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Provo • Almost a half-hour after they had shut down Utah State 28-10 to hang on to the Old Wagon Wheel, BYU's 21 seniors formed a line that extended across the field at LaVell Edwards Stadium, locked arms and walked military style toward the south end zone in an emotional display of unity and togetherness.
Led by a couple of stars who were expected to depart last year but didn't due to injury and off-the-field personal reasons quarterback Taysom Hill and running back Jamaal Williams this year's crop of seniors endured a wholesale coaching change, new offensive and defensive schemes, three crushing, razor-close September losses and a one-point setback at Boise State in October. They won seven of their last eight games to get to a bowl game for the 12th-straight season.
Against a schedule that wasn't nearly as difficult as it was supposed to be, the Cougars lost four games by a total of eight points.
It will be remembered as one of the better senior classes in school history, full of stars such as Hill, Williams, safety Kai Nacua, defensive tackle Travis Tuiloma and two-way player Harvey Langi and complementary players such as fullback Algernon Brown, receivers Nick Kurtz, Mitchell Juergens and Colby Pearson, and defenders Logan Taele, Sae Tautu, Eric Takenaka and Michael Davis.
Offensive linemen Andrew Eide and Parker Dawe anchored an injury-depleted unit that overachieved and paved the way for Williams to break the school rushing record.
"They have played some really important football games in the last 4-5 years and so they've done some great things for this program," said first-year coach Kalani Sitake. "There isn't a selfish bone in those guys' bodies. It has been awesome as a head coach to see them lead, sacrifice and care only about other people. It has been refreshing for me to see."
And it isn't quite over.
The Cougars (8-4) will play in the Poinsettia Bowl on Dec. 21 in San Diego against an opponent from their old league, the Mountain West Conference. That will likely be the loser of Saturday's MWC championship game between San Diego State (9-3) and Wyoming (8-4) in Laramie.
The Las Vegas Bowl gets the first pick and will likely chose the winner to play in its game on Dec. 17 against a Pac-12 foe, although neither the Aztecs nor the Cowboys are finishing the season strong. Their places in the title game already set, San Diego State was pummeled 63-31 by Colorado State on Saturday while Wyoming was belted 56-35 at New Mexico.
Air Force (9-3) and Boise State (10-2) are also possibilities, although Poinsettia Bowl organizers will probably want to avoid a BYU-Boise State rematch, and Boise State played in their game last year, another perceived drawback to taking the Broncos.
Of more immediate concern to BYU is the condition of Hill, who suffered a hyperextension injury to his left elbow while running for a first down early in the fourth quarter against the Aggies (3-9). Sitake said scans showed no fractures, but an MRI will be performed shortly to determine the extent of the injury. If Hill can't play in the bowl game, it would mean that four of his five seasons in Provo were cut short by injury.
Williams' senior year was also hampered by injuries, but he still managed to rush for 1,165 yards in nine games, while missing three and being limited in at least two others. His career rushing yardage total is now 3,691, the most ever at BYU.
"There are a lot of great seniors and I am grateful to have played with them," Williams said after rushing for 131 yards against USU. "The things we went through are unbelievable. I am grateful to be on a team that knows what struggle is and worked through it and got to success. … I am grateful to have a whole bunch of players from different backgrounds. I love them and they will forever be my brothers way after football is done."
Next For BYU
P Poinsettia Bowl, Qualcomm Stadium, San Diego
When • Dec. 21, 6 p.m. MST
TV • ESPN