In 1972, Lavell Edwards became head coach of a BYU football program that had never been to a bowl game. Over the next four years he averaged 6-plus wins per season. From 1976-78 it jumped to nine wins. In the five-year period of 1979-83, Edwards won 11 games four times. The 1984 BYU football team took the final step and won the national championship.
BYU was renowned for its cutting edge pass attack, one that had already produced Jim McMahon and Steve Young. The latest heir was Robbie Bosco. While he never had the NFL success that other two Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks had, Bosco was a worthy successor at the college level.
In 1984, he threw for 3,875 yards, averaged 8.5 yards-per-pass and did so without compromising efficiency, posting a 61.5% completion rate. And the TD-INT ratio? Can I interest you in a dazzling 33-11? All of these numbers would be good in 21st-century football and by the more defensive-friendly culture of 1984, they were dynamic. Bosco finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting.
BYU made good use of the tight end in their passing scheme, and David Mills led the team in both catches and yards, with 60 & 1,023 respectively. Bosco also spread the ball around to receivers like Glen Kozlowski, who caught 55 balls, along with Mark Bellini and Adam Haysbert.
The running game was led by Lakei Heimuli, who ran for nearly 800 yards, and—as you would expect in this system—was adept at catching the football out of the backfield, with 31 receptions. Kelly Smith was a good change-of-pace in running the ball and even better as a receiver.
The Western Athletic Conference (WAC) that BYU competed in and dominated, wasn’t known for a lot of defense in those days—it was mockingly said that WAC stood for “We Ain’t Covering.” But the Cougars did have some quality defensive players.
Junior linebacker Kurt Gouveia would go on to the NFL and be a part of two Super Bowl champions with the Washington Redskins, in both 1987 and 1991—as a ‘Skins fan myself, whenever I hear Gouveia’s name I immediately think of his Super Bowl interception against Buffalo in ’91 that set up an easy touchdown and all but sealed the game just after halftime.
An even better college player was defensive back Kyle Morrell. He was Defensive Player of the Year in the WAC and also got some All-American mention.
In spite of their strong recent track record, BYU opened the 1984 college football season unranked. Their first game was at #3 Pitt on September 3. The game didn’t unfold like a typical Cougars shootout—BYU led 3-0 at halftime and while driving in the third quarter, Bosco threw an interception that went 78 yards the other way. Pitt built a 14-3 lead.
Heimuli got the Cougars back into it with a 12-yard touchdown run, but the two-point conversion was missed, keeping the margin at five points. BYU drove inside the 10-yard line in the fourth quarter, but had to settle for a field goal that cut the lead to 14-12.
Neither team could run the ball though, and for Pitt that was keeping them from salting this game away and giving Bosco more chances. It was asking for trouble and when the quarterback found Haysbert on a 50-yard post pattern off a 3rd-and-4 for a touchdown, BYU escaped with a 20-14 win.
Over the course of the season, the quality of this win would diminish dramatically—Pitt, after nearly a decade as a national contender, collapsed to 3-7-1. For now though, BYU rode the victory to a #13 ranking in the next polls.
The Cougars then below out mediocre Baylor and Tulsa, and with a chaotic year unfolding in college football, BYU was suddenly all the way to #6 in the polls. But a trip to Hawaii nearly undid everything.
The Rainbows had a respectable seven-win team in 1984, and their defense slowed BYU down. The Cougars led just 18-13 when Hawaii drove to the one-yard line and looked ready to spring the upset. On the game’s decisive play, Morrell delivered. He came running to the line of scrimmage, timed his leap precisely with the snap and in one fell swoop pulled the quarterback down before a play could get going. The Cougars had survived.
A shootout at home with Wyoming followed. The Cowboys had Jay Novacek, the tight end who would become one of Troy Aikman’s favorite targets on Super Bowl championship teams with another set of Cowboys, those in Dallas in the early 1990s.
The BYU-Wyoming game was a crisp display of offensive excellence. There were no turnovers either way. BYU led 14-0 and 21-7 early on, but a Wyoming punt return for a touchdown changed the momentum, and by the time the fourth quarter started, the Cougars were in a 38-33 hole.
Defenses finally started to step up in the final period. Morrell would finish with 15 tackles and Wyoming did not score again. Mills didn’t have the pro career that Novacek did, but the BYU tight end was outstanding on this day, with seven catches for 136 yards, including the 14-yard TD reception that won it 41-38.
A missed PAT in the first half was costly for Wyoming, as they went chasing points and missed a pair of two-pointers, creating the three lost points that spelled defeat. As for BYU, they had to turn around and go to Colorado Springs to play a pretty good Air Force team. Bosco lit up the Falcons for 484 yards passing and four touchdowns in a 30-25 win. The Cougars were now ranked #5 in the country.
The difficult part of BYU’s conference schedule was past, and they rolled past New Mexico, UTEP and San Diego State and nudged up to #3. On November 17, the Cougars turned in a pedestrian 24-14 win on the road at mediocre Utah. It was what happened elsewhere that shook up the nation.
Top-ranked Nebraska lost at Oklahoma. That wasn’t shocking, but second-ranked South Carolina losing to Navy was. The path was cleared for BYU to reach the top of the polls. They closed the year with a perfunctory 38-13 win over Utah State, but the debate was just beginning.
BYU was contractually obligated to go the Holiday Bowl. The game was played on December 21 and would never attract a high-profile opponent. BYU would end up playing Michigan, who had struggled to 6-5 with a team head coach Bo Schembecler freely called one of his worst. Coming on top of a soft regular season schedule, the outcry against the Cougars was strong.
But on the flip side, they were the country’s only unbeaten team. Oklahoma, ranked #2, had both a loss and a tie. Washington, ranked fourth and the Sooner opponent in the Orange Bowl, had lost to USC with the Pac-10’s Rose Bowl spot on the line in November. Florida was #3, but on probation and also had a loss and a tie.
If BYU could have impressively dismantled Michigan it would have changed the dynamic. But that didn’t happen. Bosco’s first-quarter interception and subsequent strained knee ligament set the tone for what would be a sluggish night in San Diego.
BYU was able to take a 10-7 lead by halftime, as Bosco came back from his knee strain. But the quarterback committed another turnover, fumbling into the end zone and costing his team points. In the third quarter, he threw another interception, lost another fumble, BYU had a field goal blocked and Michigan finally took advantage with a touchdown to go up 14-10.
The Cougars had more turnovers left in them, fumbling deep in their own end late in the third quarter. The defense came up with a big stop to force a field goal and keep the score at 17-10. With about eleven minutes to go in the game, Bosco found Kozlowksi for the touchdown that tied it 17-17.
It’s surprising that Edwards didn’t go for two in this spot here—a tie would amount to a loss and almost surely turn the Oklahoma-Washington Orange Bowl into a de facto national title game. There was already strong sentiment for that to begin with, and the sluggish nature of this Holiday Bowl was undoubtedly adding to it. There was no way BYU would win the national championship if the game ended in a tie.
What’s more, Bosco managed to throw one more interception. Michigan once again didn’t do anything with it—and give the BYU defense loads of credit here. They could easily have let the Wolverines pull away. But given one more chance, Bosco led a touchdown drive that was capped with a pass to Kelly Smith for a 24-17 lead with 1:23 left. The defense closed it out and the undefeated season was complete.
The debate raged on over the next twelve days. Oklahoma head coach Barry Switzer pushed so hard for his team to win the national title that he forgot to prepare them for the football game—Washington won 28-17. The fact the Huskies were ranked fourth all but assured that BYU would win the vote. And they did.
In all candor, I would have voted for Washington. BYU’s poor schedule was not their fault—no one saw Pitt’s demise coming and the Cougars didn’t create the contract situation that bound them to the Holiday Bowl. But if you’re going to win a title on a schedule like this, it needs to be validated with a win over a big-time opponent in a major bowl.
And again, while it’s not the fault of the current players and coaches that they didn’t get the chance, we have to deal with the resume as it is. Washington only had one close loss, on the road, to the eventual Rose Bowl champions, and they had also beaten Michigan—on the road.
But regardless of whether you would have voted them #1 or #2, the 1984 BYU football team had taken the final step in the ascent of the Lavell Edwards era and gone undefeated. And they are remembered in college football history as national champions.