When Riley Nelson's pass fell into the arms of Marcus Mathews for BYU's game-winning score against Utah State last Friday, this year's BYU football team accomplished a feat no other Cougar team has done since 1978.
The win was the second on the season for BYU after trailing by 10 points or more in the fourth quarter. Down 24-13, the Cougars claimed the 27-24 win four weeks after turning a 13-0 fourth quarter deficit to Ole Miss into a 14-13 victory. Not since BYU stunned New Mexico and Oregon 33 years ago has a team had two such comebacks in the same year.
In 1978 against the Lobos, a Marc Wilson-led team rallied after falling behind 16-6 and 23-20 in the final frame, pulling out a 27-23 win in Albuquerque. Cougar running back Scott Phillips capped off an 89-yard drive with a 4-yard touchdown run with 4:39 left in the game and the BYU defense forced a turnover on downs on the ensuing UNM possession for the final margin.
Similarities with BYU's win over Utah State abound in the 1978 squad's second comeback two weeks later, this time at Oregon. Like Utah State, Oregon had also seemed snakebit that season, with the loss to BYU its fourth in a row after leading in the fourth quarter. Also, BYU's comeback over the Ducks was orchestrated by the Cougars' backup quarterback at the time - Jim McMahon. McMahon, a sophomore, came on in the third quarter for Wilson with BYU down 16-3. Losing by the same score going into the fourth, McMahon threw a 21-yard touchdown pass to Tod Thompson. After the defense forced a punt, BYU went 63 yards for the score on a 1-yard run by Doug Williams, earning the win after the Ducks' field goal attempt on the final play of the game fell short.
Other players of note on that 1978 team include future All-American Clay Brown; current head coach Bronco Mendenhall's brother, Mat; current linebacker Jameson Frazier's father, Danny and current Philadelphia Eagles head coach Andy Reid. The freshman roster included Tom Holmoe and Kyle Whittingham.
Before this season, BYU has come back from a deficit of 10 or more points in the fourth quarter just 11 times since 1977. Prior to the Ole Miss game, the last time BYU accomplished the feat was in 2006 against Utah. Down 24-14, the Cougars defeated the Utes 33-31 after John Beck's last-second throw to Jonny Harline. Other classic games among the 11 comebacks include 2001 vs. Utah, 1996 vs. Kansas State in the Cotton Bowl and 1980 vs. SMU in the Holiday Bowl (BYU's largest-ever fourth quarter comeback after trailing by 20 points).
In all, BYU has won 43 games after trailing in the fourth quarter since 1977. Seven have come under current head coach Bronco Mendenhall's tenure, including four 10+-point comebacks (New Mexico in 2005, Utah in 2006, Utah in 2007, Colorado State in 2008, Oklahoma in 2009, Ole Miss in 2011, Utah State in 2011).
Interestingly, one of two times BYU has had a program-record four fourth-quarter comebacks in a season came in the national championship year of 1984 when BYU had four, including the season opener against Pittsburgh and the season finale against Michigan in the Holiday Bowl. The other came in BYU's 12-2 season in 2001 when current offensive coordinator Brandon Doman was the Cougar quarterback.
Utah State has suffered the most fourth quarter defeats to the Cougars over the years - five in total (1981, 1983, 1997, 2002, 2011). BYU has also come back on Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming four times apiece with all four comebacks over Utah coming since 2001.
BYU's win over UCF was tied going into the fourth while the Cougars' loss at Texas was the opposite - a loss after taking a 16-10 lead into the final quarter. Will the Cougars keep going down to the wire?