Cougars Edge UCLA In Lucky Las Vegas

BYU freshman Eathyn Manumaleuna saved his uncle, offensive coordinator Robert Anae, months, even years, of coaching grief when he stretched his right hand to block the apparent game-winning 28-yard UCLA chip-shot by sure-footed Bruin kicker Kai Forbath on the match's final play – instead earning the Cougars an unlikely 17-16 win Saturday night in the Las Vegas Bowl.

You can safely bet a large stash in any Las Vegas casino that Anae will never make that same mistake the rest of his coaching career. The Cougars were leading 17-6 with 19 seconds to go in the first half and the simple, safe and sensible call from inside the Cougars' 10-yard line would have been for quarterback Max Hall take a knee and run out the clock.

Instead, Anae inexplicably called a running play for Harvey Unga, who fumbled on his own 8-yard line. UCLA recovered and scored an early Christmas gift touchdown with seconds remaining, jubilantly entering its locker room down 17-13 on a mid-game high.

To his credit, Anae manned up in a frank post-game interview with reporter Patrick Kinahan: "It backfired on us…in hindsight it was a bad call. It was my fault. And, uh, it was nothing to do with the players. That was just a bad call. Write it, it was a bad call and it was my fault."

Interestingly, Anae brought Manumaleuna – who is ironically also the nephew of former UCLA All-American linebacker Frank Manumaleuna – from Alaska to live with him to help improve his football skills and gain recruiting attention from major football programs during a stellar senior season at Timpview High School. BYU liked what they saw and offered a scholarship that Eathyn readily accepted. He was, however, unexpectedly pressed into an immediate starting defensive tackle role, as a true freshman, when Russell Tialavea suffered a season-ending knee injury before the 2007 season started.

Manumaleuna performed admirably all season as the team's youngest starter and now prepares to leave for a two-year LDS mission in January to Oklahoma City with a memory and feeling he says he will never forget for the rest of his life.

It's a memory and feeling most Cougar fans will also never forget against a big-name BCS opponent on a primetime national TV spotlight.

The Cougars were overwhelmingly favored to win, but even the most blue-tinted Cougar fans could not have possibly imagined before the game it would have the storybook, nail-biting end that it did.

The Las Vegas Bowl organizers also have got to be loving life right now with a primetime matchup that will score high in the TV ratings; a game that likely kept spectators nationally glued to their sets until the last play of the game. More importantly, BYU fans fill the Las Vegas Bowl seats better than any other football program in the country and the game organizers know it. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to know that executive director Tina Kunz-Murphy and her bowl committee love it when the Cougars continue to dominate and win the Mountain West Conference crown, giving them first dibs – unless the Cougars gain a more-coveted BCS bowl bid – at the boys from Provo.

The final outcome was one the 35,000 "home-field" BYU fans in attendance yearned for, hoped for, prayed for, but honestly did not really expect would happen as the game unfolded.

After all, UCLA's impressive freshman kicker Forbath was a perfect 3-3 on field goals of 22, 50 and 52 yards for the game as he lined up for the game-winning chip-shot that was not to be. In an instant, he went from being the consensus bowl game MVP hero to zero at the hand of another freshman with no vertical jump to speak of – by his own admission after the game.

Indeed, the Cougars were lucky to win.

One Cougar fan that travelled hundreds of miles to watch the game in person missed "the kick" when he walked out of the stadium thinking the game was lost and verbally kicked himself on the post-game KSL Radio call-in show. He was probably not alone.

Still others who didn't leave the stadium missed the blocked kick by covering their eyes, expecting the worse but hoping for a miracle. Well, they missed the miracle and will have to settle on TV replays to see what happened when they weren't looking. At least they can truthfully claim they were there in person when it happened, conveniently omitting the tiny fact he didn't see the game-clinching blocked kick.

Even TV watchers missed the game-changing moment on purpose. One fan on the message board admitted he stomped into an adjoining room in a fit of fury, logically expecting a UCLA upset win. It wasn't until he heard his family yelling and jumping for joy that he rushed back to learn the Cougars had indeed pulled off a stunning victory. He happily settled down to watch TV replays of the kick that curled.

Though the win earned BYU its second consecutive 11-2 season and back-to-back Las Vegas Bowl bragging rights against prominent Pac-10 foes, interim UCLA head coach DeWayne Walker deserves a lot of credit for preparing his team to play far better than most pundits expected – present company included.

Despite the fact they were playing without their regular head coach, a fourth-string quarterback, their second-string running back and without their top wide receiver, Walker bonded quickly in his interim role with his young band of brothers and gave the Cougars everything they could handle on both sides of the ball – and especially on defense.

He prepared his coaches and players with a well-executed defensive game plan that completely stalled BYU's potent running attack like no other team has done this season.

After the game, Max Hall called the Bruin defense the best he has faced all season and possibly the best he will face as a Cougar quarterback.

The Bruin defense outplayed the Cougars' young-but-vaunted offense arsenal in every way that mattered except the bottom line – 17-16. Ironically, the tables were reversed on their early-season encounter when the Bruins won 27-17, in a game BYU statistically dominated in all key categories but the final score.

Quite simply, it was a matter of respect. Walker held the utmost respect for BYU's coaching staff and 2007 season accomplishments – and he prepared his coaches and players to do the same and they played accordingly.

Last year, Mike Bellotti, head coach of Las Vegas Bowl foe Oregon, publicly dissed the Cougars before and after the game, comparing BYU to a mid-tier Pac-10 team, adding BYU couldn't compete in the upper tier of his BCS conference. The Cougars didn't say much before the game and walloped Bellotti's outmatched Oregon Ducks 38-8.

Walker, on the other hand, was a former BYU defensive coach, and told reporters the Cougars could definitely compete as an upper-tier Pac-10 team.

In a revealing interview with Kinahan, Walker said: "I know BYU. I‘ve had a chance to coach there, and everybody knows they can definitely hold their own in the Pac-10. They have good coaches; they have good players; they have smart players…I just think they do things right and anytime you do things right, it allows you a chance to win.

"I just think what Bronco's done, since he's been there, it's pretty obvious he's done things right…Bronco's done a great job with team building and really teaching these young men what it takes to win and I think that's crucial and if I got a [head coaching] job…I'd sure like to sit down with Bronco and really share some philosophies and hope he will share his blueprint because it's obvious that it works," Walker said.

Indeed, Mendenhall has his young charges fully confident and totally believing in their coaches and themselves; believing they can accomplish all their lofty goals if they prepare themselves and live appropriately in a manner befitting their status and stature.

After back-to-back last minute victories against arch-rival Utah the last two years and Saturday's improbable win against UCLA, Cougar Nation fans everywhere now also believe.

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