By Jeremy Twitchell
BOISE – Matt Payne had done everything else that night: nail two long field goals to keep the Cougars in the game, shut down Boise State”s dangerous special teams and keep the Broncos as deep in their own territory as possible.
He even put an exclamation point on his performance with two cleat-removing hits on Bronco punt returner Chris Carr.
After all that, a game-winning, 38-yard field goal should be no problem, right?
Well, normally not, but on this night, Payne proved that he is, after all, still human, as his kick slipped just outside the left upright and allowed No. 21 Boise State (4-0) to escape with a 28-27 victory.
“I just didn”t kick up through my target line and it”s as simple a mistake as that,” Payne said. “I had my toe up and it should have been down. I talked myself through it before I went out there and it just didn”t happen.”
Despite the unexpected outcome, BYU coach Gary Crowton expressed faith in his kicker.
“I believe in Matt Payne and I played for that field goal at the end because I have so much confidence in him,” he said. “He”s come back and won a lot of games for us and I”m still proud of him for the game he played. He did a great job on special teams.”
The Cougar players, while shocked and upset at losing the game when it seemed to be a lock, shared their coach”s faith.
“I firmly believe Matt is the best kicker out there, and I”ll take him any day,” quarterback John Beck said.
Receiver Todd Watkins agreed.
“I have so much confidence in [Payne]. I mean, he”s a great player and he”ll make that 99 times out of 100,” he said. “It just didn”t go our way tonight.”
After apologizing to his teammates and fans, Payne said he appreciated the support of his teammates, but it did little to ease the pain.
“It”s nice to have them on my back, but at the same time, I”m not into moral victories,” he said. “I”ve just got to go out and get the next one.”
The game”s ending was a cruel twist for the Cougars (1-3), who played the game as if on a trip through the looking glass and seemed destined to get a much-needed win.
In the three previous games this season, BYU got off to a strong start in the first quarter and then played Houdini for the next three. On Friday, however, it looked the Cougars wouldn”t show up at all, as the Broncos assaulted them for 16 points before BYU even notched a first down.
But then Payne proved his name is more than a fortunate coincidence, leveling Carr with a monster hit that elicited an awed gasp from every fan in the stadium and shifted the momentum back to the Cougars.
Just two plays later, safety Aaron Francisco forced a fumble, cornerback Brandon Heaney recovered it, and four plays after that, running back Curtis Brown scored the first Cougar points of the night on a two-yard touchdown run.
In the second quarter, the Cougar defense clamped down, limiting the vaunted Bronco offense to just 45 yards and no points. On the game, the defense held the Broncos well below their per-game averages of 55 points and 544 yards, giving up 415 total yards.
BYU”s offense, meanwhile, showed it was capable of moving the ball with quick strikes and sustained drives that led to Payne field goals of 32 and 42 yards to cut the lead to 16-13 at halftime.
However, the offense also showed it still has its struggles, as at one point the team had a first and goal at the 1-yard line, but only managed to come away with three points.
“I don”t think that was the main factor,” Crowton said of the stalled drive. “We got points off that thing; we wanted to get as many points as we could because we knew that they were going to get points. It just went right down to the end.”
In the second half, the Broncos scored field goals on their first two possessions and began to pull away.
And that”s when BYU went old school … literally.
Facing third and nine at his own 21-yard line, Beck went over the top and hooked up with Watkins for a 79-yard strike. On the next possession, with Watkins drawing double coverage, Beck threw a 57-yard touchdown strike to receiver Austin Collie.
Suddenly, it was 1984: BYU was riding a golden-armed passer to victory in a shootout that was reminiscent of vintage Cougar football. The whole scene struck Cougar faithful like a Russian bible: foreign, yet somehow familiar.
By game”s end, Beck had thrown for 390 yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions. He had led his team to a feat no one could imagine: the Cougars outgained the Broncos through the air, 390 yards to 310.
“We showed that we can move the ball tonight,” Beck said.
But the Broncos proved that shutting down the No. 4 offense in the nation for an extended period is no easy task, as quarterback Jared Zabransky found T.J. Acree for a clutch 44-yard touchdown with 3:42 to go.
BYU defensive end Vince Feula sacked Zabransky on the ensuing two-point conversion, and after a controversial pass interference call on Boise State kept the Cougars” final drive alive, a BYU victory seemed inevitable.
But there”s no such thing as a sure thing in football, and now the Cougars are looking for the positives as they prepare to open Mountain West Conference play Saturday at Colorado State.
“I was happy with how our team played,” Crowton said. “There was a lot of energy and we prepared well. We knew that they were going to score some points and they did, and we knew that we could score some points and we did.”
On top of the offensive awakening, the Cougars showed improvement in two areas that have plagued them this season: penalties and turnovers. The Cougars established season lows of zero turnovers and 39 penalty yards.
While the loss came as a blow to the team, Crowton said his team built some momentum heading into league play.
“We”re making progress,” he said. “I see us making progress; I see the potential of this team; I believe in this team. We gained a little momentum, but we didn”t get the victory. I wanted the victory and we as a team wanted the victory.”