The dust settled on the 2001 Liberty Bowl, and the Cougs had suffered their second-straight loss after starting the season 12-0.
The BYU faithful were heartbroken but optimistic. The fresh energy that was displayed over the course of the 2001 season was contagious, and everyone was anxious to see how Coach Crowton would guide the Cougars in his second season.
The 2002 season brought with it a brand new look for BYU. The 2001 play makers, Luke Staley and Brandon Doman, were both NFL-bound. In their places would stand guys like Bret Engemann, Marcus Whalen, Reno Mahe and Spencer Nead.
At first look, this is not a bad group of players. Engemann was the starter for most of the 2000 season (not very impressive, but at least he had experience), Mahe and Nead were both big parts of the 2001 offense, and Whalen was a pounding running back who carried a lot of high hopes from the fans on his back.
On defense Levi Madarieta (one of my favorite players) moved from safety to outside linebacker, and the backfield featured names like Aaron Francisco and Jernaro Gilford.
The 2002 season, like every season at BYU, was ushered in with lofty expectations.
And things started out great. Two revenge games against Syracuse and Hawai'i filled weeks one and two respectively, and BYU claimed victory in each contest. Their 2-0 record earned the Cougars a #24 ranking heading into week three's game against perennially weak-sauce Nevada.
Then something happened to the Cougs. Something BYU fans can't even identify, but would like to erase from their memories forever. Even I am not really sure what it was, but I do know it was something.
BYU made the drive to Reno and got spanked by the Wolfpack in the first half. Suddenly everyone was in panic mode. Engemann got benched in favor of Lance Pendleton (remember him?), our defense was running around confused, and Nevada QB Zack Threadgill looked like the prince of the universe. The 'Pack upset No. 24 BYU, and the Cougars went into a tailspin.
BYU only won 5 games in 2002, including a miracle, come-from-behind, that-shouldn't-have-happened, we-don't-deserve-it win over lowly Utah State. You read that right. Utah State.
(That game provided one of the brightest spots of the season, by the way, in the form of a plucky young freshman running back named Curtis Brown. CB ran for 217 yards and 3 TDs against the Aggies, and eventually became the BYU all-time rushing leader. More on him later, though.)
2002 was BYU's first losing season since 1973.
I actually didn't get to see the entire season. I reported to the Missionary Training Center on November 6 that year, and they shut me out of the BYU football loop entirely. I didn't even know who won the BYU/Utah game that year until weeks after it happened.
Looking back I wish I wouldn't have found out.
2002's SDP: This season's defining play is a little different, in that it's actually the lack of a play that defined the season.
After giving up 31 points to Nevada in the first half, BYU not only held the Wolfpack scoreless in half number two, but was making quite a timely (and expected, I might add) comeback. Pendleton and the Cougars had a slim chance with two minutes to go in the game and 99 yards to cover.
BYU made it all the way down to the Nevada 32, but then time ran out on the Cougs. The game was over. The frenzied Nevada crowd rushed the field and the BYU Cougars were left in a confused haze, contemplating the turn their season had just taken.
It was the beginning of a very dark time in the history of BYU football.
Tomorrow: The season-defining play for 2003.