BYU's '84 feat yet to be repeated (cont.)
All the while, other highly ranked teams across the country were falling each week. "You didn't talk about it in front of the coaches," said Fowler, "but we knew exactly where we were ranked, we knew exactly who was in front of us and who they were playing that week, and we were rooting against them."
By the time BYU reached its annual rivalry game against Utah on Nov. 17, the Cougars had risen to No. 3 in the country, behind only 9-1 Nebraska (which had moved up to No. 1 a second time) and 9-0 South Carolina. On the same day the Cougars topped the Utes 24-14, No. 6 Oklahoma handed the Cornhuskers their second loss, while the Gamecocks inexplicably fell to 3-5-1 Navy.
BYU rose to No. 1.
"That's the first time I thought, "Holy cow, this is possible,'" said Edwards.
Writers from the nation's major papers began descending on Provo to profile Edwards' improbable team. Rumors began to swirl that BYU would get out of its contract with the Holiday Bowl to play in the higher-profile Fiesta Bowl. That didn't happen, but officials from the six-year-old San Diego game (which had hosted BYU every year of its existence) tried feverishly to find a worthy opponent for the top-ranked Cougars.
Executive Director John Reid, hampered by his game's $500,000 payout, later recounted seven schools turned him down, including Doug Flutie-led Boston College. The selection committee settled on 6-5 Michigan, which had risen as high as No. 3 early in the season before QB Jim Harbaugh broke his arm in the fifth game.
Heading into the Dec. 21 game, Wolverines coach Bo Schembechler did not seem particularly awed by BYU's prolific passing attack. "We've played passing teams," he said. "There's no way this team should be a better passing team than Illinois, Miami, Iowa or Purdue."
Midway through the first quarter, it appeared the Cougars' passing game would indeed be crippled -- Bosco, injury-free all year, had to be carried off the field after Michigan pass-rusher Mike Hammerstein barreled into the quarterback's left leg on a late hit. "Oh boy," thought Edwards. "There go our chances."
Bosco, however, came back in the second quarter despite suffering knee and ankle sprains. Visibly hobbled, he and the Cougars still racked up 483 yards to just 202 for Michigan, but they also committed six turnovers, allowing the Wolverines to take a 17-10 lead into the fourth quarter.
Early in the final period, however, receiver Glenn Kozlowski made a leaping catch in the back of the end zone to tie the score; then, with 4:36 remaining, Bosco took over at his own 17 and quickly marched BYU down the field. On third down at the Michigan 13 with less than two minutes remaining, Bosco connected with running back Kelly Smith for the game-winning touchdown -- then limped off the field.
Afterward, while Schembechler groused at his postgame press conference that BYU "should be outlawed" because the Cougars were "the worst holding team in the United States of America" (they weren't flagged on a single play), Bosco, who had finished 30-of-42 for 343 yards, left the stadium on crutches.
The rest of the Cougars left for their respective hometowns to celebrate Christmas -- and to wait in agony until the release of the final polls 12 days later.
Twenty-five years ago, "strength of schedule" was not the hot-button subject it is today. If it had been, BYU may never have made it to No. 1.
As the season played out, some of the Cougars' early-season triumphs lost their luster. Pitt finished its season 3-8, Baylor 5-6. Only two of BYU's opponents, Air Force (8-4) and Hawaii (7-4), finished with seven or more wins.
In late November, NBC invited Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer on the Today Show to promote its upcoming broadcast of the Orange Bowl, which the network had dubbed an unofficial national title game. Switzer's team (9-1-1) was ranked second; its opponent, Washington (11-1), was ranked fourth.
"How can you rank BYU No. 1?" Today host Bryant Gumbel wondered aloud. "Who'd they play -- Bo Diddley Tech?"
Gumbel was instantly branded an archenemy in Provo, where a group of players were convinced he'd attended a Big 8 school. ("Then we looked it up and found out he went to Bates College," said Fowler. "What did he know?") Switzer began trumpeting the schedule card any chance he got in the days leading up to the Jan. 1 Orange Bowl.
"They play in the worst conference in the country," said the Oklahoma coach. "BYU beat its schedule, but it didn't beat the world."
Several pollsters shared his sentiments. Prior to the Orange Bowl, the Miami Herald surveyed the 60 AP voters and found 19 did not plan to vote BYU No. 1, regardless of the Orange Bowl outcome. "I have no respect for BYU," said one.
Switzer found little sympathy, however, from the nation's newspaper columnists, many of whom had fallen in love with Cinderella. "People such as Switzer keep asking: Whom did BYU beat?" wrote the Washington Post's Tony Kornheiser. "Hey, who beat BYU?"
Larry Guest wrote in the Orlando Sentinel: "It's not [BYU's] fault that all the bigwig teams took the money and ran to bigger bowls, where they called press conferences to brag about how they'd bloody BYU's noses if only they could get at 'em."
For his part, Edwards said after the Holiday Bowl: "We have as legitimate a claim as anyone. ... I'm sure Nebraska would love to go back and play Syracuse. Oklahoma would love go back and play Kansas, and South Carolina would like to play Navy. We had our Kansases, our Syracuses and our Navies, and this particular group of guys has always come out winners."
In the end, Switzer's lobbying proved moot. Washington downed the Sooners, 28-17, in a game remembered primarily for one indelible moment. With the score tied 14-14 in third quarter, Oklahoma had a 22-yard field goal nullified by an illegal procedure penalty, then got docked an additional 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct when the Sooner Schooner -- OU's pony-drawn wagon -- came on to the field thinking the field goal was good and got stuck in a patch of mud. The Sooners' subsequent attempt from 42 yards was blocked.
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