This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
September ended the way it began for the BYU Cougars, who remembered how to finish a football game.
BYU outlasted Toledo 55-53 in another wild adventure Friday night at LaVell Edwards Stadium, with Rhett Almond kicking a 19-yard field goal as time expired. So ended an opening month of the season that already included a two-point win over Arizona, a one-point defeat at Utah and three-point losses to UCLA and West Virginia.
Almond had lost his job during the season opener, when Jake Oldroyd kicked the winning field goal on the last play of the game. Oldroyd subsequently was injured, giving Almond another opportunity.
BYU's Kalani Sitake undoubtedly is the first person to have lived through a month like this to begin his head coaching career. Noting the phenomenal series of close finishes, a relieved Sitake said, "I hope we fix it soon."
In this episode, the Cougars led by scores such as 21-7 and 52-45, and they trailed 28-21, 45-42 and 53-52. They had pulled ahead 52-45 when Jamaal Williams ran 14 yards for his fifth touchdown of the night and broke BYU's single-game rushing record on that carry, eventually finishing with 286 yards.
But the BYU defense, which allowed 692 total yards, gave up a 79-yard touchdown drive (including a fourth-down conversion) and two-point play, forcing the offense to respond again as the calendar turned to October. The crazy bounces of this Cougar season continued when Toledo quarterback Logan Woodside dropped a shotgun snap that surprised him, but he grabbed the ball and completed a two-point pass to send the Rockets ahead with 1:11 left.
"Probably not the best game film to watch for defense," Sitake said.
Woodside passed for a school-record 505 yards and five touchdowns. His biggest mistake was a pass that Kai Nacua intercepted, resulting in the only possession of the second half that didn't result in offensive points for either team.
After falling behind, the Cougars drove efficiently from their 27-yard line to the Toledo 2 behind quarterback Taysom Hill, setting up Almond's winning kick. Hill's 33-yard pass to Colby Pearson launched the drive and BYU almost scored a winning touchdown before settling for the field goal. BYU totaled 586 yards as Hill accounted for 248 passing on only 11 completions and Williams' broke Eldon Fortie's rushing record of 272 yards that stood for more than a half-century.
The Cougars may have thought the tough times were behind them when they opened Friday's game with Hill's 75-yard touchdown pass to Jonah Trinnaman. And they probably believed September's breaks would even out when Harvey Langi tipped a pass that Dayan Lake intercepted and returned 49 yards, leading to a touchdown that made it 21-7.
But the Cougars (2-3) then gave up three touchdowns to fall behind, and the game went back and forth in the second half.
But the fourth quarter went BYU's way, for the first time since the opener vs. Arizona.
The last time BYU started a football season 1-4, somebody got fired the next day. Nothing quite that dramatic would have followed a loss to Toledo. Even so, this was a critical victory, because a loss would have created a bowl-eligibility math problem for BYU.
BYU salvaged the 2010 season with a 6-6 record (plus a New Mexico Bowl win over Texas-El Paso) after falling to 1-4 with a Friday night loss at Utah State. The recovery came after coach Bronco Mendenhall fired defensive coordinator Jaime Hill and started with a win over San Diego State in a game that involved a controversial video replay. The Cougars then were blasted at TCU before winning four Mountain West games in a row and losing 17-16 at Utah when a field-goal try was blocked.
The road to 6-6 and bowl eligibility would become far more difficult this year if the Cougars had fallen to 1-4. My published game-by-game projections had them 2-4 at this stage after beating Toledo, then losing to Michigan State, Mississippi State and Boise State and winning all four November games to 6-6.
Friday's game clearly was pivotal in Sitake's first season, and the victory didn't come easily. The hidden element of BYU's schedule of playing six Power 5 schools in September and October is that the two Group of 5 opponents (Toledo and Boise State) are strong programs, with high-scoring offenses.
Like Sitake, Mendenhall started his career 1-3 and needed a fourth-quarter rally from 11 points behind to win 27-24 at New Mexico in '05, thanks to quarterback John Beck. The Cougars finished 6-5 in the regular season, then lost to California in the Las Vegas Bowl.
It's amazing how much BYU's perspective of the 2016 season changed with Friday's ending. The Cougars regained some confidence and now appear capable of knocking off one of their October opponents. If they had lost to Toledo, it might have been a long time before they beat anybody.