Revisiting BYU Football’s lone matchup against Alabama

A number of reports over the last few weeks indicated that BYU Football was moving closer toward opening its 2020 campaign against the mighty Alabama Crimson Tide.

AL.com reporter Matt Zenitz first reported on July 18 there was a “strong possibility” the matchup could take place during Week 1 of the season. Both the Cougars and the Tide lost their original Week 1 opponents — Utah and USC — after the Pac-12 announced on July 10 it will hold a conference-only 2020 season. On July 27, the Deseret News revealed a source close to the Alabama program confirmed that if the Southeastern Conference decided to play either a full schedule or a conference-games-plus-one model then the BYU-Alabama game would happen.

However, on July 30 the SEC announced it would be holding a conference-only schedule, thus eliminating any chance of a BYU-Alabama matchup taking place this fall.

The matchup would have marked only the second time the two teams would have ever played each other, the first taking place during Week 1 of the 1998 season in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Although such a matchup won’t be happening this season, The Daily Universe is revisiting the lone time the Cougars did square up against the Crimson Tide, a contest that resulted in a narrow 38-31 BYU loss.

Cougar fans hold a sign reading “We Want Bama” during a BYU Football game against Virginia on Sept. 20, 2014. Although BYU and Alabama were reportedly discussing playing each other to open the 2020 season, the SEC’s announcement to play a conference-only schedule on July 30 eliminated any chance of the matchup taking place. (ESPN)

Flashback to 1998

BYU was coming off somewhat of a down year by the time the 1998 season rolled around. The Cougars finished fifth in the WAC’s Mountain Division in 1997 with an overall record of 6-5 and had failed to make a bowl game for only the second time in 20 years. BYU had struggled to replace offensive standouts Steve Sarkisian and Ronnie Jenkins, who in 1996 led the Cougars to a 14-1 record and a No. 5 national ranking.

The BYU defense proved to be one of the brightest spots of the team in 1997. Future NFL linebacker Rob Morris anchored a hard-hitting Cougar defense that gave BYU fans plenty of optimism heading into the 1998 campaign. Kevin Feterik, who had started at quarterback for most of the 1997 season, returned to lead the offense in 1998. Feterik was joined by future NFL offensive lineman John Tait and talented running backs Junior Mahe, Will Snowden, and Jenkins. Jenkins returned to the team in 1998 after having sat out the previous season.

Alabama also found itself trying to climb out of a rut at the start of the 1998 season. The Crimson Tide was coming off its first losing season since 1984 and only its second since 1957. The storied football program was looking to return to prominence after having won the most recent of its 12 national championships in 1992.

After receiving the opening kickoff of the game, Alabama wasted no time in getting its offense rolling. Quarterback J.D. Phillips led the Crimson Tide down to the Cougars’ five-yard line before future NFL running back Shaun Alexander punched the ball in to give Alabama an early 7-0 lead.

The BYU offense struggled to move the ball early on. Feterik was sacked on the Cougars’ first play from scrimmage and fullback Kalani Sitake fumbled on third down, forcing BYU to go three-and-out. The defensive stop gave the Crimson Tide offense favorable field position to start its second drive, which it promptly took advantage of. Three plays into the possession, Alexander broke loose for a 37-yard touchdown, putting Alabama up 14-0.

BYU finally started to show some life early in the second quarter by way of the Cougar defense. The Crimson Tide’s Alexander took a toss in the backfield on the first play of the quarter but had the ball punched free immediately by BYU linebacker Derik Stevenson. Defensive lineman Byron Frisch then scooped up the loose ball and ran it 39 yards untouched for BYU’s first score of the game.

Phillips and the Alabama offense responded on its ensuing possession by driving 59 yards in seven plays to the Cougars’ six-yard line. After Alexander converted the following third-down play, he plunged into the endzone for his third score of the contest, giving the Crimson Tide a 21-7 lead.

BYU offensive lineman John Tait, 75, and fullback Kalani Sitake, 34, take part in a play against Tulane during the Cougars’ final game of the 1998 season. (BYU Photo)

The BYU offense picked up 26 yards in two plays on its ensuing drive before a fumble by Snowden gave Alabama the ball back on the Cougars’ 44-yard line. The Crimson Tide capitalized on the turnover with a field goal to take a commanding 24-7 advantage.

The first quarter-and-a-half was certainly not the start BYU would have hoped for. The Cougar offense was sputtering and the defense was doing all it could to keep the game out of reach. However, the team was still far from giving up.

Comeback

After a muffed Alabama punt return gave BYU favorable field position with six minutes left in the half, the Cougar offense finally put together its first successful drive of the game. Feterik led BYU down to the Crimson Tide 10-yard line before Alabama forced a third-down-and-eight situation. Feterik then found tight end Tevita Ofahengaue wide open over the middle for the Cougar offense’s first score of the game, bringing BYU within 10 points, 24-14.

The Cougars carried their momentum through halftime as running backs Snowden and Mahe led BYU inside the Crimson Tide 10-yard line on the opening drive of the second half. On second-down-and-four from the six-yard line, Mahe turned the corner and dove into the endzone, bringing the score to 24-21 for Alabama. The Cougars appeared to have finally found their rhythm and seemed ready to take full control of the game.

The Crimson Tide marched down to the BYU 27-yard line on the following possession before the Cougar defense forced a fourth-down-and-one situation. Alabama decided to go for it and handed the ball off to Alexander. BYU’s defense held strong, however, smothering Alexander at the line of scrimmage and forcing the turnover on downs.

Feterik and the Cougars then promptly marched 63 yards to the Crimson Tide 10-yard line, employing a balanced offensive attack through the air and on the ground. On third-down-and-seven from the 10, however, fullback Donny Atuaia couldn’t quite pick up the first down, and BYU was forced to settle for a field goal. After being down 24-7, the Cougars had shown considerable resiliency in scoring 17 unanswered points to tie the game at 24 heading into the final quarter.

Both teams struggled to find their footing in the fourth quarter until, with seven minutes left, Alexander broke free yet again for a 28-yard touchdown. Feterik fumbled on the BYU 30-yard line on the following drive, and Alabama capitalized with yet another touchdown by Alexander, his fifth of the game. The score gave the Crimson Tide a 38-24 advantage with just over a minute left, putting the game all but out of reach for the Cougars.

Feterik did score on BYU’s following possession with a 13-yard scramble, but it was too little too late. The Cougars failed to recover the ensuing onside kick attempt, and Phillips took a knee to run out the clock and secure the 38-31 Alabama win.

Despite the end result, BYU had proven that it could hang with one of the biggest names in college football in one of the toughest venues to play in, something that gave the Cougars confidence throughout the remainder of the year. BYU went on to finish the season with a 9-5 record, with notable wins over Arizona State, Hawaii and Utah. The Crimson Tide finished the year with a 7-5 record.

A 2020 matchup

Although the two teams won’t be facing off against each other this season, such a matchup would likely have been highly entertaining for fans. Sitake, who took over the BYU program in 2016, knows as well as anyone how near-perfect a team has to play to have a chance at taking down Alabama, no matter the state of the Crimson Tide program.

BYU has 15 of its 2019 starters set to return this season, including tight end Matt Bushman and defensive lineman Khyiris Tonga, who both decided to return for their senior years after considering going pro. College football sportswriter Phil Steele recently told KSL Sports that this season’s BYU squad is “clearly the best team (Sitake’s) put on the field.”

Alabama lost 11 of its 22 starters from last season, four of whom were selected in the first round of this year’s NFL Draft. However, the Crimson Tide is still projected to be a top-five team in college football this season by a number of national media outlets.

Although BYU would likely have entered a matchup with Alabama this fall as a significant underdog, it would have had a chance to put together a memorable performance and maybe, just maybe, come out on top. Unfortunately, because of the ongoing pandemic, the Cougars won’t get the chance to avenge their 1998 loss this fall.

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