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Divine Intervention

BYU's Goal-Line Stand Salvages 41-34 Victory, Prevents Tumble From BCS Bowl Consideration

November 11, 2001|CHRIS DUFRESNE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LARAMIE, Wyo. — From 7,220 feet above sea level, with a minute left in the game, Brigham Young could look down and almost contemplate the possible plunge from the Rockies, from the polls and from the national debate.

In the end, though, the BYU defense kept a dream season alive, which is like crediting an arsonist for snuffing out a fire he started.

When it really, really counted, BYU safety Levi Madarieta knocked down a fourth-down pass in the end zone Saturday to preserve his team's 41-34 victory over lowly Wyoming before a crowd of 15,277 at War Memorial Stadium.

The win improved BYU's record to 10-0 and clinched a share of the Mountain West Conference title, but it was a tough one to celebrate.

"I don't think we played great today," BYU Coach Gary Crowton said.

The Cougars scored nine points below their season average against a Wyoming defense that was giving up an average of 470 yards.

The Cougars committed four turnovers.

Senior quarterback Brandon Doman, a Heisman Trophy candidate, missed open receivers and threw for a un-BYU-like 268 yards, finishing with one touchdown and an interception.

He was, in many ways, outplayed by Wyoming sophomore quarterback Casey Bramlet, who passed for 358 yards and ran for 52.

Of his first-half performance, Doman would remark, "I don't know what the heck was going on."

There were boxes of MWC championship caps ready to be cracked open afterward, but Crowton halted the box-carriers in the corridor near the BYU locker room.

"We don't want those yet," Crowton said.

Although much was won Saturday, the story was what BYU almost lost.

The Cougars were expected to crush Wyoming, which fell to 2-7 with the defeat, but instead allowed a mediocre team to almost steal a game in the end.

"We gave it everything we had," Wyoming safety Jacque Finn said.

The Fiesta Bowl sent a representative all the way to Laramie to see what BYU might have to offer.

"It's the offense that's exciting," Alan Young, the Fiesta Bowl rep, said before the game. "We think it would be very entertaining to see this offense play almost anyone."

Young was not around at game's end. He had a plane to catch out of Denver. But you suspect his enthusiasm might have waned a tad.

BYU isn't a member of a bowl championship series conference, but can earn an automatic BCS bowl berth with a top-six BCS finish, or earn at-large consideration if it finishes in the top 12.

The Cougars were No. 13 in last week's BCS standings.

If BYU ends up 13-0 and gets into a $13-million bowl championship series game, the Cougars will remember Madarieta's last-minute poke-away against the 'Pokes.

The Cougars hope the goal-line stand will buck up a defense that has been a drag on the team's national image.

Because these are mature, mostly soft-spoken Mormons, BYU's rift doesn't compare with the offensive-defensive fissure that derailed UCLA in 1998, mostly because BYU had defeated opponents this year by an average margin of 50.8 to 25.7.

"We've certainly taken a lot of flak," BYU defensive end Brett Keisel said. "It's frustrating."

Even the goal-line stand pointed to a larger problem:

"Why can't we do that when we're on the 50?" Keisel asked.

It takes a degree of finesse to spin a defensive effort in which your team gave up 34 points and 476 yards, but that was BYU's story on a day when the offense generated 515 yards but not much overwhelming interest.

In fact, the defense saved the BYU offense twice, which might be a school record.

The setup: After the offensefumbled the ball away in the fourth quarter, Wyoming drove 33 yards in six plays, tying the game at 34-all with 9:28 left on Bramlet's one-yard sneak on fourth down.

Later in the quarter, the game still tied, BYU fumbled again at the Wyoming 37.

A sack and intentional grounding call left Wyoming with a third-and-24 situation, meaning Bramlet was going to have to force a throw somewhere.

Cougar safety Brandon Heaney guessed right and made a diving interception at the Wyoming 39.

Six plays later, BYU tailback Luke Staley scored on an eight-yard run to put the Cougars up, 41-34.

It was Staley's fourth rushing touchdown of the day and his 23rd of the season. Staley lived up to his billing, finishing with 172 yards in 31 carries.

Naturally, Wyoming got the ball back and drove right down the field toward the tying touchdown, the big strike coming on Bramlet's 33-yard pass to Scottie Vines to the BYU 10.

From there, Wyoming had four downs and 59 seconds to score, but a holding penalty on first down pushed the Cowboys to the 20.

After an incomplete pass, Bramlet hit Vines for 15 yards to the five, but Bramlet then threw incomplete on third down to Macolm Floyd and watched as Madarieta knocked away his fourth-down pass intended for Brock Ralph.

"I was so happy to see our defense have a last stand," Doman said.

Wyoming did a good job in frustrating Doman by dropping eight players into pass coverage.

"I got out of my groove a little bit," he said.

BYU players might have been looking forward to next week's showdown against Utah.

"Maybe we got too many variables in our head," BYU receiver Reno Mahe opined. "I hate to make excuses, but we just weren't right."

This time, BYU escaped and, in reality, its BCS at-large chances are still strong. The Cougars' woeful 109th strength of schedule ranking should improve with closing games against Utah, Mississippi State and Hawaii.

It will difficult for the Fiesta Bowl, which gets the first at-large selection if it loses the Big 12 champion to the Rose Bowl, to turn its head from a 13-0 BYU team that has significant Mormon ties in the Phoenix area.

Crowton asked at his postgame news conference how many teams remained undefeated in Division I.

The question was rhetorical. The answer was three: Nebraska, Miami and BYU.

"How it plays out in the BCS, I don't know," he said. "But people don't give our conference enough credit. I don't think the BCS does, but they should."

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