STILLWATER, Okla. — About 15 minutes after the final play of his brilliant and school Hall of Fame-caliber career resulted in a fumble that allowed No. 20 Oklahoma State to hold off BYU 40-34 in double overtime, Cougars tight end Isaac Rex made his way to the locker room at the south end of Boone Pickens Stadium.
Tears continued to gush out of the fifth-year junior’s eyes as rain fell hard in northeast Oklahoma, and BYU backup safety Preston Rex put his arm on big brother’s shoulders and consoled him one more time.
“My heart goes out to Isaac. I love him. This is a hard way to end the game, with a fumble. He has been through so much. He is distraught and he is hurting right now in the locker room.” — BYU coach Kalani Sitake
It was as heart-wrenching of a scene as any in recent memory for those closely associated with the BYU football program, because of what Isaac Rex has meant to the program the past five years.
“My heart goes out to Isaac. I love him. This is a hard way to end the game, with a fumble,” BYU coach Kalani Sitake said. “He has been through so much. He is distraught and he is hurting right now in the locker room.
“Proud of our guys rallying around him,” Sitake continued. “This has never been a team to point fingers, one side of the ball to the other, or anything like that, or even individually.”
Sitake stressed that the game didn’t come down to one mistake, but it clearly ended on one. But give OSU safety Trey Rucker credit for making the play, causing Rex to fumble after a 4-yard gain on second-and-8 from the OSU 23 in the second overtime.
“In the end, what can you say?” said OSU coach Mike Gundy. “A guy like Rucker that’s been around the program and decided to become a leader, works hard, plays hard and competes. We work on that drill all the time, stripping the ball out.”
Football can be cruel that way. For if ever a BYU player deserved to score the game-winner to propel the Cougars into a bowl game, it was Rex.
Two Novembers ago, he sustained a crushing ankle injury in a win at USC that would have sidelined most players for a year. But the son of former BYU great Byron Rex returned in eight months, and played the entire 2022 season at half-strength.
Last week, in BYU’s just-as-excruciating 31-24 loss to No. 14 Oklahoma, Rex caught the 24th touchdown pass of his BYU career, stamping himself as the school’s all-time TD receptions leader for a tight end.
“If somebody googled Isaac Rex, you don’t (find) that fumble,” said BYU receiver Kody Epps. “You find that he is a record-breaker at BYU. You find that he has a beautiful family. You find that he has a dad who is also a legend here. You find that he is a part of a university that (affords) us with such great opportunities.”
Rex caught three passes for 23 yards, with 14 yards after catches, in his final game as a collegian, having said at Senior Day last week that this will be his final season in Provo, although he technically has another year of eligibility remaining.
“So, just from my perspective, I just want him to know that that play doesn’t define him at all,” Epps said. “Like all of our greatest idols that we have ever looked up to, Rocky Balboa, … Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Deion Sanders, Tiger Woods. They have all had moments where they may have fallen short, or somebody on the other end has made a great play that is out of your control.
“But just realizing who he is as a person, who he is as a player, and his name will be etched in BYU history forever, and especially in our minds as his teammates and coaches, of course,” Epps said.
So the Cougars’ season ended at 5-7, and they won’t make a bowl game for just the second time in 19 years.
Somehow, it seemed fitting that the season would end on a turnover, as BYU struggled to take care of the ball all the way from the fourth game, a 37-28 loss at Kansas, to the 12th.
BYU got its share of takeaways, too, mostly in the front half of the season.
And the Cougars got a big one in the second quarter when Eddie Heckard stepped in front of Alan Bowman’s pass and took it 13 yards to the end zone to give BYU a 14-6 lead.
Heckard said the Cowboys didn’t necessarily make adjustments to their offense in the second half to get the ball moving — they finished with 503 yards — they just executed better.
In the postgame news conference, Epps said he plans to return in 2024, while defensive end Tyler Batty said he hasn’t decided yet on his future.
Heckard is out of eligibility, having transferred to BYU for a season after a spectacular career at Weber State.
“This season meant everything for me. I originally came here to try to increase my stock for the NFL, show I can play at the Power Five level. For a better future, I think BYU has provided me that, for sure,” Heckard said.
“I appreciate BYU for everything, with the mentors they provided. The schooling, the people I have met. I think that is going to carry on for life. I got some more lifelong friends. You never know, I might be working for them some day. … We got a losing record, but I am proud of what BYU has done for me, for sure.”