Column: A tale of two field stormings at BYU

There’s just something special about the second week of the season, apparently.

On Sept. 11 of last year, BYU stunned Utah for its first win over the Utes in more than a decade. Saturday night, 364 days later, the Cougars continued the early September excitement with a dramatic upset over No. 9 Baylor in double overtime.

The two games were plenty different from a pure football standpoint, but each produced the same result: a sea of royal blue spilling out onto the field.

BYU/Utah, 2021.
BYU/Baylor, 2022.

They may both be recent, but those games have already become trademark wins on BYU’s all-time resume. In 30 years, BYU students will talk about the Utah and Baylor games the same way their parents talk about Ty Detmer beating Miami in 1990.

Who would have thought five years ago — when BYU finished 4-9, failed to even cross midfield against LSU and lost at home against UMass — that this football program would quickly return to a place where it was earning historic victories worthy of field invasions, let alone twice in consecutive years?

I’ve already heard lots of students and fans comparing the postgame hysteria for Utah and Baylor and debating which of the two was superior. Having to choose between two memorable celebrations just a year apart from each other is a wonderful problem to have, but such a comparison seems impossible. Each win represents something entirely different for BYU.

When BYU beat Utah last year, it was like an exorcism. Clearly there were demons of rivalry futility cast away after having finally bested the Utes after nine straight losses, but it went even deeper than that.

For students, that win felt as if the angst of a worldwide pandemic, quarantine, distance learning, political and social unrest, mission reassignments and crowd-less athletic events all evaporated into the night. After being pushed apart for months, people were brought back together again in rallying around the Cougars. It was a rebirth in Provo.

It seems fitting that BYU men’s basketball slaying Gonzaga in February of 2020 came right at the buzzer before COVID-19 took over the world, while football finally took down the Utes once it appeared life was ready to feel “normal” again. Maybe rushing the field against Utah is what brought balance back to the world. I’d love to find some science to back that up.

The Utah win — coupled with BYU’s invitation to the Big 12 coming the day before — seemingly buried the occasionally haunting reality of independence for BYU football, where the Cougars had spent the past decade somewhat irrelevant and adrift from college football’s “in crowd.” With Power 5 status finally on the horizon, no one would be able to discount BYU anymore. BYU would have favorable standing within the future of college football. BYU would belong.

The beginning of that future came Saturday against Baylor.

Yes, I’m aware that in 2020 and 2021 BYU enjoyed an impressive 21-4 stretch with two ranked finishes, but beating a top-10 team in Baylor launched Kalani Sitake’s program into a whole different stratosphere.

Prior to Saturday, BYU had been viewed nationally as a possible sleeping giant or sneaky New Year’s Six candidate, but now no one can get enough of the Cougars. They no longer come by surprise. They’ve become the darling of experts and pundits galore. The hype is visible, tangible and merited.

Not only did the Cougars vanquish the reigning champions of their new conference, but they did it in front of 2.4 million television viewers— ESPN’s highest-rated late night game broadcast since 2016.

Rise and shout, the secret is out: BYU is a legitimate force among college football’s elite. Beating Baylor proved that.

In addition, playing Baylor came at the end of BYU’s weeks-long, harrowing controversy regarding racial harassment at a women’s volleyball game. BYU issued its final statement on the matter Friday— stating it had found no evidence in its lengthy investigation to support the claims of racist fan behavior — and then kicked off with the Bears on Saturday.

Since the allegations surfaced in late August, BYU and its community have been showered with opposition from every side. I won’t go too far into that subject, but I’ve spoken to and heard from plenty of students who felt sick over the whole situation, hurting dearly to see so many writers, television personalities and public figures declare BYU as all sorts of horrible, unfair and untrue things.

Not only did Saturday’s thriller help put the volleyball headlines in everyone’s rearview mirror, but suddenly BYU fans were being hailed for their hospitality and kindness toward the visiting Baylor crowd and receiving praise for the passion of the ROC section. When you add Jaren Hall’s postgame embrace with Jake Oldroyd to melt America’s heart, the whole game experience turned into a wholesome change for BYU’s perception and testament to how truly good the Cougar faithful can be. In some ways, it felt therapeutic.

Beating Utah showed that better days were ahead for BYU. Beating Baylor showed that those better days had truly arrived. For students, both wins were bigger than football, offering a sense of hope and healing. If you need an example of how important and powerful sports can be, look no further than these two glorious September nights in Provo.

Hopefully years from now, when today’s students tell their children about beating Utah and Baylor, there will be plenty of other victory stories since then to share as well. BYU’s future in 2022, the Big 12 and beyond is bright. The field at LaVell’s house will be stormed for years to come.

Jackson Payne is the lead columnist at Daily Universe Sports. Follow him on Twitter @jackson5payne.

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