By Brian Hilderbrand for www.armedforcesbowl.com
It wasn’t quite the offensive shootout that many observers had predicted, but it was two big offensive plays by BYU that carried the Cougars to a thrilling 24-21 victory over Tulsa in the ninth annual Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl on Friday at Gerald J. Ford Stadium.
The play of BYU quarterback Riley Nelson – who threw scoring passes of 17 yards with 12 seconds remaining in the first half and 2 yards with 11 seconds left in the game – overshadowed an outstanding defensive effort by the Golden Hurricane. Tulsa (8-5) held the potent BYU offense to only 10 points and 142 yards in the first half as the Golden Hurricane took a 14-10 lead at the intermission. Tulsa led 21-17 when BYU got the ball back with 4:18 left in the game and Nelson took over.
Tulsa defensive back Dexter McCoil had two interceptions and 10 tackles and linebacker Curnelius Arnick had 17 tackles (8 solo), a sack and two tackles for losses.
BYU’s defense received much of the attention leading into the game while Tulsa’s defense largely was overlook by many in the media – a fact that was not lost on McCoil.
“(That) gave us a lot of motivation because everybody really doesn’t worry about Tulsa’s defense; it’s like, ‘Tulsa’s offense is good and BYU’s defense is good’, so we had something to prove,” McCoil said. “We came out and we tried to play our best. In the end, it didn’t come out the way we wanted it to but we fought hard. I’m proud to say that I played on the defense today with those guys that we had.”
Tulsa head coach Bill Blankenship praised his team’s defensive effort.
“I thought defensively we played really well the whole game,” he said. “I’m not frustrated at all with our defense. I’d love to have those last two (plays) right before the half and the end of the game, but I thought we played very, very well defensively.”
On the BYU’s decisive drive, the Cougars took over at the Tulsa 48 with 4:18 remaining and drove 48 yards in 12 plays, eating all but 11 seconds off the clock.
“We had an opportunity a couple of times to stop them,” Blankenship said. “I know Riley Nelson made a heck of a run on either third or fourth down when we had him wrapped down, he broke a tackle, got down. It was kind of frenetic at the end, the tempo. They had run out of timeouts, so we didn’t want to stop the clock to try to give everybody a chance to regroup. I just think they executed really well in a tough situation at the end. Really good teams do that; there’s a reason they’d won nine games to this point.
“You never like to give up the big plays at the end. We were close in being able to get them off the field but, again, I think it goes back to one team made those game-winning plays at the end and you have to give (BYU) credit for that.”
Despite the loss, Blankenship said he couldn’t be prouder of the way his team responded to a difficult situation with a new coach coming in and several key players leaving the program.
“This has been an incredible run,” he said. “These guys endured a lot of adversity. If you’re going into your senior year (and) you have a coaching change, that’s really hard in the best of circumstances. Add to that we lose some of our players, have a tough schedule … you can go through the list; the adversity is real.
“Yet the thing I told them is how proud I am. They never, never flinched; these guys never, never looked for a way out, they just kept finding a way to fight back, and we did it all year.”
Brian Hilderbrand is covering the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl for www.armedforcesbowl.com for the third consecutive year. Hilderbrand is a media consultant and freelance writer in Las Vegas after spending more than 30 years as a sports writer covering high school, collegiate and professional sports in Southern California and Nevada.