, a feisty team that forced three turnovers yet managed just 165 yards offense and one touchdown.
It was Taysom Hill’s best passing game of his comeback season, going 22 of 29 for 320 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. It was his first 300-yard passing game since the 2014 opener at UConn. His pass efficiency rating was 184.4, and his TD tosses to Nick Kurtz and Colby Pearson were picture-perfect.
It was a game where his backup, Tanner Mangum saw his first significant reps of the season and he finished 11 of 13 for 121 yards with a 162 rating. Mangum started rusty in a brief appearance in the first half. But he showed great footwork, pocket presence and quick-fire release in the series he was given.
The challenge for the Cougars is to get running back Jamaal Williams back. He did not play and was in a support foot boot on the sidelines. His backup, Squally Canada reinjured his hand against SUU and fans got their first glimpse of KJ Hall, a darting, quick runner who gained 59 yards on 12 carries against what Sitake called a SUU defense that gave the Cougars great opposition.
The San Diego bowl guys will head back to Navytown now and begin preparations to invite either San Diego State, Wyoming or Air Force of the Mountain West. They like the matchup and can’t wait for the game.
BYU’s TV exposure and penchant for drama this season are ingredients they can market and sell both in San Diego and to Cougar fans, they say.
And it is true. San Diego has been like a second home to BYU in post season over the years. It was BYU that gave the country the Miracle Bowl with Jim McMahon and the Steve Young trick play catch for a victory. It’s where Ty Detmer played his final college game against Iowa State. It is also the scene where the Cougars won the national title in 1980 with Robbie Bosco limping back on the field.
Over the years, I’ve been to 22 bowl games. Very few bowl cities can top the resort city of San Diego for weather, sites and hospitality.
Neville said BYU and San Diego are a natural, almost like a partnership over the decades.
“This will be their second appearance in the Poinsettia Bowl. The first seven Holiday Bowls were BYU and we’ve had them 11 times in that game. It is truly a natural and to have them back in San Diego for our bowl game couldn’t be more perfect for us.”
Neville said BYU’s close, last-second, made for TV drama games over this season are exactly what bowl committees are looking for in a matchup. “I looked at the Toledo game and couldn’t believe the ending, same with the others. It’s a very exciting team, it’s what you want.”
And so goes another chapter for Sitake’s initial voyage in his first year back in Provo.
Next up is UMass, then Utah State in Provo.
It’s an independent life. Making a bowl is a required milestone.