BYU played in some epic games over their dozen years of independence. It’s tough to decide the “best” games, as there are many different criteria to examine the best games.
Before making a top 10 list, I took into account a few things. First, was it an epic finish? Was it an exciting game down to the last minute, or even second? Next, I considered how big of a brand the team BYU defeated was. It’s always sweeter when you can beat a big-name brand of college football.
I also took into consideration rivalries. Beating your rival is one of the sweetest, most satisfying moments as a college football team and fanbase. I also took into account how highly ranked the opponent was at the time of the game, and also how that team finished the season.
Let’s count down the top 10 games of the independence era, based on this criteria.
Disclaimer: a lot of worthy games were left off this list. Picking 10 wins out of 99 from the independence era was no easy task.
10 vs. Toledo, 9/30/2016
On the surface, this game did not look to have the appearance of an epic clash in the making. BYU came in at 1-3. What ensued was a barnburner for the ages between the Cougars and Rockets. To give you a picture of how much of a shootout this was, the score was 21-14 in favor of BYU after just one quarter.
At the end of the third quarter, it was clear that defense was declared optional for this game, with Toledo leading 38-35. As a team, BYU ran the ball 45 times for 338 yards in this game.
30 of those carries and 286 of those yards were all Jamaal Williams, including five touchdowns. He broke Eldon Fortie’s 54-year-old single-game rushing record.
BYU needed every ounce of it to beat Toledo that day. The Rockets kept punching back with their own future NFL running back in Kareem Hunt. Toledo scored a touchdown with just over one minute left in the game to make it 52-51 in favor of BYU. Instead of opting to tie it with an extra point, the Rockets rolled the dice with a two-point play and converted, taking a late lead in Provo.
Taysom Hill and Jamaal Williams led BYU to a game-winning drive that was punctuated by Rhett Almond’s 19-yard field goal as time expired. The 55-53 bonanza contained 108 points and 1,278 total yards combined.
While yes, Toledo is not the sexiest matchup, the sheer bonkers offensive numbers and record-breaking night by Jamaal Williams, ending with a walk-off field goal, makes this very difficult to leave off the top 10.
9 vs. Baylor, 9/11/2022
BYU had revenge on the mind as the Baylor Bears made a trip to Provo after they soundly beat BYU the previous year in Waco. Baylor came into the game ranked No. 9 in the country. BYU had not beaten a top 10 team at home since the famous game in 1990 against No. 1 Miami.
Baylor was leading 6-3 right before the half as the Cougars went for a big score before time expired. Jaren Hall floated a pass with elite accuracy in the corner of the end zone to Chase Roberts, for a toe-tapping, go-ahead touchdown.
The teams traded scores in the second half. With the game tied and eight seconds left, BYU was in prime position to win as Jake Oldroyd attempted a 35-yard field goal. However, the kick was no good and the game went into overtime.
Inexplicably, the two sides exchanged missed field goals. BYU had yet another chance to win the game before Oldroyd’s second big miss.
BYU took possession first in the second overtime period. They drove down to score a go-ahead touchdown by Lopini Kotoa. However, the two-point attempt failed, leaving the door open for Baylor to win with a touchdown and successful extra point.
Baylor got it down to 1st and Goal from the five yard line. However, the Cougar defense held firm, forcing a fourth down attempt to fail, clinching the win for the Cougars. The crowd rushed the field after a thrilling double-overtime 26-20 win. Jaren Hall embraced the embattled kicker. The win gave BYU a 2-0 start and a No. 12 ranking.
8. vs Boise State, 10/20/2019
BYU had just lost three straight games. The season was beginning to spiral out of control. They had just lost to Toledo and USF on the road. Their next test was No. 14 Boise State, who had their sights set on a New Year’s Six Bowl. Not only that, but the Cougars were down to their third string quarterback, Baylor Romney, after both Zach Wilson and Jaren Hall went down with injuries.
It was certainly a tall task for the Cougars, coming in at 2-4. Boise State initially had a 10-7 lead at halftime. Then Romney and the Cougars caught fire in the third quarter, scoring 21 unanswered points. BYU built a 28-10 lead and then essentially held on for dear life.
Boise State rallied for 15 points in the fourth quarter to cut it to a three point game. BYU faced a 4-and-Inches with just over two minutes left. They risked giving the ball back to the Broncos. Instead, Austin Kafentzis picked up the first down in a rugby scrum-like play. That helped the Cougars drain the clock and seal the win over a top 15 opponent.
Boise State ended up finishing that regular season 12-1, including 8-0 in Mountain West play. This was one of the better teams BYU beat throughout their independence, regarding their final result that season. Before losing to Washington in the Las Vegas Bowl, BYU was Boise State’s only blemish in an otherwise stellar season.
7. vs. Texas, 9/7/13
With BYU heading into their third season of independence, they still lacked that true marquee home game. That is, until the No. 15-ranked Texas Longhorns came into town. After Texas took a 14-10 lead early in the second quarter, BYU took control. In better words, Taysom Hill took control.
Hill made the Texas defense look completely lost. It appeared they had Tweety birds circling their heads as they struggled to contain Hill’s athleticism, especially as he tucked the ball and ran.
When the dust settled, Taysom Hill finished with a whopping 259 yards on the ground, including three touchdowns. It was one of the greatest individual performance by any BYU player in school history. BYU put the nation on notice, throttling the previously top 15 Longhorns 40-21.
One could argue there is no bigger brand in all of college football than Texas. BYU beat them soundly with a historic quarterback performance.
6. vs. USC, 9/14/2019
Anytime a premier brand of college football takes the field at LaVell Edwards Stadium against BYU, people will pay attention. The Trojans came in ranked No. 24 with now-BYU quarterback Kedon Slovis under center. Zach Wilson was coming off of a dramatic win against Tennessee, looking to build on that momentum.
It was tightly contested, with neither team taking more than a seven-point lead at any time in the game. Trailing 24-20 with less than six minutes left in the game, Wilson led a heroic drive that ended with him diving into the end zone with a touchdown that sent the home crowd into a frenzy. It put BYU up by three.
USC responded with a field goal, forcing overtime. The Cougars kicked a field goal to open the overtime period, leaving the door open for USC to win the game with a touchdown. Instead, Dayan Ghanwoloku intercepted a tipped pass to seal the win. BYU had beaten a ranked USC squad in overtime at home, which caused the crowd to storm the field. It marked back-to-back overtime wins over big Power 5 programs.
5. vs. Boise State, 9/13/2015
The Cougars were still riding high from their dramatic win on a Hail Mary on the road at Nebraska. What would new star quarterback Tanner Mangum do for an encore against No. 20 Boise State? BYU had only beaten Boise State once in five games to this point.
First, the game opened with Mangum tossing an absolute bomb to Mitchell Juergens for an 84-yard touchdown, not even a minute into the game. Boise State was able to respond, eventually building a 24-14 lead.
Boise State had the ball in the fourth quarter, up by 10, going for the kill shot. However, Kai Nacua intercepted Ryan Finley to give the Cougars a chance. They took advantage and cut the deficit to three.
After exchanging punts, BYU took the ball still down by three, with under four minutes to go. Hope seemed to dwindle as the Cougars faced a 4th and 7 from the Boise State 35 yard line with just 54 seconds left. Mangum scrambled right and threw off-balance towards the end zone into a pocket of BYU and Boise State players. Mitchell Juergens came down with the touchdown, which caused LaVell Edwards Stadium to erupt with joy and jubilation, giving BYU a 28-24 lead.
However, the job was not done. Boise State had the ball down by four with 45 seconds left. Nacua took matters into his own hands, intercepting his second pass of the day and this time, running it into the end zone for the game-sealing pick-six.
4. at Tennessee, 9/7/2019
BYU was licking their wounds after opening up the season with yet another heart-crushing loss to Utah. Their reward was a trip to Rocky Top to take on the Tennessee Volunteers, one of the premier brands of college football. As it was in SEC country, it was another prime opportunity for BYU to get a statement win for the program.
The Vols were in control for most of the first half, leading 13-3 at halftime. The Cougars then opened the second half by intercepting Volunteers quarterback Jarrett Guarantano. This led to a scoring drive for BYU to cut the deficit to three points.
After an exchange of field goals, BYU was down 16-13 and down to 17 seconds left on their own 20 yard line. Zach Wilson heaved a deep ball to Micah Simon, who scampered all the way down to the Tennessee 16. The Cougars sprinted to the line and spiked it in time for a field goal try to tie the game. Oldroyd nailed it, which sent the game to overtime after BYU was left for dead.
The two teams traded touchdowns in the opening overtime period. The Cougars forced Tennessee to a field goal in the second overtime, giving them a chance to win it on a touchdown.
Running back Ty’Son Williams did just that, rumbling for a five-yard touchdown score which sealed the unlikely comeback and overtime win for BYU.
That Tennessee squad ended up finishing with a better record than BYU, going 8-5.
3. at Nebraska, 9/5/2015
No “all-time” list for BYU is going without this game. This is one of the most dramatic finishes in BYU history, perhaps in all of college football. Things were looking bleak for BYU, as Taysom Hill suffered what would be a season-ending injury just a few hours after the season had begun.
The Cornhuskers came in having won an incredible 29 straight season-opening contests. They knocked Hill out of the game, forcing Tanner Mangum, a freshman who was fresh off of his two-year church mission, into action. With BYU trailing 28-24. Mangum first led them to a field goal, cutting the lead to one.
A missed field goal late by Nebraska opened the door for one last desperate drive for the Cougars. Mangum took the ball at BYU’s own 24 yard line with 40 seconds left, needing to at least get into field goal range.
The problem was, BYU could only get to the Nebraska 42 before needing to settle for a Hail Mary attempt with one second left. Mangum heaved the pass of his life as he stood directly under the giant red “N” logo at midfield, with a prayer along with it.
The ball found the awaiting embrace of BYU receiver Mitch Mathews, who took his momentum into the end zone for the dramatic, game-winning score. BYU rushed the field as they stunned the home crowd. The sea of red was silent as the Cougars clinched a 33-28 victory on the arm of their freshman backup quarterback.
The only reason this was not number one is that it featured Taysom Hill suffering a season-ending injury and Nebraska ended up just not being very good.
2. vs. Utah, 9/11/2021
BYU fans were sick of hearing it. It had been since 2009, nine straight games, since BYU had defeated Utah. Utah entered this game ranked No. 21. This would be their last meeting until 2024, so each team wanted a shot at bragging rights for the next three years.
BYU finally delivered. Jaren Hall and Tyler Allgeier starred in BYU’s effort to finally end the curse against the Utes.
Frankly, the Cougars kept the Utes at arm’s length for the majority of the game. Jaren Hall played perhaps his best game in a Cougar uniform. He threw for three touchdowns and also ran for 92 yards. His 18-yard run to set up a field goal that put BYU up by two scores in the fourth quarter essentially sealed the deal. The Cougars then relied on Tyler Allgeier to ice the game with a few bruising runs.
As the clock hit zero, it was ecstasy. At long last, the Cougars had beaten the Utes. They forced two turnovers and basically caused the benching of Utah quarterback Charlie Brewer, rendering him ineffective.
This was the only BYU team in the independent era to defeat Utah. Plus, this was not a run-of-the-mill Utah Utes squad. They rallied to finish 10-3, winning the PAC-12 and playing in the Rose Bowl. They finished No. 12 in the final AP poll. BYU beat one of the best Utah teams in their program’s history.
1. at Wisconsin, 9/15/2018
As part of independence, and in especially the Kalani Sitake era, BYU was always looking for that signature win over a Power 5 program in high esteem. They were salivating at the chance to play No. 6 Wisconsin on the road in Madison.
A year before, Wisconsin had traveled to Provo and completely pummeled the Cougars in every facet of the game to the tune of a 40-6 drubbing.
The Badgers were a feared team from the Big 10. BYU came in limping off of a home loss to Cal. This game was a classic example of “just keep the game close and see what happens in the fourth quarter.”
Thanks to a Squally Canada touchdown run in the third quarter, the Cougars entered the final period tied with Wisconsin. When the famous “Jump Around” broke out around Camp Randall Stadium, the BYU players joined in. They felt confident they could pull the upset.
BYU took a 24-21 lead early in the fourth quarter. The defense held firm. Wisconsin drove down to attempt a game-tying field goal. The Badgers missed the 42-yarder, letting BYU kneel down to seal the impressive win in Big 10 country. This win was so unexpected. It gave BYU a road win over the No. 6 team in the country, at a prime location in college football.
BYU’s victory snapped Wisconsin’s 41-game home non-conference winning streak and a 20-game regular-season winning streak.
The Badgers finished 8-5 and even reached the top 15 again following the loss to the Cougars.
Of course, there were plenty of games that got left out. BYU opening up independence play by beating Ole Miss on the road in 2011 certainly was worthy. That same year, the Cougars had a dramatic win over Utah State that catapulted them to a 10-win season, which was stamped by a dramatic win over Tulsa in the bowl game.
This past season’s epic clash with Boise State certainly got consideration, especially with Puka Nacua’s unbelievable toe-tapping touchdown.
Taysom Hill’s encore against Texas in Austin in 2014 was tough to omit.
More honorable mentions include the 2012 Poinsettia Bowl against San Diego State. 2021 had two more amazing contests, with that ridiculous shootout with Virginia as well as the late-season clash with USC. Beating a ranked Arizona State team, along with “the punch” by Tyler Allegier was memorable.
In the end, a top 10 of almost anything is subjective and based on opinions. At the end of the day, there is no shortage of unforgettable memories of BYU football over the last 12 years.