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September 6, 2008

BYU keeps BCS bowl hopes alive

BYU 28, Washington 27: Box score | Recap | More photos

SEATTLE - BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall wondered if Washington would try to fake its potential game-tying extra-point attempt with two seconds remaining.

The try would have to be kicked from the 25-yard line because of an excessive celebration penalty after a Husky touchdown that pulled Washington to 28-27.

"I asked (assistant coach) Paul Tidwell if there was any chance they would have the nerve to fake it and he said, 'There is a chance,' " Mendenhall said. "So, I said, 'All rush.' The players nodded like they believed they could block it. They were smiling."

Good call. BYU defensive end Jan Jorgensen surged up the middle and blocked the PAT attempt by Washington kicker Ryan Perkins. There would be no overtime. The Cougars ran out the clock and secured victory. Even more vital: BYU kept alive its dream of going unbeaten and joining Utah, Boise State and Hawaii among the exclusive ranks of BCS-busters.

"I don't pay any attention to that stuff," Mendenhall said. "I don't. Was this a huge step for us? No. Was it the next step? Yes."

It was a big step. The victory was BYU's first non-conference road win over a BCS foe since a 41-38 triumph at Mississippi State on Dec. 1, 2001.

The debate whether excessive celebration should have been whistled on Washington quarterback Jake Locker, who tossed the ball in the air after plunging into the end zone from 3 yards out in the waning seconds, will rage on.

BYU 28, Washington 27
WHAT HAPPENED
BYU prevailed, 28-27, with a balanced offense that featured 137 yards rushing and 338 yards passing in a back-and-forth contest that featured four lead changes. The game was tied 21-21 in the fourth quarter when BYU quarterback Max Hall hit tight end Dennis Pitta with what proved to be a game-winning 15-yard scoring pass. Washington's bid to force overtime ended when BYU blocked the extra point after the Huskies scored a touchdown in the waning, drama-filled seconds.
OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE GAME
If there is a better tight end in America than BYU's Dennis Pitta, I'd like to see him. Time and again, Pitta made clutch catches, finishing with 10 receptions for 148 yards and a touchdown. His last catch of the game was a 15-yard touchdown grab that proved to be the game winner. Give this man the Mackey Award right now.
DEFENSIVE PLAYERS OF THE GAME
BYU end Jan Jorgensen made just two tackles. But he saved his best for last, pushing up the middle of the Washington line and blocking an extra-point attempt that would have tied the game and forced overtime.
TURNING POINT
Trailing 28-21 with less than four minutes to play, Washington marched down the field on a 17-play, 76-yard drive that culminated with Husky quarterback Jake Locker surging into the end zone on a 3-yard scoring plunge. However, Locker tossed the ball in the air and was assessed a penalty for excessive celebration. The 15-yard penalty moved the line of scrimmage for the extra-point try to the 18-yard line. BYU sent an all-out rush and blocked the 35-yard attempt to secure a 28-27 victory.
KEY INJURIES
Washington starting strong safety Darin Harris was motionless on the turf for an extended period after making a hard tackle. He was taken off the field on a stretcher and transported to an area hospital. He has a concussion and will be out indefinitely. BYU starting weakside linebacker Vic So'oto was lost for the game with a foot injury in the first half.
ETC.
This was BYU's first non-conference road win over a BCS foe since a 41-38 victory at Mississippi State on Dec. 1, 2001.This was the Cougars' first non-league road win of any kind since prevailing at Utah State, 35-34, in 2002. The Cougars' 12-game winning streak is the longest in the nation. In 38 games under Tyrone Willingham, the Huskies never have incurred over 100 yards in penalties in a game. Against BYU, Washington had just four penalties for 25 yards.

It was called - by a Pac-10 officiating crew, no less. The ill-timed and oh-so-costly penalty muted Locker's good deeds during a heroic march that featured him running, zigging, zagging and throwing darts on a 17-play, 76-yard drive that took 3:24. The celebration penalty pushed back the extra-point try from the 3-yard line to the 18.

"After scoring the touchdown, the player threw the ball into the air and we are required, by rule, to assess a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty," said referee Larry Farina in a statement. "It is a celebration rule that we are required to call. It was not a judgment call."

The victory extends No. 15 BYU's national-best winning streak to 12 games.

"I think a lot had been made of this game because it's on the road and early in the season," Mendenhall said. "(Today's) game just demonstrates how hard it is to win against a good team on the road. We have not arrived, but we are making progress and we're learning a lot more about this year's team."

The quest for perfection continues. That's what it is, really: a quest. Everyone knows it. Heck, the BYU student body is sporting blue T-shirts with the words "The Quest" emblazoned across the chest. Many were in attendance at the game, wearing the shirts for all to see. Everyone knows the Cougars' goal. And now, they are one big step closer.

Up next is a visit from UCLA, marking the third time in 13 months the schools will have met. BYU and UCLA played in the regular season last year, with the Bruins winning, 27-17, in L.A. The schools then squared off in the Las Vegas Bowl, which BYU won after it blocked a potential game-winning field-goal attempt to seal a 17-16 victory.

BYU has come a long way since the Gary Crowton era (2001-04), which ended with a 26-23 record. His regime was pockmarked by players running afoul of the school's code of conduct. Crowton wasn't helped by the fact his program was struggling on the field at the same time as rival Utah was enjoying tremendous success under Urban Meyer. In 2003, Meyer's first year in Salt Lake City, the Utes went 10-2 with a league title. Meyer followed with a 12-0 record and Fiesta Bowl trip after the 2004 season. Utah went on to beat Pittsburgh to become the first non-BCS school to break through to a BCS bowl.

Meanwhile in 2004, BYU was skidding along in Year Four under Crowton, going 5-6. The school had had enough, and Crowton left. His run as BYU coach began like a house afire, as the Cougars went 12-2 in 2001. But he followed with records of 5-7 in 2002 and 4-8 in 2003 before registering another clunker in 2004.

Enter Mendenhall, who is poised to put an exclamation point on this BYU reclamation project. He entered the year with a 28-10 record in his first three years in Provo. He has the Cougars off to a 2-0 start this fall (the Cougars opened the season with a 41-17 victory over I-AA Northern Iowa).

The game with UCLA next Saturday in Provo will be BYU's final this season against a BCS school, and the Cougars know they have to impress. A big win over what looks like a plucky Bruins team that pulled off a huge upset over Tennessee in its season-opener - followed by a dominating, unbeaten run through the Mountain West - will be BYU's ticket to a BCS bowl game.

BYU hasn't lost a league game since dropping a 41-34 overtime decision to Utah in the final regular-season game of 2005. Since then, the Cougars have ripped off 16 Mountain West victories in a row, going unbeaten in each of the last two years. But going unbeaten in the Mountain West will be a tall order in 2008. The Cougars have a trip to TCU on Oct. 16. But a season-ending showdown at Utah on Nov. 22 looms biggest. There's a chance - albeit slim - that both teams could be unbeaten when they meet.

On Saturday, the Cougars never could pull away from the Huskies. It was 7-7 after the first quarter, 14-14 at halftime and 21-21 after three quarters. BYU quarterback Max Hall was sharper than Locker, hitting 30 of 41 passes for 338 yards and three TDs. Locker was just 17 of 32 passing for 204 yards with a TD, but he compensated with a team-high 18 carries for 62 yards and two touchdowns. Unlike Hall, Locker was sacked four times; Hall wasn't bagged once.

BYU used burly 239-pound running back Harvey Unga to wear down the Washington defense. He rumbled 23 times for 136 yards. He was poised to break a 21-21 tie with a go-ahead TD run in the fourth quarter, but Unga fumbled into the end zone and Washington recovered. The Huskies had no running back to counter Unga. David Freeman led all Washington backs with 30 yards on six carries.

While Hall was stellar and Unga was a workhorse, tight end Dennis Pitta was BYU's star. He led all receivers with 10 catches for 148 yards. His last catch of the game was a 15-yard touchdown grab that put BYU up, 28-21.

"This is a good football team," Washington coach Tyrone Willingham said about his squad. The 0-2 Huskies welcome Oklahoma to Seattle next week as the pressure mounts on the embattled coach. Willingham probably needs to deliver a bowl bid to keep his job. "That running back they have is very difficult to tackle. He's a big man that runs well. He's nifty, he catches the football. Their tight end obviously posed some problems."

The entire BYU squad caused headaches for Washington, which is why the Cougars' quest for an unbeaten season is still alive. Tom Dienhart is the national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com.



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