November pain: BYU fades late in loss to Oklahoma State, falls short of bowl eligibility

148-1.

Over the past half century leading up to Saturday, BYU had gone 148-1 in contests where the Cougars led by 17 or more points at halftime.

For a second such loss to occur would already be improbable enough on its own. To happen with bowl eligibility at stake in the last possible opportunity for BYU to save its season makes the whole thing feel too cruel to be true.

In this case, cruelty prevailed.

BYU’s frustrating inaugural Big 12 campaign came to a screeching halt Saturday at Oklahoma State, where the Cougars fumbled away their 18-point halftime advantage to fall 40-34 to the Cowboys in a double overtime heartbreaker. Given the narrative of the season, its ending in Stillwater was as fitting as it was tragic.

“We did everything we could,” head coach Kalani Sitake said. “It just came down to the end. Mistakes cost us. The guys fought hard. I appreciate how hard they fought. We just didn’t make enough plays, especially in the second half.”

BYU’s encouraging effort against Oklahoma last week carried over early against the Cowboys, with the Cougar defense holding an explosive Oklahoma State offense to 169 yards and six points in the first half. Eddie Heckard snagged a pick-six. BYU found ways to manufacture points. Sitake even dialed up a gutsy fake punt for Ryan Rehkow to connect with Tyler Batty for 36 yards. The Cougars couldn’t possibly lose, right?

The second half begged to differ.

BYU’s offense was nowhere to be found after halftime, averaging just 3.1 yards per play along with quarterback Jake Retzlaff struggling to the tune of 9-21 in passing. Reality was setting in a little too quickly. Conversely, national rushing leader Ollie Gordon finally began making noise for the Cowboys, exploding for five touchdowns against the Cougars to single-handedly slay Jay Hill’s defense.

Gordon’s third touchdown came with under a minute to play in regulation and should have sealed the win for Oklahoma State, only for a failed extra point attempt to keep BYU within three. Retzlaff pieced together a 10-play, 44-yard drive in 53 seconds to set up a possible game-tying field goal attempt, where Will Ferrin connected from 48 yards out to keep the Cougars alive and force overtime.

Retzlaff and Gordon traded touchdown runs in the first overtime period, with Gordon adding a fifth end zone trip upon the beginning of double OT. A gassed, battered BYU squad desperately needed something to stay afloat. Following a two yard gain from Aidan Robbins, Retzlaff flicked a short offering to tight end Isaac Rex. Rex — in likely his final game as a Cougar — fought the single coverage for extra yards, only to lose control of the ball and have it ripped out by the Cowboy defender for a fatal forced fumble.

Ballgame. Oklahoma State had survived, earning another chance to take the field for next week’s Big 12 title game. BYU had crumbled and lost all hope to extend its season with a bowl.

To call such a finish bitter would be an understatement. Rex’s postgame emotion summed it up best: tear-jerking agony.

“We were right there, we had the opportunity,” Heckard said. “It was just one of those games where we came out clicking, but we just didn’t make the big plays down the stretch to finish the game.”

Sitting at 4-1 at the early October bye, the Cougars slipped to a 1-6 finish to end their Big 12 debut at 5-7. The offense failed to eclipse 400 yards in a single game for the first time since John F. Kennedy’s presidency, Hill’s new-look defense was ravaged by injuries, Retzlaff and Kedon Slovis became pawns to a confusing quarterback controversy and all preseason expectations seemingly fell short. 2023 will go down as a strange, somewhat awkward year within BYU’s storied history, but the lack of any postseason play will now allow Sitake and company to begin mending the program’s wounds to pave the way forward for future success in Provo.

“The guys didn’t quit their fight,” Sitake said. “There were some big losses on the scoreboard to West Virginia and Iowa State, but the guys didn’t quit. … I can build off guys that work hard and want to be here and want to fight.”

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