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BYU Football: The art of great seasons includes ugly wins

Ugly wins happen. And they still count!

Settle down, folks. BYU could have even been up 30-0 if this guy's TD would have worked out.
Settle down, folks. BYU could have even been up 30-0 if this guy's TD would have worked out.
Jay Drowns

The knee-jerk reaction to BYU's 33-25 win over Houston last Thursday, at least for a lot of people, was summed up by one tweet that read, "Did BYU win? Because it sure didn't feel like it."

It's understandable to be frustrated that a 23-0 lead ended up giving way to a closer result. Even in a freak sequence like the one that ended the first half -- If you need reminding, Mitch Juergens was stripped after catching a deep ball following his choice not to go out of bounds; Houston returned the fumble to BYU's 45 and then completed a half-ending bomb to make it 23-15 -- BYU shared blame to go along with Houston's credit. Some plays, especially that sequence, were avoidable.

Still, the amount of despair over a win that was never in doubt -- at no point after each time Houston cut the lead down to eight did UH come close to scoring -- was a little mind-boggling. Only one time did the defense allow a full TD drive, after which the defense began rushing more than three. Other scores came as a result of the offense giving Houston short fields (two of which involved Juergens ... and I hate to pile on him personally, but similar situations have resulted in prolonged benchings for other players in BYU's recent past. So I'm more piling on the coaches here).

There seems to be a strange lack of awareness from a portion of fans that fails to acknowledge the fact that BYU's opponents also spend the same time BYU does in scheming to stop them and to score on them. Sometimes, BYU's opponents even have good players who are good at doing football things. Deontay Greenberry, Greg Ward, Daniel Spencer, and Trevon Stewart all looked like pretty good football players to me.

Sometimes, these unfortunate circumstances result in the fact that BYU does not in fact win every game by 34 points. (That's just something special we do for you, Texas. You're welcome).

I know we're pursuing The Quest 2.0 here. I also know that to some extent, some fans (like me) remember 2004 Utah and how the Utes just absolutely crushed everyone on the schedule. That feat is A) Actually pretty rare, and B) While preferable, not actually necessary for 2014 BYU to do something like reach a "New Year's 6" bowl.

To point B first: BYU has no problem being seen by anyone who needs to see them play for consideration to reach higher heights. National folk have seen BYU play and know that, for the most part, the Cougars pass the eye test (which matters with a human selection committee). The Cougars earn respect for having a stout, physical defense and a show-stopper at quarterback. BYU has reached a point where respect is already there -- it's why the Cougars hit the top 25 after just two games.

Now, to point A: Most really good teams who complete seasons to remember end up with a few "ugly" wins. These are often wins where the margin of victory was expected to be bigger. Even more often, they are wins where the game remained close because sometimes football is weird, and team-to-team matchups cause wacky results that nobody saw coming.

Underlying all this is the fact that wins are always better than losses. This seems to get forgotten, at least briefly. Fans of Louisville and Virginia Tech sure would have taken ugly wins last week, I'm sure. Instead, they ended up with regrettable losses that BYU was able to avoid.

This is well documented in BYU's past (and it often involves New Mexico for some reason). Here is a rundown of BYU's best seasons and either the close calls that were encountered or regrettable losses that to some degree derailed special seasons. I hope it provides perspective.

1979 (11-1)

Ugly Win: Long Beach State, 31-17
It's a two-touchdown win, so how is it ugly? The 49ers finished 7-4 this season. Some of their wins included a 9-7 home barnburner over I-AA Boise State and a 17-14 victory over the mighty Drake Bulldogs (3-8 in the Missouri Valley Conference). It was a 24-17 game in the third quarter. If betting odds were around, BYU, which was 8-0 and ranked #11, would have likely been favored by around 24 points -- and it was still a game in the second half.

Regrettable Loss: Indiana, 38-37
The Hoosiers were 7-4. A perfect season was ruined by INDIANA. Thanks, Lee Corso. At least this didn't happen on Thursday against Houston.

1980 (12-1)

Regrettable Loss: New Mexico, 25-21
BYU pretty much depantsed everyone in 1980 until the Miracle Bowl capped the season with some drama ... oh yeah, except for that opener in Albuquerque. What ended up standing between BYU and its first undefeated season in school history was the 4-7 Lobos. BYU held a 21-13 lead in the third quarter and lost because New Mexico kicked four freaking unanswered field goals to win. Four field goals. Yeah, at least that didn't happen against Houston. Going undefeated is hard.

1983 (11-1)

Ugly Win: Utah State, 38-34
Home game. Utah State finished 5-6 this season. Utah State led 34-31 in the fourth quarter.

Regrettable Loss: Baylor, 40-36
Baylor went on to finish 7-4-1, so not a terrible team to lose to in a season opener. But while you were busy railing on Bronco for always losing in week three, you forgot that LaVell Edwards actually had a pretty terrible record in season openers and this one cost BYU back-to-back undefeated seasons. That would have been something. See, winning every game is hard.

1984 (13-0)

BYU won the natty! I'm sure you know this, but did you know Ugly Wins:

Pitt, 20-14
This is debatable as ugly, because at the time Pitt was ranked #3, it was a road game, it was on a new thing called ESPN, and it was a season opener BYU actually won. But Pitt ended up being 3-7-1 that season. Yikes.

Hawaii, 18-13
Don't score too many points, fellas! You know of the goalline stand. Hawaii finished 7-4. That's a fatter pile of meh than anything BYU did against Houston last week.

Wyoming, 41-38
The Pokes had a good offense, but the eventual national champs got locked in a back-and-forth slugfest (six lead changes in the second half) with a 6-6 Wyoming team.

The team we may end up clutching to with our dying breaths had several "Did we win because it felt like we lost" games. I could stop here (I won't), because at this point it's clear -- winning is better than losing.

1996 (14-1)

Ugly Wins

Texas A&M, 41-37
This is another weird one like Pitt in 1984. The Aggies were ranked #13 at the time, it was a super-exciting game with a lot of points and I'm pretty sure it was on ABC ... but A&M finished 6-6 that season. Still, any win over a school like that is good no matter the circumstances. If it occurred in week 8 of an 8-4 season against a 4-4 team, it's a good chance a good share of fans would have been unsatisfied, though. We like being unsatisfied.

New Mexico, 17-14
wrote about this game just before this season began, so you can check that out for a few details. Bottom line: 6-5 New Mexico at home, blocked field goal in the 4th quarter preserved BYU's lead. That's ugly, and I sure like remembering 1996 anyway.

(No regrettable losses. The loss at Washington stunk, but that's always a hard place to play and the Dawgs finished 9-3 and ranked #16 that season. Sometimes the other team is good.)

2001 (12-2)

You want to talk about Ugly Wins? 2001 was a pretty fun season and it was the king of the ugly-wins-in-good-seasons race.

UNLV, 35-31
I could just say "it's UNLV" and it would suffice. The Reeebbbbbbbelllls were 4-7 this year and held a lead in the fourth quarter, kicking a field goal to go up 31-28. This happened.

Utah State, 54-34
Ultimately, a 20-point win seems like a stretch. But recall BYU's history with Utah State, and that the Aggies were 4-7. You might also recall that the Aggies scored three unanswered touchdowns, the third to start the second half to gain a 34-21 lead. Luke Staley would finish with 207 rushing yards and 4 TD, and yes BYU scored 33 unanswered to finish the game. But this was a home game, and there was quite a lot of angst over trailing at halftime and then getting down even further. Against the same measuring stick in which Thursday's win over Houston "felt like a loss," this one probably could have too for those willing to pick nits in the same fashion.

New Mexico, 24-20
If the excitement of the UNLV and Utah State games back to back weren't fun enough, BYU decided to do it again the next week in Albuquerque against the 6-5 Lobos. With Staley sitting due to questions about his academic eligibility, BYU needed a fourth-down conversion to extend the game-winning drive late in the fourth quarter after falling behind 20-17. Yowza.

Wyoming, 41-34
Laramie. The game was tied at halftime, again in the third quarter, and again in the fourth quarter. Staley ran for 182 yards and 4 TD, including the game winner to break a 34-34 tie. Wyoming finished a stellar 0-7 in conference, 2-9 overall with wins over I-AA Furman and 4-7 Utah State.

(No regrettable losses -- Hawaii and Louisville were pretty good teams, and not having the best RB in the nation kind of hinders a football team.)

2008 Utah Utes (13-0)

Some of you will want me drawn and quartered at your nearest MLM headquarters for even mentioning this, but it's a good inclusion since I used Utah's 2004 season as an anomaly. What nearly everyone remembers six years after is Utah's emasculation of Alabama in the first half of the Sugar Bowl, finishing undefeated, and being ranked #2. But:

Michigan (3-9): 25-23
New Mexico (4-8): 13-10

Doesn't matter to that Sugar Bowl trophy. (Nobody can escape New Mexico during good seasons.)

2009 (11-2)

Ugly Win: New Mexico, 24-19
On a head-to-head basis, this was the ugliest win by any good BYU team. I'm not sure it is even close. New Mexico was 0-9 at the time and finished 1-11. A five-point win in that scenario alone paints a pretty ugly picture.

"Oh, but New Mexico scored a fourth-quarter touchdown, it was 24-13 before that." Oh no, no, no, no. No. Here's what happened (in increasingly-alarming order):

-New Mexico was coached by Mike Locksley.
-BYU lost the turnover battle 2-0.
-New Mexico was 10-20 on third downs, 3-4 on fourth downs.
-New Mexico outgained BYU by five total yards.
-Kicker James Aho missed a PAT by hitting the upright.
-Aho missed three field goals (35, 42, 46). The shorter two also both hit the upright, and the longest was blocked by Andrew Rich before halftime.
-After New Mexico cut the deficit to five, Brian Kariya fumbled with 3:13 left and a BYU personal foul on the play gave the Lobos a 52-yard field to win it.

Yes, friends, New Mexico's special teams alone spotted BYU seven points (10 if you want to count the blocked FG) and the Lobos had the ball to win it with three minutes left. That is ugly.

And here's why this ugly win thing doesn't matter: You've all erased this game from your memories because BYU finished ranked #12 after annihilating #16 Oregon State in the Las Vegas Bowl. If you pull up a list of BYU's seasons, this one just shows 11-2 and a #12 ranking, and you all think "Oh yeah! The year we beat Oklahoma and wiped out Oregon State in the bowl! That was a good year." That's all anyone else remembers, too.

So thanks for winning, BYU. Here's to another win against Virginia.