Missionaries enjoy a lot of spiritual gifts. Foretelling the future of football encounters is not one of them. However, as young Latter-day Saint elders serving in the University Ward on the Texas campus during the summer of 1987, my companion and I couldn’t resist.
Cougars on the air
BYU (2-2, 5-2)
at No. 8 Texas (3-1, 6-1)
Saturday, 1:30 p.m. MDT
DKR-Texas Memorial Stadium
Radio: 102.7 FM/1160 AM
As each passing week brought BYU and Texas closer to their first meeting on Sept. 12, 1987, the rhetoric quickened. The back page of the ward mission newsletter turned into a platform for subliminally placed Provo propaganda.
The Longhorn faithful scoffed at our efforts and dismissed any notion of a looming defeat, but we innocently persisted, and the eventual payoff was as surprising as it was spectacular.
The Cougars touched down in Austin on Friday afternoon. With permission from the mission president, my companion and I stayed at the team hotel with my dad and the official BYU travel party. Breakfast on game day was at the same table as legendary head coach LaVell Edwards and accommodations at the football stadium that night included the president’s box with endless amounts of Blue Bell ice cream.
We ate it up, privately hoping we wouldn’t have to also eat our words at the end of the night.
A crowd of 65,102 braved the heat and humidity that traditionally bakes Texas deep into September. The home team struck first but BYU countered with touchdown passes from Bob Jensen to David Miles and Chuck Cutler to give the Cougars a 14-10 halftime lead.
Motivated by an army of BYU fans, the visitors added two field goals and a safety in the second half to stun the Longhorns 22-17.
It wasn’t pretty, but it worked. The Cougars rushed 41 times for 44 yards — a meager 1.1-yard average. The passing game could only generate 199 yards. As a result, BYU struggled — the only way to offset what the favored Longhorns had to offer was by forcing eight turnovers.
The Cougars return to Austin on Saturday (1:30 p.m. MDT, ABC). They are a team that ranks No. 128 in rushing, No. 124 in third-down conversions and No. 73 in scoring. So, how are they 5-2 and just one game behind No. 7 Texas in the Big 12 standings? Turnovers.
With limited running and passing, a dismal effort on third downs (4 of 14) and only a field goal after halftime, the Cougars had to rely on five turnovers to defeat Texas Tech last Saturday 27-14. If that is how it must be for the time being, the defense says, so be it.
BYU is No. 3 in turnover margin (1.29), No. 4 in turnovers gained (16) and No. 5 with 11 interceptions. Just like the ’87 Cougars, this group has found ways to win.
We’ve all heard the saying, what goes around, comes around. For BYU, this would be the perfect time for the offense to come around. However, despite the inefficiencies and inconsistencies, the Cougars are not only one win away from bowl eligibility in October, but another win at Texas will steal the Saturday headlines and likely catapult BYU into the top 25.
Yes, the challenge is huge. The opportunity is even larger. Texas may be without their veteran quarterback, but the freshman starter will have a supporting cast that boasts as many recruiting stars as there are in the heavens — or so it may seem.
No matter. Turnovers can trump a titan.
When David reached down to select the stones to use against Goliath, it wasn’t his first rodeo. He knew just what to look for because he had been schooled in using a slingshot. Likewise, BYU rolls into Austin to face their own Goliath and they already know what can take the giant down — turnovers.
The ’87 Longhorns turned the ball over eight times and lost by six points. In the most recent game in 2014, which was highlighted by a leaping Taysom Hill, the BYU defense forced four turnovers in a much more dominating 41-7 victory.
A perfect game on Saturday would be ideal, but right now, the Cougars’ best chance of an upset is to once again trick Texas into playing imperfectly.
The names of Bob Jensen, Chuck Cutler, David Miles, Rodney Rice and Thor Salanoa began this BYU-Texas relationship with a surprising victory in Austin 36 years ago. This weekend, it will be guys like Kedon Slovis, Chase Roberts, Isaac Rex, Tyler Batty and Eddie Heckard, Cougars who weren’t even born in 1987, who will play for another upset in the final meeting before Texas leaves the Big 12 for the SEC.
Speaking of leaving, that glorious night in 1987 was capped with a hug from my father at the top of the Austin Marriott parking garage. With a Texas-sized lump in my throat, I watched him waving goodbye in the rearview mirror as he headed for home while my companion and I headed for Laredo — with nine more months still to serve.
I learned two valuable lessons that evening. First, while it seemed like a good idea at the time, there is a reason why parents and missionaries are discouraged from reuniting in the mission field and second, no matter how large the point spread may be, turnovers can lift an underdog past any favorite.
Dave McCann is a contributor to the Deseret News and is the studio host for “BYU Sports Nation Game Day,” “The Post Game Show,” “After Further Review,” and play-by-play announcer for BYUtv. He is also co-host of “Y’s Guys” at ysguys.com.