BYU went 6-5 in bowl games as an independent program, only missing bowl season once, in 2017.
It’s always tough to rank things. Most of it is arbitrary, with opinions mixing in. Let’s try to rank all six bowl wins for BYU over that stretch.
6. 2018 Famous Idaho Potato Bowl vs. Western Michigan
This bowl game was not exactly appointment viewing for the rest of the nation. BYU, playing on the Smurf Turf in Boise, against Western Michigan. On a cold day in Idaho, BYU laid waste to the Broncos of Western Michigan.
The main thing everyone remembers from this game was the “perfect game” Zach Wilson threw at quarterback for the Cougars. Rightfully so, as it is one of the most efficient and flawless bowl games any quarterback has ever played in a bowl game. He completed all 18 of his passes, falling just one shy of the NCAA bowl record for consecutive completions to start a bowl game.
Along with the 100-percent completion rate, he tallied 317 yards and four touchdowns. Receiver Dylan Collie had his best day of his brief BYU career, with six catches for 124 yards and two scores. After the game, he boldly declared that Wilson would become one of the best quarterbacks to ever play at BYU.
The game itself was devoid of drama after halftime. It’s hard to believe WMU had a 10-7 lead at the break. BYU exploded for 28 unanswered points in the third quarter and won going away, 49-18.
The Zach Wilson storyline aside, this game was a snoozer in the second half with BYU clearly in control. It was as dominating of a bowl win BYU has ever had.
5. 2016 Poinsettia Bowl vs. Wyoming
Overall, this game lacked pizazz. However, it was in San Diego. certainly an ideal December bowl location. In fact, it was the last Poinsettia Bowl ever held. And now, what was then Qualcomm Stadium has now been demolished.
The other interesting point was who some of the individual players were that participated in this game. On BYU’s side, future NFL sensation Jamaal Williams shouldered the load for the Cougars.
On the Cowboys side, under center was a guy named Josh Allen, now the quarterback for the Buffalo Bills.
However, what this game lacked was ideal conditions for a true showcase of Allen’s talents. The turf was soggy and the conditions were wet, abnormal for Southern California. It was tough to throw the ball, as manifested by BYU quarterback Tanner Mangum’s line of 8-for-15 with 96 yards.
Williams took the game over on the ground and helped BYU build a 24-7 lead in the fourth quarter. The Cougars ended up needing to hold on for dear life, as Allen threw a touchdown pass with two minutes left to cut BYU’s lead to just three.
Wyoming’s defense was able to stop BYU and give Josh Allen the ball one more time, with 1:35 left and down three. BYU safety Kai Nacua did what he became famous for as a BYU Cougar, and picked off Allen to seal the game. He nearly returned it for a touchdown.
BYU was able to hold on for the 24-21 win in soggy conditions in San Diego.
4. 2012 Poinsettia Bowl vs. San Diego State
This game was headed towards the furnace to be burned and never heard from again for BYU, until the fourth quarter. Trailing 6-3 in a dreadful offensive performance with backup quarterback James Lark, the Cougars needed their defense to carry the load.
Carry it, they did. One man in particular took the game over, Kyle Van Noy. Early in the fourth, he strip-sacked SDSU QB Adam Dingwell and recovered the fumble in the endzone for a go-ahead touchdown.
BYU got another score thanks to true freshman Jamaal Williams’ rushing score following another turnover forced by the defense.
Van Noy personally put the Aztecs away with another defensive highlight, a 17-yard pick-six, making it 23-6 BYU.
The Cougars had scored 20 unanswered points in a matter of six minutes of game time to take a commanding lead. In the end, BYU forced five SDSU turnovers and forced the Aztecs to just 2-for-16 on third downs in a heroic defensive effort.
3. 2022 New Mexico Bowl vs. SMU
This was a game that, on the surface, didn’t look like much. BYU was down to their fourth string quarterback in Sol-Jay Maiava-Peters. New Mexico isn’t the sexiest bowl location either.
However, as the game played out, it was plenty exciting. The game was tied 10-10 at halftime. SMU mounted a drive to open the second half that was immediately interrupted by BYU linebacker Ben Bywater, who read the pass perfectly and took it to the house for a 76-yard pick-six, giving BYU a seven-point lead.
The defense held strong, giving the offense another scoring drive chance. BYU running back Christopher Brooks ran for a 22-yard score to increase the Cougars’ lead to 24-10.
Much like the 2016 Poinsettia Bowl, BYU had to hold on for dear life and weather the storm of their opponent’s comeback attempt. The Mustangs were able to mount two touchdown-scoring drives in the fourth quarter.
The last one was with eight seconds left in the game. With the PAT pending, and SMU down one point, they opted to go for two points and basically decide the game right then and there.
SMU QB Tanner Mordecai opted for a quarterback draw. BYU defensive back Jakob Robinson stood strong in the hole and made the tackle short of the goal line, foiling the bold two-point attempt and sealing the win for the Cougars.
2. 2020 Boca Raton Bowl vs. UCF
An argument can be made that this was the most “important” bowl game of BYU’s tenure as an independent. They had just narrowly missed being invited to a coveted New Year’s Six Bowl after a 10-1 regular season and being ranked No. 13 in the country. Their reward was a date with a respected UCF program on their home soil. BYU had never won in the state of Florida.
Zach Wilson saw to the end of that. In one of the greatest bowl performances by any BYU QB, Wilson torched UCF through the air and on the ground. He tossed for 425 yards and three touchdowns. He added two touchdowns on the ground.
BYU’s offense exploded out of the gate, building a 21-0 lead in the first quarter. BYU led 35-10 at halftime. UCF really never threatened in this game. Even with the final score being 49-23, it didn’t even feel that close. At one point, BYU led 49-10.
It was one of the most complete bowl performances in program history. It punctuated one of the best seasons in program history, finishing 11-1. It also sealed Zach Wilson’s fate as one of the better quarterbacks to come out of BYU in recent memory. They finished the season ranked No. 11 in the final AP poll.
1. 2011 Armed Forces Bowl vs. Tulsa
Imagine that, the first bowl game of the independence era turned out to be the best. BYU went into the game at 9-3, looking to end the season with a bang and get to the coveted 10-win plateau.
Tulsa got out to a 14-3 lead in the second quarter. The two teams went back and forth in the second half. While BYU QB Riley Nelson did not play his best game, he made the big moments count. BYU got the ball back with four minutes left in the game, down 21-17. The clock was winding down as Nelson drove the Cougars down the field. That included Nelson scrambling for a first down when facing a 4th-and-9.
Nelson completed a pass to Marcus Mathews, but he was tackled in bounds at the Tulsa 2 yard line, causing the clock to keep on ticking. Nelson rushed the team up to the line, appearing to want to spike the ball and stop the clock. As the clock bled to under 15 seconds left in the game, Nelson took the snap, faked a spike, and then connected with Cody Hoffman for a game-winning touchdown.
This was the only bowl game of BYU’s independence era that BYU won on a last-second touchdown. It also sealed a 10-win season in BYU’s opening year of independence.