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Tide turned quickly for the Cougars

After years of surviving independence and nine straight losses to the Utes on the gridiron, things changed for BYU in the blink of an eye

Fans swarm the field after BYU beat Utah in at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021. BYU won 26-17.
Fans swarm the field after BYU defeated Utah in at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021. BYU won 26-17, ending a nine-game losing streak to the Utes.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Suddenly, the tide has turned; just like that, BYU football is back. In one weekend, the Cougars became members of the Big 12 Conference and beat Utah. The former ended 11 years of self-imposed exile and looking for a new conference; the latter broke a nine-game losing streak to the archrival Utes that looked like it might never end.

It might have been the best weekend in BYU football history since Robbie Bosco connected with Kelly Smith in the end zone to beat Michigan in the 1984 Holiday Bowl.

Suddenly, everything is going their way. The spell the Utes cast on them a decade ago is broken. The years of wandering in the football wilderness are finished.

They belong to a conference — a Power Five conference — which gives them a championship to play for, a direct path to the national playoff, conference TV money, conference prestige, conference recruiting clout. The Big 12 invitation was officially extended Friday. Before the weekend was finished there were signs on the freeway: Welcome to Big 12 Country.

How fast things can change. Suddenly, all their problems are solved. Well, except that part about them winning a conference championship once they actually join the league.

Everything turns on a moment. Oklahoma and Texas bail out of the Big 12. The Cougars get called off the bench.

The Utes, down 10-7 near the end of the first half, whiff on a fourth-down run at BYU’s 8-yard line and BYU drives 93 yards for a touchdown. If Charlie Brewer had just pulled the ball on the option read, he would have walked in for a touchdown. Instead, it’s a 13-point swing and a big momentum shift. Instead of falling behind 14-10, the Cougars lead by nine, 16-7. That proved to be the final margin of victory.

It’s been that kind of year for the Cougars.

The BYU-Utah rivalry is a rivalry again instead of a lopsided imitation. Maybe there was something to that Max Hall curse after all. Following BYU’s win over Utah in 2009, the Cougars’ quarterback infamously called Utah classless, claiming its fans had thrown beer at his family, and he said he didn’t respect them.

Hall went to the NFL; the Cougars went on to lose the next nine games against Utah. On Saturday, Hall was one of four former BYU players who carried flags onto the field and the curse ends.

Anyway, where were we? Oh, the sudden turnaround.

Did we mention that quarterback Jaren Hall has been added to the O’Brien Trophy Great 8 watch list and some media have even mentioned him as a Heisman candidate.

Someone pinch the Cougars, who have won 13 of their last 14 games, to see if this is all a dream.

BYU has been down for a long time and Utah had a lot to do with it. When the Utes fled the Mountain West Conference for the Pac-10 in 2011, the Cougars felt they had to respond. With no Power Five conference offering them membership, they chose independence, and their problems seemed to snowball from there, gradually.

A few years later, coach Bronco Mendenhall left BYU for Virginia. The Cougars hired Kalani Sitake, a former BYU player and former Utah assistant coach, to replace him. A 9-4 season was followed by a 4-9 season. They tried to get membership in the Big 12 in 2016 and were refused. After Year 2 of the Kalani era, resident hero Ty Detmer was fired as offensive coordinator. In all, the Cougars went eight seasons without finishing in the top 25. The Edwards Reign was a distant memory.

Then the pandemic struck last season. Schools canceled their seasons. Entire schedules were wiped out. The Cougars rebuilt their schedule with a lot of relatively weak schools and then won 11 of 12 games.

They were perhaps the most talked about team in the country. They were the center of a debate — were they that good or was it the schedule? They were ranked 11th in the final national poll. They won a bowl game. Their quarterback was the second overall pick of the NFL draft.

That’s really when things began to change. The trend continued this season. They won their first two games, against Arizona and Utah, both Pac-12 schools. They got the invitation from the Big 12 and here they are.

Riding all that momentum, the Cougars get back to business this weekend. Next: No. 19 Arizona State.