Cougars’ Vegas trip miserable experience

An IRS audit. A blown radiator hose in the midst of rush-hour traffic. Chickenpox.

There aren’t many experiences in everyday life more miserable than what the Brigham Young Cougars suffered through Saturday night in their fourth straight Las Vegas Bowl appearance at Sam Boyd Stadium.

You know your game plan is amiss, your execution needs more than a few simple half-turns of a coaching wrench, when your best hope of staying in telescope sight of your opponent — much less beating it — is to count on its mistakes outnumbering yours.

That was the 17th-ranked Cougars’ only obvious hope against unranked and underrated Arizona on a night perfectly chilled and served for college football. And for a good while, the postseason-starved Wildcats complied, matching sloppy offensive play for sloppy offensive play.

In sports, ineptitude can be a great equalizer for being overmatched in talent.

But when that talent finally breaks through, as it did with the Wildcats midway through the third quarter of what ended up a 31-21 victory, being on the short end is like being on the long end of a colonoscopy. In a phrase, no fun.

“They made all the critical plays when critical plays had to be made, and it all came down to execution,” BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “I will never shift responsibility to anyone but myself. Our team played as it was coached, and I’ve got to do a much better job.”

BYU entered the game ranked 19th in the nation in scoring average at 35.3 points, but the Wildcats’ defense — Arizona’s Atlas-like strength throughout the season — ground it out to win out, turning quarterback Max Hall, wide receiver Austin Collie, running back Harvey Unga and Co. into mere mortals.

Knocked off their pedestals offensively, the Cougars then simply caved defensively, allowing Arizona to score three touchdowns in four possessions to go up 31-14 with about six minutes to play and end BYU’s run of back-to-back Las Vegas Bowl championships.

“It’s disheartening. It’s disappointing. They threw some things at us that we weren’t ready for. I didn’t think that could happen,” defensive back David Tafuna said outside a somber BYU locker room. “They had a great game plan, but to give up 31 points is really disappointing.”

Or as the immensely talented Collie conceded, “We have hit a wall as a team. We are good, not great. We have a lot of work to do to become a great team.”

There was some surmising by the media leading up to the game that the Cougars didn’t want to be back in Las Vegas for a fourth straight year, that they had fallen way short of their goal of winning the Mountain West Conference regular-season title by finishing third behind Utah and Texas Christian and, by extension, probably would just go through the motions in, for them, another ho-hum Las Vegas Bowl appearance.

On the other hand, BYU’s opponent was a team that had not been to a bowl game in 10 years and whose coach, Mike Stoops, became emotional discussing his program’s bowl berth just a day earlier.

But don’t buy into that speculation. First, it would be unfair to the Cougars, who once they hit the field had the singular focus of all athletes. Second, it would be grossly underselling the efforts of the Wildcats, who eventually rose to the occasion.

Still, if not for some early dropped passes and silly penalties that stalled drives and a third-quarter fumble that gave BYU great field position for a go-ahead touchdown, Arizona probably would have built an early lead and kept the Cougars an extended arm’s length away for the duration of the game.

“I didn’t think they could stop us all night. In the first half, we stopped ourselves a few times. But we were the faster team, and we felt really good about the matchup between our receivers and their secondary,” said Arizona receiver Mike Thomas, who set the Pacific-10 Conference career record for catches (259) with four against the Cougars.

That matchup only exemplified just how overmatched BYU was in talent, the telltale factor.

“Ten-and-3 is a solid season, but our program is at a point where we have much higher standards and expectations,” Mendenhall said. “I don’t think you’re going to talk to any of our players who feel good about going 10-3.”

Especially the way the “3” came about. A truly miserable experience.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports editor Joe Hawk can be reached at jhawk@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2912.

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