Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Season-defining play: 2006

Saturday, September 2, 2006. It's opening day for the BYU football season and I'm in Quincy, Washington.

Working at a nearby concert venue (The Gorge Amphitheater), I was unable to watch the BYU/Arizona game live. Therefore I put my trust in a good friend (I know you're reading this, Mark) to tape the game and I'd watch it later that night. I gave him clear instructions: Do not, under any circumstances, tell me anything about the game. Not who won, not who played, not who conducted the Wildcat band, nothing.

During my work that night, which included bouncing 15-year-old girls from the beer gardens, I was following another game: Utah vs. UCLA. To my delight I discovered Ben Olson two-fisted the Utes for 318 yards and 3 TDs, and the Bruins beat Utah 31-10

I got excited for the BYU game. So excited I had to sit down and breathe into a paper bag on several occasions.

It wasn't just me, either. Eager anticipation filled the hearts and homes of Cougar fans from Newport Beach to Newport, Maine. BYU's program was reborn, and Cougar Nation knew it. It was time, finally, to step out of the blinding darkness and into the light of new life.

Expectations were running wild. Subjects like BCS games and perfect seasons dominated conversations. The word "Heisman" was even being thrown around. Optimism in Provo was at an all-time high.

And for good reason.

John Beck led an offense that included Jonny Harline, Curtis Brown, Fui Vakapuna, Matt Allen, Zac Collie, Daniel Coats, Michael Reed, and standout freshman McKay Jacobson.

On defense, Cameron "the General" Jensen was the leader of a group with such names as Bryan Kehl, Kelly Poppinga, Quinn Gooch, Ben Criddle, Justin Robinson and freshmen Ian Dulan and Matangi Tonga.

These were proven and tested commodities, and while there lingered still some questions about their toughness--cornerbacks and quarterbacks especially (could John Beck win the big game?)--everyone knew this would be a special year.

At about midnight, some friends and I returned to Mark's house after work to watch the game. We entered the front door and an unmarked cassette tape with a note that read "BYU game" was sitting on the front table. We quietly took it downstairs and sat like little children in the darkness with wide eyes, bathed in the soft glow of the television.

We grimaced at Jonny Harline's fumble, we marveled at the defense (they were a lot better than we expected), we cheered when Daniel Coats caught the first BYU touchdown, we threw stuff when Matt Allen was called for offensive PI.

Then at half time we sat up, stretched and prepared for the third quarter.

Then the tape ran out. IT RAN OUT! It wasn't a mistake, either, because we checked. We couldn't finish the game because the tape... ran out.

We freaked out. How in the great heck we could watch the rest of the game? We woke Mark up to tell him about our predicament, but he had little sympathy at 2 a.m.

Finally we had to break down, admit defeat and just check the score on the Internet. Our faces twisted into painful disbelief when we saw the score: Arizona 16, BYU 13.

All our dreams--the BCS bowl, the perfect season--washed down the drain.

We picked ourselves up for a week 2 trouncing of Tulsa in one of the funnest games I've attended in recent memory (remember the thunder storm?). Vakapuna and Brown were punishing Tulsa defenders that day.

But then BYU stumbled again against a very beatable Boston College. At halftime Coach Mendenhall, clearly identifying the team's confidence issues, barked the now-famous quote, "Quit acting like you're surprised that you're still in this game right now!"

That was the last time the Cougars lost that season.

They went on to steamroll Utah State, and then they did something special. The Cougs went to Fort Worth, Texas, to take on No. 15 TCU. Heading into that game, BYU had not won a game against a ranked opponent since 1997 when they narrowly defeated Arizona State. And in that game we find our season-defining play.

2006 SDP: Let me just first summarize the uphill battle the Cougars were fighting on Thursday, September 28 against TCU:

1. TCU had a bye the week before to prepare for BYU
2. BYU did not, and had a short week to prepare for TCU
3. TCU was at home
4. TCU had the nation's longest winning streak at the time
5. TCU was ranked No. 15
6. BYU hadn't beaten a ranked opponent in 23 tries
7. Both of John Beck's ankles were injured, requiring heavy tape jobs

Clearly, the odds were not in BYU's favor.

After one quarter, the game was knotted at 3-0 for BYU. In the second, TCU and quarterback Jeff Ballard led the Frogs to the BYU 20 yard line, threatening to score. The Frogs were moving the ball easily during the drive and were about to put points on the board.

But Cougar linebacker David Nixon would have none of it.

On the Cougar 20, Ballard took the snap and looked into the endzone for a go-ahead TD. Little did Ballard know, though, that at that very moment he was being stalked--like the Australian hunter dude from Jurassic Park--by a headhunter named David Nixon.

Nixon blindsided Ballard like a runaway milk truck, and Ballard lost the ball and the feeling in his legs. BYU recovered the fumble and quickly marched down the field and took a 10-0 lead.

BYU never looked back, and Ballard never fully recovered. BYU won the game 31-17.

After that game BYU tore through the MWC like my nephew at a chocolate milk convention. Most of the games were over by halftime, and the BYU starters were mercifully pulled by the fourth quarter. If you're unfamiliar with the season, take the afternoon off, visit this site and just go nuts.

The season also included one of the most famous (but not season-defining) plays in BYU history: The answered prayer.

Let me take this moment to simply say that I felt pure joy when Harline caught that pass. I don't want to ruin it with a lot of words.

BYU had beaten Utah, claimed their first outright MWC championship since 2001 and were invited to a bowl game for the second straight time.

Then, in one final exorcism of their past demons, the Cougars faced Gary Crowton and the Oregon Ducks in the Las Vegas Bowl. No one knew exactly how the Cougars would handle the high-powered, Gary-Crowton-led Ducks offense, but once the Cougars settled into the game they put a hurt on Oregon 38-8.

Final record: 11-2. And all was right in the world.

Thank you, David Nixon.

Tomorrow: New faces, same results. Season-defining play for the 2007 season.


Rock said...

Reed came up huge in that TCU game.

BYU '06, at the end of the year, was a feaking BCS team. No doubt about it. After they recovered from that loss at BC, they could have played in the SEC conference that year and gone undefeated. And I don't think I'm just being a BYU homer. The competition in the MWC just wasn't worth their time. Sure Utah was a challenge, but USC could play AT Utah and have a hard time.

That team at their peak was arguably the best in the nation.

Beck, Harline, Brown, Jensen, Fui when he was Fui,... gosh I miss those guys.

Adam said...

I agree with Rock... to an extent.

For example, BYU could have beaten the tar out of Ohio State that year. Remember how the Buckeyes curled up in the fetal postition against Florida in the national championship game?

But I think BYU would have struggled with teams like Florida that have crazy speed. Our offense would have kept us in the game, but our defense would have been torched.

It's definitely something to think about, though, because I agree- BYU was playing some pretty freaky fine football at the end of the 2006 season.

Trevor said...

Did any of you guys know that I was David Nixon's TA?

Russ Nelson said...

Yes Trevor we know. We also know that you gave him a B. You know better then that! All BYU players get A's on everything, or at least they should. They aren't there to learn they are there to win games.

'06 was a heck of a year! The Tulsa rain game was the funnest game of the year, but the Utah game was the best!