SAN DIEGO – Any thought that Tanner Mangum would pick up where he left off last season, one year removed from his last start, was a silly notion.
And nobody in Cougar nation cares one bit. Not with No. 21 Jamaal Williams lining up in the backfield.
Most players, especially a quarterback, need some form of acclimation period after basically gathering rust for almost the entire season. Only a sophomore, who we know was a backup for a reason, Mangum showed why Taysom Hill was BYU’s starter the whole year until suffering a season-ending injury in the last regular-season game.
But, thankfully for the Cougars, they didn’t need much of the Mangum magic that was on display for a good portion of last season. Playing in a steady rain much of the game, BYU relied on a strong running and a stout defense to beat Wyoming 24-21 on Wednesday in the Poinsettia Bowl before a crowd of 28,114 at Qualcomm Stadium.
Not that it came easy. The Cougars nearly blew a 24-7 lead, needing a last-second interception by senior Kai Nacua to turn back a valiant Wyoming comeback attempt.
“Kai has done that throughout his career,” said coach Kalani Sitake. “He’s made big plays. I was really thankful he made that last play as a Cougar.”
Offensively, this game belonged to running back Williams. It was a great way for the senior to close an interesting and generally stellar college career.
Williams, who earlier this season set BYU’s career rushing record, ran for 210 yards, the 16th game he has gone over 100 yards. It also is a school record, breaking a tie with Harvey Unga and Curtis Brown.
“It was just great offensive line blocking,” said Williams, who also noted receiver Jonah Trinnamann’s block downfield that allowed him to score on a 36-yard run early in the fourth quarter.
Coming to BYU from Southern California five years ago, Williams will go down as one of the program’s best success stories. Between battling multiple major injuries, a suspension and taking last season off for personal reasons, Williams found enough time to leave a mark on BYU that few can match.
BYU fans had a love affair with the personable, non-LDS player who admittedly matured greatly during college life. If passion and commitment are the necessary ingredients, Williams can reasonably hope for a shot to further his career in the NFL.
A media dream, Williams waxed philosophical in the postgame press conference. He spoke of finishing his college career in the same game in which he played as a freshman. He scored a touchdown in the 2012 Poinsettia Bowl in BYU’s 23-6 win over San Diego State.
“I’m just grateful to be here,” Williams said. “It was God’s plan to play my last (bowl) game where I played my first one.”
For all of the first half, Mangum looked nothing like the fantastic freshman who captured a slice of the college football world last season after throwing last-second bombs to beat Nebraska and Boise State. He completed a measly 3 of 8 passes for only 19 yards and also made a horrible decision to toss a floater that was easily intercepted.
During the third quarter, when the rain eased up, Mangum transformed into a new man. After Wyoming capped off a season-best time-consuming drive of 8 minutes, 22 seconds to pull within 10-7, BYU’s passing offense finally woke up.
On BYU’s first offensive play from scrimmage in the third quarter, Mangum rolled out and found Nick Kurtz for a 39-yard connection, setting up a 1st-and-goal scenario. He also stood tall in the pocket and dropped a long pass into Colby Pearson’s arms. His 5-yard touchdown pass to Tanner Balderree was a bit of luck, bouncing off two players before settling into the tight end’s arms.
“He just didn’t throw stupid passes,” Sitake said of Mangum’s improvement in the second half.