Just when the Cougars thought their day couldn’t get any longer, it did.
BYU let a late lead slip away, falling to the Virginia Cavaliers 19–16 in Saturday’s bizarre football season opener that included three second half lead changes and a two hour, nine minute weather delay.
BYU led by four with less than three minutes to play after the Cougars had surged to a lead with two scores in the fourth quarter. But sophomore quarterback Taysom Hill threw an interception on a third down pass to sophomore running back Jamaal Williams, that Virginia returned to the BYU 13 yard line, setting up the Cavaliers game-winning touchdown one play later. BYU received the ball twice more but the offense was unable to advance to field goal range.
Coach Bronco Mendenhall called the defeat a “very difficult loss for our team under really unique circumstances.”
“All the way to the end the game was back and forth,” Mendenhall said. “I liked the effort and determination and commitment. I thought our team played hard. A lot of mistakes — especially penalties were frustrating — and we certainly need to clean up execution wise. We had a great chance to win the football game all the way from the beginning to the end.”
Players on both sides were dealt an unexpected obstacle when a heavy storm delayed the game for more than two hours between the first and second quarters. Heavy lightning and rain besieged Scott Stadium, prompting Atlantic Coast Conference officials to postpone the rest of the game as a precaution. The ACC’s policy is to delay football contests when lightning strikes within six miles of the stadium.
“The stop of the game was a unique challenge for our team and I’m sure for Virginia,” Mendenhall said. “It’s hard to describe. All kinds of thoughts go through your head of whether you’re going to play the game, what is the best approach to have for our players during this two-hour delay? After all the emotions of traveling, you get to the game, stop, and then go through pregame again. That was a unique challenge.”
The Cougars grabbed the momentum after the delay, scoring the first touchdown of the game on Hill’s four-yard touchdown pass to senior wide receiver JD Falslev with five minutes remaining in the second quarter.
The Cavaliers appeared to turn the tide, however, when Virginia kicker Ian Frye booted a 53-yard field goal as the half expired. Virginia carried that momentum into the first drive of the third quarter, forcing BYU into a three and out and blocking the Cougars’ following punt. Three plays later, Virginia wide receiver Darius Jennings pulled in an 11-yard touchdown pass from quarterback David Watford, putting the Cougars behind for the first time in the game.
Virginia added to its lead with a safety when Hill fell on his own fumble in the Cougar end zone as both defenses dominated play for the rest of the third quarter.
“I thought (Virginia’s) defensive line did a really nice job against us and it wasn’t until a huge volume of plays built up where cracks started to develop and we started getting yards,” Mendenhall said. “We have some work to do in terms of our front play and being physical.”
Hill led BYU’s offense on a 92-yard touchdown drive midway through the fourth quarter as the Cougars regained the lead. BYU tacked on an additional field goal after a Virginia fumble, but the Cougars couldn’t hold their lead after turning the ball over on Hill’s pass, which deflected off of Williams’ hands before it was picked off.
“(It was) third and six. We talked about it on the sideline, ‘Let’s go get the first down, and if it’s not there obviously don’t force anything in.’ They played zone behind it, Jamal Williams ripped the flat, I liked it, threw it a little high and Virginia made a good play,” Hill said. “I was shocked a little bit. I was feeling really confident. We got the ball with four minutes left in the game and were up. Then we had a mishap and Virginia went and scored, but that was something you can’t dwell on.”
Expectations were high for BYU’s offense under new coordinator Robert Anae, but the Cougars mustered only 175 yards through the air without injured star wide receiver Cody Hoffman. Hill completed only 13 of his 40 passes, and the Cougars averaged just 3.9 yards per play. Williams finished the game with 44 yards on 33 carries, and Falslev led the team’s receiving efforts with three catches for 32 yards and a touchdown.
The Cougar defense held Virginia to 223 yards, but gave up two short touchdown drives that started within BYU’s own 20 yard line. The second longest play the BYU defense surrendered was running back Kevin Parks’ 13-yard winning score in the fourth quarter.
“There were some mistakes, some plays we need to go back and look at and clean up, which we will,” senior linebacker Spencer Hadley said. “But overall I felt pretty confident about our ability as a defense and how we played. ”
Mendenhall said he would try to balance the lessons from the Virginia contest with preparation for Saturday’s game against the Texas Longhorns, who are ranked 15th nationally in both the AP and USA Today Coaches’ polls.
“The players are competitive. We all are and there’s a ton of work that goes into every game. Certainly no one is more disappointed than I am and the team is hurt right now,” Mendenhall said. “It’s a great chance to discover who we are going to be and how we are going to be going forward. It will take a day or two; this one wasn’t an easy one. We have another significant test coming up so there is a sense of urgency, but there also has to be time to recover.”