SAN DIEGO — The guy with the diamond shine of a smile put the hammer down on Wyoming Wednesday in Qualcomm Stadium.
Jamaal Williams took a third-and-5 handoff and pranced fancy 36 yards untouched for a dramatic fourth-quarter touchdown in BYU’s 24-21 win over Wyoming in the San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl.
It was symbolic of Williams’ BYU career, a delivery by the most charismatic running back in school history, its all-time career rushing leader.
Williams registered his third 200-yard rushing game, a new school record.
"Teamwork, that's how you do it," Williams said when given the podium and microphone at the postgame celebration at midfield, calling up his offensive line.
"I love may linemen, I've got them and they've got me. We can't do anything, can't run, can pass, without the offensive line," he said.
On this night, Williams dominated the bowl game. He delivered to Kalani Sitake and the rest of BYU's senior players and first-year staff a performance full of style, sellout effort and plenty of pizazz.
This was the Williams Show.
— Brandon Judd (@brandonljudd) December 22, 2016
But in a dramatic last half of the fourth quarter, BYU safety Kai Nacua almost stole his thunder with a game-saving interception on Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen. The Cowboys were driving for a last-gasp game-winning touchdown after scoring 14 straight. Then Nacua killed it all with his pick, his sixth of the season.
BYU’s defense kept Wyoming at bay most of the night, and linebacker Harvey Langi was named the bowl’s defensive MVP.
Williams delivered the offensive MVP trophy. It wasn’t close.
"I take His blessings, follow his path and he does great things for you," said Williams, who praised receiver Jonah Trinnemann for a pancake block on his final TD run.
"It was great offensive line blocking and Jonah had the best block in the world. I wanted to celebrate right then and there when I saw it."
Williams gained a BYU school bowl record 210 yards rushing on 26 carries. He averaged 8.1 yards a carry. In a critical fourth quarter, Williams gained 69 yards to help BYU salt away a game they’d led 24-7 a few minutes earlier in that fourth.
Williams could have done this bowl game a lot of ways. Offensive coordinator Ty Detmer explained on Monday he’d let Williams himself decide how much work, how many carries he would take against Wyoming, his final game in a Cougar uniform.
Williams had nursed a painful high ankle sprain the final month and a half of the regular season, an injury suffered in a win over Mississippi State.
“I trust him,” said Detmer.
Williams could have protected himself, played it conservative, made a cameo and avoided risk of serious injury as he prepares for the NFL Combine in February. Nobody would blame him.
After all, it was a week where college football witnessed the breakout of a new trend never before seen in the bowl season: Star players pulling themselves out of bowl play. It was the case by some of the top running backs like Stanford’s Christian McCaffery, Baylor’s Shock Linwood and LSU’s Leonard Fournette.
But Williams decided early in a rain-soaked Qualcomm Stadium that he’d go out with all he had.
Williams ripped off a 36-yard run on his second carry. In three carries, he’d gobbled up 62 yards on the Wyoming defense.
Williams attacked the Cowboy front line with reckless abandon, his legs pumping, his feet driving, and carrying tacklers after first contact for extra yardage.
Detmer fed him the rock on a swampy possession over and over again to set up a BYU field goal and 10-0 lead.
By halftime, Williams became the first BYU running back to tally 16 games with more than 100 yards rushing. The previous mark was 15 by Harvey Unga and Curtis Brown. By halftime, his 15 carries for 121 yards put him past Ronney Jenkins (1,260) and Taysom Hill (1,344) as the school’s No. 3 single season rush leader.
Williams’ effort at that stage drew praise from former NFL Redskins QB Joe Theismann, who tweeted out, “BYU’s Jamaal Williams is a stud. Prediction who ever drafts him will b[e] a very happy team.”
The bowl win was BYU’s first in four years, the last a win over San Diego State in this same Poinsettia Bowl.
The win lifted the Cougars to 9-4 on the year and set an NCAA record for the fewest points separating a four-loss team (8) from an undefeated season.
It ended Sitake’s first season as a head coach on a note of promise and positivity heading into the final six weeks of recruiting and a new year.
But just as important as it all is in the realm of BYU’s locker room, it was a victory for a senior class that included Williams and Taysom Hill, two very unique warriors in a program filled with storied quarterbacks and big-play artists who’d carved out a gob of ink in the NCAA record books over the past four decades.
"I didn't get dirty and all except for hugging the players and getting the Gatorade dumped on me," said Sitake. "It was all the players."
Williams said Sitake's influence on BYU football was immediate, the first day he got the job. "He told me he wasn't my bishop, he was my football coach. He came in and did things I didn't think could be done at BYU. He's always been there for the players. To have him is really a blessing. Through my trials I am grateful to have played my senior year for him and his staff. I gave them all I got because of it."
After Wednesday’s bowl game, Sitake delivered his desired winning culture to the program, a necessary building block for any head coach, especially at an independent program that must have wins to survive.