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BYU football notes: 1996 Cougar team remembers special season

By Brian E. Preece - Herald correspondent | Sep 20, 2021

Jaren Wilkey/BYU

Former BYU stars (from left) Tim McTyer, Shay Muirbrook and Chad Lewis pose for a photo while holding the alumni flags before the 27-17 Cougar win over Arizona State at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021. (Jaren Wilkey, BYU Photo)

The 1996 BYU football team was honored during the Arizona State vs. BYU game Saturday night.

The 1996 team was one of the best teams in BYU history and provided a magical season for the Cougar faithful.

That included a win in BYU’s first and only appearance in a New Years Day Bowl as the Cougars defeated Kansas State, 19-15in the Cotton Bowl. BYU finished the season ranked fifth in the country with a 14-1 record.

For 1996 team member, All-American tight end Chad Lewis, the Cotton Bowl victory was the highlight of the season.

“That New Year’s day bowl game, that meant so much for us to win that game for LaVell (Edwards),” Lewis said Saturday night. “We started that season in his office, and we told them that we wanted to be national champions. He responded and we responded, and there was a lot of love for LaVell. I can’t help think he’s looking down smiling. I know Patti (his wife of 65 years) was thrilled we were doing this reunion.”

The win over Kansas State didn’t come easy. The Cougars led 5-0 only to see the Wildcats score 12 unanswered points before BYU rallied with 14 points in the final quarter. And Lewis gave a lot of credit to BYU linebacker Shay Muirbrook.

“Shay Muirbrook had like seven sacks in that game,” Lewis said, though in reality it was six sacks, one of which led to a safety, the first two points the Cougars scored in that game. “He was really the heart and soul of that very good defense we had.”

For Muirbrook, who also had 12 tackles in that Cotton Bowl win, the closeness of that 1996 team and their work ethic were the key reasons behind the success.

“I think you see a lot of it here (at the BYU game Saturday night),” Muirbrook said. “You can see the bond and brotherhood that we had. We played hard and we played hard against each other.”

“We had a lot of guys that thought they were the best, not just on the team but in the country at their position. That led to a lot of spirited practices. Sometimes the coaches had to kick us off the field because we wanted to do one more play or one more sprint. The coaches often times had to say, ‘that was enough.'”

Lewis concurred with his teammate about the team’s work ethic and camaraderie.

“We loved each other, but we were warriors on the practice field,” Lewis said.

Another key player on that defensive unit was defensive back Tim McTyer, who in that Cotton Bowl win had six tackles and a critical interception and return of 19 yards.

But some other games also stood out for McTyer, including the painful loss 29-17 to Washington, BYU’s only setback on the season.

“That was a tough loss but we learned from it,” said McTyer.

The Los Angeles native, who also played in the NFL, also thought the conference championship game against No. 20 ranked Wyoming, a 28-25 win in overtime, was a huge win for BYU that season.

“We couldn’t lose that game or we weren’t going anywhere, (as far as a big-time bowl game),” McTyer said. “That’s how we understood things. They had one loss and we had one loss (at that time).”

But ultimately for McTyer it was the first and last games that were the most memorable.

“The start and the finish. That victory (against Texas A&M in the Pigskin Classic) set the tone, and the win against Kansas State was the cherry on top,” McTyer said.

That Texas A&M game was also a harbinger of things to come, not for just the team but for many of the individual players. It was Ben Cahoon’s first game in the BYU program and he contributed with a catch for 33 yards.

“The Cotton Bowl was definitely my favorite memory of that season, but the Texas A&M was also special,” Cahoon said. “We didn’t know exactly how good we were and we were playing a ranked team. Plus, I got my first catch for BYU in that game.”

In the next season, Cahoon broke out for 57 catches for 931 yards which led to a Hall of Fame career in the Canadian Football League.

Here are some interesting facts of that season:

Before the BCS playoffs added a possibility of two extra games for teams, when BYU went 14-1, it was the first team in NCAA football history to win that many games and play that many games. Ohio State won 14 games in 2002 when they won the national championship to tie the Cougars, and in recent years Clemson (2018) and LSU (2019) won 15 games. But BYU’s 14 victories, along with the 15 games played, were the most by any college football program prior to the BCS era.

One of the reasons BYU played so many games was because they were awarded two extra games, one for the Pigskin Classic where BYU started its season with that rousing 41-37 win over Texas A&M, who came into the 1996 season ranked No. 13. BYU was led by the passing of now Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian who tossed six touchdowns against the vaunted Aggie “Wrecking Crew” defense.

All schools that travel to Hawai’i are allowed an extra game on their schedule, and BYU dispatched the Rainbow Warriors in its twelfth game of the season, 45-14.

Then, at that time the Western Athletic Conference, or WAC, had 16 teams and there was a playoff between the two division winners. In one of the greatest games in BYU history, the Cougars downed the No. 20 ranked Wyoming Cowboys 28-25 in overtime at Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas. That win moved the Cougars to a No. 6 ranking and 13-1 on the season. The 13 wins tied the BYU 1984 National Championship team for the most wins in NCAA history. The Cougars then broke the record with that Cotton Bowl victory.

No team actually went undefeated in 1996.

Florida was the consensus national champion with a 12-1 record. Ohio State was ranked No. 2 at 11-1 with Florida State (11-1) finishing third in the rankings losing to Florida in a rematch at the Sugar Bowl, as the Gators avenged an earlier season loss to the Seminoles.

Arizona State, led by Jake Plummer, went into the Rose Bowl undefeated with a No. 2 ranking but lost to Ohio State to finish ranked just ahead of BYU at No. 4. So with that 14-1 record, BYU had the highest winning percentage of any team in the country that 1996 season.

It seemed apropos that by beating Arizona State Saturday night that BYU went 14-1 in its last 15 games. Only Alabama at 15-0, has a better record than BYU over that span.

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