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BYU Football: Taking a look back at 1996 Cougars (Part III)

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In a three part series, we will revisit one of the greatest seasons in BYU football history.

The players are led onto the field by the BYU flags
The players are led onto the field by the BYU flags
Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

In the final installment of our revisiting of 1996, we look at the home stretch of the Cougars as they faced the toughest part of their schedule.  Not only did they face two ranked teams, but they also played 4 of 5 away from home, played in the stadium of their bitter rival, traveled to Hawaii, and took on a very good opponent for their bowl game.  Winning 3 of 5 would have been impressive, but the Cougars took it to the next level and won all five, finishing the season 14-1, ranked #5, and walking away as the first team in NCAA History to win 14 games in a season. If you missed the first two installments, click for Part I and  Part II.

Week 11: BYU at Rice

The Cougars moved up to #12 before their last home game of the year and took advantage of three Rice turnovers as they made the their 10th win look easy.  Even with three turnovers of their own the Cougars racked up over 300 yards rushing and 200 yards passing as they continued to bulldoze the WAC.  Surprisingly enough, in a game where the Cougars scored almost 50, there were no points scored in the first quarter.  The scoring started in the second when the Cougars went 87 yards on a pass from Steve Sarkisian to Dustin Johnson to take a 7-0 lead.  The Cougars scored again on a 5-yard pass to K.O. Kealaluhi before Brian McKenzie ended the first half scoring on a 2-yard touchdown run that put the Cougars up 21-0 at the half.

The third quarter brought more of the same from the Cougars as James Dye electrified the crowd on a 67-yard punt return, McKenzie rattled off a 37-yard touchdown run, and Mark Atuaia added a 1-yard touchdown of his own.   The Cougars finished off their scoring with the only touchdown in the fourth quarter as Paul Shoemaker found Tyler Bolli for a 4-yard touchdown.  At this point it was up to the defense to keep Rice off the board, and they didn't disappoint.  With the 49-0 win, the Cougars not only reached double digit wins, but also completed their first shutout of the year.

Week 12: BYU at Hawaii

When the Cougars traveled to the Islands, they had finally broken into the top 10 and were looking to keep ahead of Utah in the WAC standings against a struggling Hawaii team.  The Cougars won the turnover battle as they recovered three fumbles and recorded an interception in a game that was never really close.  BYU led 14-0 after the first quarter on an Atuaia 10-yard run and a 12-yard pass from Sarkisian to Ronney Jenkins.  The Rainbow Warriors pulled within seven when Stephen Gonzales capitalized on their only interception returning it 79 yards for the score.  BYU would add a Pochman field goal before the end of the half and led 17-7 at halftime.

Dustin Johnson started the scoring in the third quarter as he caught a 23-yard touchdown from Sarkisian, but Hawaii answered back with a 1-yard Carlos Shaw rushing touchdown.  BYU would score the final 21 points of the game as Jenkins scored on a 5-yard rush in the third quarter and then Henry Bloomfield got the defense a touchdown on a returned fumble.  McKenzie would score the final points of the game with a 44-yard rush as the Cougars won 45-14.

Week 13: BYU at Utah

With the win over Hawaii the Cougars clinched at least a share of the Division Title and could win it outright with a win over rival Utah.  With a #8 ranking and the division on the line, the Cougars had no intention of losing the game at Utah, scoring early and not looking back.  The Cougars scored the first 20 points of the game as McKenie had a 12-yard rush sandwiched between two 22-yard field goals by Pochman.  In the second quarter Ronney Jenkins added a 4-yard rushing TD before Daniel Pulsipher put the Utes on the board with a 38-yard field goal.

Coming out of the locker room with a 20-3 lead allowed the Cougars to pound the ball, racking up 366 yards rushing against their rival.  BYU again scored first as Jenkins ran in from 16 yards out and took a 27-3 lead before Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala pounded the ball in from a yard out for the Utes.  The following two-point conversion was good and the Utes cut the lead to 16.  Pochman would add a 41-yard field goal before the end of the third.  Kevin Dyson recorded the final points for the Utes as he caught a 19-yard pass from Mike Fouts before the conversion failed.  Jenkins would once again find the end zone before the end of the game and the Cougars won 37-17 with Sarkisian only attempting 12 passes.  The BYU ground game was so dominant that McKenzie ended the game with 176 yards rushing, while Jenkins ended with 156.  The win sealed the Division Championship and a trip to Vegas for the WAC championship.

Week 14 - WAC Championship: BYU vs Wyoming

In a very emotional game matching up two ranked opponents, the 6th ranked Cougars faced off against the 20th ranked Wyoming Cowboys. The Cougar defense saved the day on a number of occasions as they intercepted three Josh Wallwork passes and held him to a completion percentage of 47 percent.  The Cougar offense had their own struggles as they gave up points to the Wyoming defense, and struggled on third down.  The Cougars won the turnover battle, but going 1-13 on third down hindered the offense and kept the game close.

The teams combined for only three points in the first quarter as Pochman converted on a 30-yard field goal and neither team could find the end zone.  McKenzie finally got the Cougars a touchdown in the second quarter when he took the ball in from 11 yards out and then a 47-yard field goal for BYU sent the Cougars into the locker room with a 13-0 lead.

The third quarter belonged to the Cowboys as they scored their first points of the game on a 25-yard fumble return by Jay Jenkins.  Cory Wedel added a 20-yard field goal to pull the Cowboys within three going into the fourth quarter.  Wallwork would combine with David Saraf on a  7-yard pass to give Wyoming their first lead of the game at 17-13.    BYU would bounce right back as Sarkisian found Chad Lewis for a 13-yard touchdown and the race was on.  Wallwork and Saraf answered with a 14-yard touchdown of their own.  After converting a fake PAT for the two-point conversion, the Cowboys held a 25-20 lead.  The Cowboys survived a stiff test as they stopped the Cougars inside the Wyoming 5-yard line and looked to have the game in the bag.

BYU would step up on defense forcing a 4th down inside the Wyoming 10-yard line.  The Cowboys opted to run clock as they instructed the punter to run around for as long as possible before stepping out of bounds for the safety and two points for BYU.  Against all odds the Cougars found themselves again inside the 10-yard line with one second on the clock and a Pochman field goal sent the game into overtime.  The BYU defense held once again forcing a field goal on the Cowboys possession, which missed wide left.  Needing only a field goal to win the WAC, Pochman stepped up and hit the 32-yard field goal to send the crowd into a frenzy.  With the game televised on ABC, the nation again was able to experience a Cougar classic as the 28-25 win paved the way for the Cougars to go to the Cotton Bowl.

Week 15 - The Cotton Bowl: BYU vs Kansas State

Having been invited to the Cotton Bowl to face the 14th ranked Kansas State Wildcats, the 5th ranked Cougars were set to prove that they belonged.  The Wildcat defense may have been the best that the Cougars faced all year and the offensive struggles proved it.  The Cougars running game could never get going, and seven sacks didn't help, finishing the game with only 59 rushing yards. The Cougars' aerial attack also had its struggles with less than 300 passing on the day.

BYU started off the scoring when Shay Muirbrook wrapped up Brian Kavanagh for a safety in the first quarter.  Pochman would add a 39-yard field goal later in the first quarter to take a 5-0 lead into the second.  Kansas State scored the only points of the second quarter when Kavanagh found Andre Anderson on a 41-yard hail mary to end the half and led 8-5 after the two-point conversion.

The Wildcats would add another seven points in the third quarter as Kavanagh found Kevin Lockett for a 72-yard touchdown to give Kansas State the lead 15-5 going into the final quarter.  BYU would fight back and reward the defense for their play as Sarkisian connected with James Dye on a 32-yard touchdown pass.  After a devastating hit on Kaipo McGuire forced him out of the game, Sarkisan found K.O. Kealaluhi for a 28-yard touchdown that gave the Cougars the lead late in the fourth.  The Cougar defense once again held as the Wildcats threatened, but Omarr Morgan made the play of the game as he deflected and then intercepted a Kavanagh pass inside the 5-yard line to seal the game.  Muirbrook was the star of the day in the 19-15 win as he spent most of the day in the backfield with 12 tackles, 11 of them solo, included six sacks.  Henry Bloomfield added 11 tackles and two sacks as the defense made the plays to win the game.

A Special Season:

The Cougars finished the season as the first team in NCAA history to win 14 games and only two other teams have reached that number since.   They finished the season ranked 5th in the country and won 12 straight after the disappointing loss to Washington.  Who knows what would have happened had the Cougars not lost to the Huskies, but the 1996 season will still go down as one of the best in Cougar history.  With the memories that were made that season, we may never see anything quite like it again.  Many believe that this team was even better than the National Championship team in 1984.  What do you think?  Will the Cougars ever have a season as special as this again?  What memories do you have of this special season?  Let us know in the comments below!