As the final seconds ticked off the clock on Saturday ending the traditional Army-Navy game, the college football regular season became history. For BYU, despite a disappointing 5-7 record, the 2023 slate will always have a unique place in the record books since it was the school’s debut season in the Big 12.
It was not the kind of fall that delivered another national championship like 1984, or a Heisman Trophy winner (Ty Detmer) like 1990, or a Doak Walker winner (Luke Staley) like 2001, or even 10 wins like 18 previous seasons. No, 2023 will forever stand alone because of what it was — BYU’s inauguration as a Power Five football program.
This year was different because it had less to do with history and everything to do with the future. As with any season that tinkers around .500, there was a steady dosage of bliss and blunder in all three phases of the game.
Here are my top five moments for the offense, defense and special teams.
The offensive five
5. Chase Roberts vs. Cincinnati: On second-and-21 at the BYU 41, quarterback Kedon Slovis appeared to be throwing deep to Keanu Hill, but teammate Chase Roberts stepped in front of the pass and raced 59 yards for a touchdown. BYU held on to beat the Bearcats 35-27 in the Big 12 home opener.
4. Parker Kingston vs. Iowa State: On an otherwise nightmare of a night, freshman receiver Parker Kingston, a former quarterback at Roy High School, tossed a 26-yard touchdown pass to Isaac Rex with 10:05 to play in the third quarter. The catch made Rex BYU’s all-time leader among tight ends with 23 career touchdowns.
3. Darius Lassiter vs. Texas Tech: BYU receiver Darius Lassiter earned a spot among “Sportscenter’s” Top 10 with an acrobatic one-handed grab in front of the Red Raiders sideline. A few plays later, Lassiter used both hands to cap the drive with a four-yard touchdown reception in BYU’s 27-14 victory.
2. Parker Kingston vs. Arkansas: Trailing 14-0 and in need of a pick-me-up, Kingston caught a backwards pass from Slovis and then fired a 37-yard touchdown to Deion Smith. The play caught the Razorbacks completely off guard and sparked 21 unanswered points by BYU.
1. Chase Roberts vs. Arkansas: With the game tied at 31 in the fourth quarter, BYU drove to the Razorbacks’ 7-yard line. Slovis dropped back to pass and spotted Roberts breaking free in the back corner of the end zone. His pass sailed high and to the right. Roberts leaped up into the air and grabbed the ball with his fully extended right hand and landed in bounds for the game-winning touchdown. The Cougars stunned Arkansas 38-31 and Roberts earned “Sportscenter’s” No. 1 play of the day.
The defensive five
5. Eddie Heckard vs. TCU: With the Horned Frogs driving deep into BYU territory, already leading 17-0, Cougars cornerback Eddie Heckard reached up and pulled down a one-handed interception and returned it 17 yards to the BYU 25.
4. Jakob Robinson vs. Cincinnati: The Cougars defense set the tone early in the Big 12 home opener against Cincinnati when cornerback Jakob Robinson returned an interception 42 yards for a touchdown on the Bearcats’ first possession.
3. Eddie Heckard vs. Oklahoma State: After falling behind 6-0, BYU scored 24 unanswered points, including Heckard’s 13-yard pick six in the second quarter.
2. Eddie Heckard vs. Texas Tech: Pouncing on a third-string freshman quarterback, the Cougars defense brought the heat and forced a fumble, which Heckard recovered in the end zone for his first career defensive touchdown.
1. Max Tooley/AJ Vongphachanh vs. Arkansas: Leading 31-21 with 7:41 remaining in the third quarter, the confident Razorbacks decided to go for it on fourth-and-1 at the 50. The ball was given to running back Rashod Dubinion. BYU linebackers AJ Vongphachanh and Max Tooley drilled him at the line of scrimmage for no gain. The momentum shifted on that play and the Cougars scored on their next three possessions to win 38-31.
The special teams five
5. Austin Riggs vs. Cincinnati: BYU long snapper Austin Riggs hiked the ball to punter Ryan Rehkow late in the third quarter against Cincinnati and charged 53 yards down the field to recover a Bearcats fumble at the 15-yard line. The Cougars scored five plays later to extend their lead to 35-20.
4. Marcus McKenzie vs. Southern Utah: Marcus McKenzie wasted little time making a name for himself on BYU’s special teams. The freshman gunner recovered a fumbled punt in the fourth quarter against Southern Utah to set up the Cougars’ final touchdown of the day.
3. Ryan Rehkow vs. Texas Tech: After kicking a 41-yard punt in the third quarter against Texas Tech, Rehkow put himself in the right place and at the right time. Tyler Batty’s monster hit jarred the ball away from the Red Raiders punt returner and it rolled right into Rehkow’s arms for a fumble recovery.
2. Tyler Batty vs. Oklahoma State: Facing fourth-and-6 at the BYU 39, the Cougars pulled off a fake punt and Oklahoma State was caught completely by surprise. Rehkow threw a 36-yard pass to Tyler Batty to set up a field goal just before halftime and cap a 24-0 BYU scoring spree.
1. Will Ferrin vs. Oklahoma State: Never mind the cold and steady drizzle at Oklahoma State, BYU sophomore kicker Will Ferrin drilled a 48-yard field goal as time expired to force overtime in Stillwater.
The bottom five
5. Fumble at Kansas: BYU’s first possession in its Big 12 debut at Kansas turned into a nightmare when the Jayhawks returned a Parker Kingston fumble 22 yards for a touchdown.
4. Pick-six at Kansas: With the Cougars leading 17-14, Kansas returned a Slovis interception 30 yards for a touchdown on BYU’s first possession of the second half and the Cougars never had the lead again.
3. Pick-six at TCU: Feeling optimistic with a 4-1 record going into TCU, BYU’s hopes were dashed on its first possession when the Horned Frogs intercepted Slovis and returned it 35 yards for a touchdown.
2. Punt return at Texas: For the first time in three road games, BYU didn’t turn the ball over on its first possession, but on the ensuing punt, Xavier Worthy returned it 72 yards for a touchdown to give No. 7 Texas a lead it would never lose.
1. Pick-six vs. Oklahoma: On the cusp of breaking a 17-17 tie against No. 14 Oklahoma, BYU drove to the Sooners’ 2-yard line with six minutes remaining in the third quarter. An injury to Oklahoma’s starting quarterback left the heavily favored Sooners vulnerable and the full house at LaVell Edwards Stadium could sense a game-changing moment. After three straight running plays for 58 yards, BYU opted to pass on first down and Oklahoma’s veteran safety Billy Bowman intercepted Jake Retzlaff and raced 100 yards for a Sooners touchdown.
Any early conclusion to a season is always bitter pill to swallow. However, if taking the medicine leads to a healthier future, so be it. BYU now has what it didn’t have four months ago: a study guide on how to compete at this level.
Chapter 1 teaches about taking care of the football. The noticeable trend defining the highs and lows is turnovers. The Cougars forced them when they won and surrendered them when they didn’t. Of all the warts that kept BYU from a bowl game, none were more impactful than those 19 turnovers.
Chapter 2 is a repeat of Chapter 1. The rest of the study guide focuses on recruiting, run blocking, holding the edge on defense and coaching hires.
An aggressive offseason of effort, on and off the field, can replace the coulda, woulda and shoulda scenarios of 2023 with can, will and do — and eventually with did in 2024 and beyond. The learning process is often painful, but it is something that can rarely be skipped and it’s the conduit to more memory makers and fewer heartbreakers down the road.
Dave McCann is a contributor to the Deseret News and is a play-by-play announcer and show host for BYUtv/ESPN+. He co-hosts “Y’s Guys” at ysguys.com and is the author of the children’s book “C is for Cougar,” available at deseretbook.com.