Editor’s note: First in an occasional series reminiscing about games not to be forgotten.

PROVO — It was the most important throw of his young career, and he just threw a duck.

That was my initial thought as I watched the football flutter out of BYU freshman quarterback Tanner Mangum’s hand that warm, but breezy, early autumn day at jam-packed Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Nebraska.

A few seconds later, the unimaginable had happened for most of the 89,959 Cornhusker fans there for new Nebraska coach Mike Riley’s first game. An eery silence fell over the historic venue. But only for a split second. 

“Wasn’t my best ball. Came out a little wobbly.” — Tanner Mangum, on his game-winning Hail Mary to Mitch Mathews

Then the 3,000 or so BYU fans, realizing that Mitch Mathews had just gathered in the wobbly, 42-yard Hail Mary inches into the end zone with defenders Luke Gifford and Nate Gerry draped all over him, erupted in joy.

Not quite five years later, that scene on Sept. 5, 2015, is still etched in my memory, partly because I was just 10 yards or so away from the dogpile that enveloped Mathews, and the craziness that ensued on BYU’s sideline. I watched in amazement as Terenn Houk hugged the touchdown-signaling linesman. I gawked in disbelief as surfer coach Bronco Mendenhall celebrated like he had just caught the biggest wave of his life. I caught a glimpse of defensive end Bronson Kaufusi kneeling for a quick prayer on the sidelines.

And then the world stood still as replay officials took an excruciatingly long amount of time before acknowledging what the scoreboard was already showing: BYU 33, Nebraska 28.

Secretly, I was also praying that I was far enough away from the play that television cameras and newspaper photographers didn’t catch my own reaction, because I think I stood there with my mouth wide open for several seconds, cellphone in one hand, notebook in the other, with a look of utter disbelief on my face.

I tell people all the time that I never cheer for teams, just memorable finishes and great stories to tell. And I had just witnessed a whopper. I immediately began to wonder if I could craft an article befitting such an unforgettable game, and ending.

BYU beats Nebraska 33-28 as Mangum throws 42-yard Hail Mary touchdown to Mathews on game's final play, Hill out for year
Bronco's victory lap, Cosmo on the field and hugging the ref: A look at BYU's celebration after wild win over Nebraska
BYU report card: Wide receivers, quarterbacks shine in stunning win over Nebraska

When Deseret News sports editor Kent Condon asked me to give a first-person account of the most memorable sporting event I have covered in my 30 years as a sportswriter, several came to mind. There was BYU football’s “Beck to Harline” win over Utah in 2006, its 14-13 upset of No. 3 Oklahoma in 2009 at newly opened Cowboys Stadium, and the 24-21 upset of No. 6 Wisconsin in 2018. I was there for all three.

In basketball, I will never forget the “Dellavedagger” in 2013 when Matthew Dellavedova of Saint Mary’s hit that running 40-footer at the buzzer to lift the Gaels to a win at the Marriott Center, or the dozens of times Jimmer Fredette did his thing, or, of course, the three wins at Gonzaga, most notably in 2017 when the undefeated Zags were ranked No. 1 and on a 29-game winning streak.

But that game — that single play, really — in Nebraska beats them all. 

Mangum’s so-called Miracle at Memorial — a feat he would sort of repeat a week later in a fourth-down completion to Mitch Juergens to beat Boise State at LaVell Edwards Stadium — still lives in my mind as the greatest game I’ve ever covered.

And to think I almost missed the ending. Unless they are writing on deadline and stuck up in the press box, sportswriters generally head down to the field with four to six minutes remaining in the game and stand on the sidelines for the last few minutes so they will be there to participate in the postgame news conferences and not be stuck in the elevator or on the concourse as thousands of people leave the venue at once.

It’s frustrating, especially in tight games, but necessary.

I got a late start, for reasons I don’t remember, and walked out onto the field just as sophomore Fred Warner and reserve safety Michael Wadsworth were stuffing NU’s Jamal Turner for a 2-yard loss on a third-and-three. I didn’t realize then how big that stop would be. It became bigger when Nebraska kicker Drew Brown missed a 41-yard field goal with 48 seconds remaining that would have given the Huskers a four-point lead.

As I walked behind BYU’s sideline en route to the corner of the playing surface, I could sense the optimism.

Highlights: BYU 33, Nebraska 28

There was also a palpable feeling of confidence in the freshman QB, partly because Mangum had shown some moxie in driving the Cougars 71 yards for a clutch 35-yard field goal by Trevor Samson into a stiff prairie wind midway through the fourth quarter that cut Nebraska’s lead to 28-27.

That Mangum, a few days shy of his 22nd birthday, was even on the field for the final drive was a story in and of itself. The Eagle, Idaho, product had not suited up for a game since the 2012 Under Armour All-America prep game in January 2015, and had only returned from a church mission in Chile three months before the opener.

In Chile just 3 months ago, BYU QB Tanner Mangum proves he's ready for big-time college football
BYU quarterback Taysom Hill out for season after breaking his foot on TD run

Mangum was pressed into action when Taysom Hill sustained a Lisfranc foot injury while running for a 21-yard touchdown in the first half. Unbelievably, Hill played a few more series on the banged-up foot, then the third season-ending injury of his star-crossed career.

BYU quarterback Taysom Hill (4) runs against Nebraska Cornhuskers safety Nate Gerry (25) in Lincoln, Neb., Saturday, Sept. 5, 2015. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

BYU was out of timeouts when Mangum and company took over at the 24-yard-line with 48 seconds remaining. His first pass, intended for Nick Kurtz, didn’t come close, and the Big Red crowd was at a fever pitch, eager to celebrate the extension of its 29-game winning streak in home openers. After an 11-yard scramble, offensive coordinator Robert Anae dialed up a play that caught Nebraska’s defense totally by surprise, a draw to Adam Hine that went for 16 yards to the Nebraska 49.

“That was a gamble,” Mendenhall would later say.

As the BYU football beat writer for The Salt Lake Tribune at the time, I remember turning to Jeff Call of the Deseret News and saying that if the play hadn’t worked, the clock would have ran out and Anae would have been handed a pink slip before the charter flight left the Lincoln airport.

After an incomplete pass intended for Mathews, Riley took a timeout with a second left, perhaps hoping to get replay officials to declare the game over. They didn’t, but the delay allowed Anae to tell Mangum to run a play, which didn’t even have a name, that they had only practiced once.

“The catch becomes secondary to a lot of love for my best friend.” — Mitch Mathews, on Taysom Hill

“Wasn’t my best ball. Came out a little wobbly,” Mangum understated 45 minutes later outside a BYU locker room that was still jubilant in some areas, but emotionally destroyed in others due to the diagnosis of Hill’s injury.

I remember interviewing Mathews outside the locker room and the way he described the game-winning catch for what seemed like the 100th time while tears streamed down his face on account of Hill’s situation.

“The catch becomes secondary to a lot of love for my best friend,” he said. Even crusty old scribes like this one had to steel themselves after that comment.

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Another memory I’ll take from the scene was how a lot of fans who had just given Nebraska its NCAA-record 341st consecutive sellout didn’t bother to wait for the replay officials to confirm the call on the field and began politely filing out. Some offered heartfelt congratulations to the BYU fans headed in the opposite direction who were hoping to get closer to their heroes. Others sat in stunned silence a good 30 minutes after Mangum’s Miracle.

I have talked to dozens of BYU fans that travel to several road games a year with the Cougars, and most have said that was the best hospitality they’ve ever witnessed from a fanbase that had just seen its team snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

And the greatest game.

I wholeheartedly agree.

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