Sometimes the strengths of a football team change to bring about the same winning results. In 1998, the Cougar offense, a long-time member of the nation's leaders in total yards and scoring, took a backseat to a stifling defense.
Led by WAC Defensive Player of the Year Rob Morris and a host of all-star performers, including Brian Gray, Byron Frisch, Ed Kehl, Brad Martin, Jason Walker and Daren Yancey, BYU changed its focus in 1998.
The results were a 9-3 regular-season record and a trip to both the WAC Championship game and the team's first-ever appearance in the Liberty Bowl.
The Cougars started the season by traveling to Alabama to take on the Crimson Tide in front of 83,818 fans - the largest crowed ever assembled to watch an Alabama football game.
Key turnovers led to three of Alabama running back Shaun Alexander's five touchdowns and, eventually, a 38-31 loss.
The next week, BYU opened its home season against No. 14 Arizona State. Cougar running back Ronney Jenkins' career-high rushing performance of 171 yards was nearly overshadowed by BYU's dominating defense.
The Cougars, led by Morris with 13 tackles, held the Sun Devils scoreless through three quarters. Even after ASU eventually scored in the fourth quarter, the extra point was blocked, sealing the 26-6 victory and improving the Cougars' record to 1-1.
Game three saw BYU travel to Husky Stadium to face No. 9 Washington - the Cougars' second top-15 opponent in as many weeks.
Unfortunately, the Cougars' offense couldn't get on track and two big plays by Toure Butler dropped BYU's record to 1-2. Butler returned a fumble 35 yards for a touchdown and the second-half kickoff 98 yards for his second score of the day.
Kevin Feterik (BYU Photo)
BYU quarterback Kevin Feterik rushed for a one-yard touchdown in the third quarter, but it was not enough as UW won 20-10.
BYU returned to its winning ways by beating up on Division I-AA Murray State in game four, 43-9. The Racers were unable to do anything offensively as the Cougars' defense allowed just 35 yards rushing, forcing Murray State to punt 12 times.
While the defense was dominating, the BYU offense was looking like the Cougar offense of old. Feterik and back-up quarterback Drew Miller combined for 313 yards passing. Wide receiver Margin Hooks was the beneficiary of five receptions for 179 yards, including an 80-yard touchdown reception from Feterik and a 70-yard reception from Miller.
At .500 on the season, BYU traveled to Fresno State for game five. Like the two previous road games of the early season, the Cougars found themselves on the losing end of a 31-21 FSU victory.
Despite a strong defensive effort, including a goal-line stance at the BYU five-yard line, the offense again suffered from the inability to hang on to the ball, giving up four fumbles, including one for a touchdown. The loss, despite an impressive performance from Jenkins, (126 yards rushing and one touchdown) dropped the Cougars to 2-3 on the season.
After losing three of the team's first five games, the Cougars went on to win their next seven straight games, including a 38-14 demolition of WAC foe UNLV in game six.
Defense was again the name of the game, allowing the Rebels just 98 yards total offense. The BYU offense got back on track with Jenkins and Junior Mahe combining for three of the Cougars' five touchdowns. Feterik had 319 yards passing and two touchdowns.
At 3-3, the Cougars hoped their road woes would end with a trip to Hawai'i. Once again the BYU defense posted a solid performance, allowing only one field goal in the first three quarters of play.
Receiver Mike Rigell gave the Cougars the momentum heading into halftime with a 13-yard touchdown reception with 14 seconds left in the first half. Rigell opened the second half with a 96-yard kickoff return, giving BYU a 24-3 lead early in the third quarter. The Rainbows' only touchdown of the game came with less than five minutes remaining in the game as BYU cruised to a 31-9 final, improving its record to 4-3 and claiming its first road win of the season.
Defense was not the name of the game as the Cougars battled San Jose State to a 46-43 victory in week eight. The two teams combined for 89 points and 947 yards of total offense. Jenkins set a school record by scoring five touchdowns and had the second most yards rushing in a game with his career-high 250 yard performance.
With the win, head coach LaVell Edwards recorded his 239th career victory, pushing him past Woody Hayes as the seventh winningest coach in Division I history.
Brian Gray (BYU Photo)
In less than ideal weather conditions, BYU faced San Diego State in a showdown of the top two teams in the WAC's Pacific Division. It was a defensive struggle in which the only touchdown scored by either team was a BYU 39-yard interception return from Gray. Morris again led the Cougars on defense, recording 19 tackles, including thee sacks for a loss. The Cougars held SDSU scoreless for the first time since the 1985 season, winning 13-0.
Looking to end its home season with a perfect record, the Cougars faced New Mexico in game 10. Using an explosive passing attack, Feterik finished the game with 422 yards and four touchdowns. Morris was named the WAC Defensive Player of the Week after recording 12 tackles and his first interception of the season, which he returned 51 yards for a touchdown. BYU improved to 7-3 on the season with the 46-21 win.
Against UTEP, the Cougars used timely defense and a 79-yard touchdown run from Jenkins to break a fourth quarter, 14-14, tie. Early in the fourth quarter, the BYU defense stopped the Miners on a fourth and inches at the BYU 21 yard line. The next play, Jenkins busted loose and scored the go-ahead touchdown. Mahe scored the game's final touchdown, followed by an Owen Pochman 35-yard field goal to give BYU the 31-14 win and a 8-3 season record.
With nine seconds remaining in the game, Utah kicker Ryan Kaneshiro watched as his 32-yard field goal attempt clanked off the upright to give BYU a 26-24 victory and a trip to the WAC Championship game against Air Force. The ill-fated kick came after a Daniel Jones 95-yard kickoff return, pulling the Utes to within two points with less than three minutes to go.
With the regular season behind them and a WAC Championship just four minutes away, the Cougars led Air Force 13-7 late in the fourth quarter. What looked to be the Cougars' 10th victory of the season, slipped away in the final moments as the Falcons reeled off two straight touchdowns to win the WAC title game, 20-13.
New Year's Eve and the Liberty Bowl took BYU to Memphis, Tenn., where it faced No. 10 and undefeated Tulane.
BYU struck first with a 11-yard pass from Feterik to Ben Horton in the first quarter. The Green Wave promptly scored 28 unanswered points over the next three quarters. Down 28-6 entering the fourth quarter, the Cougars scored three touchdowns in the final quarter. However, it was not enough as Tulane held on to the 41-27 victory.