Every Thursday here at Lawless Republic, we will be giving you a piece of BYU nostalgia to reminisce about in our #ThrowbackThursday feature. This week we go back to the 1996 season-opener against Texas A&M in the Pigskin Classic.
Capping off the 1991 season, I watched about half of BYU’s 13-13 Holiday Bowl tie against Iowa while laying on my dad’s bed. 1992 was the first game that I remember attending in Cougar Stadium when Notre Dame came to town. I sat with my friend David while our parents were in another part of the stadium (hey, packed house for the Irish, tickets were hard to come by!) In 1994, I huddled around the small TV in our basement watching BYU upset Notre Dame in South Bend as my dad and Uncle Russ unpacked boxes in our new house. As fun as any of those games were, it was the Pigskin Classic in 1996 when this young boy fell in love with BYU football.
The Cougars would set a record in ’96 for the longest season in NCAA history, playing in a record 15 games. Kicking off that season was the nationally televised Pigskin Classic against #12 Texas A&M, and the legendary Brent Musberger was on the call! As my football allegiance was still in its infancy I didn’t quite know all of the football powerhouses yet. But I did know that football from the state of Texas was a big deal. My father (and staple football viewing mate) was out of town that weekend, so I watched the game with my 78-year old grandpa, Jack. Jack LOVED anything to do with sports. Whether it was watching them, playing them, studying trivia about them, or even playing Nintendo games, Jack was all in. Naturally, he was thrilled to have a new football mate to watch this game with.
What intrigued me most and has stuck with me 18 years later about the game was the incredible play of senior quarterback Steve Sarkisian. My dad hadn’t been the biggest fan of Sark the year before, so what I saw him do against A&M was truly impressive. Sark finished the game 33-44 for 536 yards and 6 TDs (I believe that my obsession with stats began on that day). As big as the stats themselves were, it was the enormity and clutch-ness of the plays that impressed me the most.
The 1996 receiving corps was led by Kaipo McGuire and K.O. Kealaluhi on the outside, with the tag team tight end duo of future NFL stars Chad Lewis and Itula Mili in the middle. Kaipo and K.O both registered nearly 150 yards receiving on that day and to me, those two (perhaps) undersized receivers were just studs! They had an extra helping of stick-um on their hands those days and caught anything Sark threw near them.
Ben Cahoon and James Dye also had big, clutch plays for the Cougars that afternoon. The 1996 team had legendary skill talent everywhere you looked.
At halftime, the score was tied up at 20. After going back and forth in the second half, A&M nailed a long 50+ yard field goal with about 2:00 to go to break a 34-34 tie. I remember how anxious Grandpa Jack got at that moment. Sandwich bread was flying around the room and I’m sure that Jack thought [Brent] Musberger would be able to hear him through the TV if he just yelled loud enough. I can’t imagine what might have happened if Grandma would have come in the room to ask him a non-football related question…fortunately she didn’t! But he looked at me calmly and said, “Danny my boy, the Cougars are going to win this game!” He slid down and positioned himself sitting on the edge of the bed. This was going to be good!
Sark took the field ready and there was a fire in his eyes. After a few quick passes he had moved the ball up to the BYU 35. With just over a minute left, he called K.O’s number and laid an absolutely perfect fade pass just over the fingertips of two A&M defenders. I must have watched that play 100 times by now and I’m still blown away that K.O burned his guy. The corner had tight bump coverage on him, but with K.O’s speed, and the safety being a little late in helping over the top, he was just able to slip behind them. What a perfect pass by Sark! Sark knew exactly where K.O. was going when he left the huddle and boy, he threw that ball as perfectly as it could have been thrown. K.O. caught the ball just inside the 20 and sprinted into the end zone, sliding onto his back after he crossed the goal line. An image that will stay with me for the rest of my life is Grandpa Jack perched on the front of the bed and throwing his entire body back onto the bed with his legs straight up in the air. He let out a scream of joy and I joined him in a mixture of equal parts laughter and screaming.
BYU would finish that season 14-1 and capped off their season with a victory over Kansas St. in their first (and only) New Year’s Day game, 19-15 in the Cotton Bowl. The 14-1 record earned BYU the #5 ranking in the final AP poll of the year. I watched every single one of those 15 games that year and have hardly missed a game since. Through the many ups and many downs of BYU football, I’ll always be able to pin the day I fell in love to that fall Pigskin Classic as I watched Grandpa Jack almost somersault himself off the bed.