Deflated but not defeated — fans of college football know the feeling all too well — and the Cougar faithful knew it Saturday as BYU hosted Cal for its home opener. After BYU silenced Arizona in its season opener, it sought back-to-back Pac-12 wins, and by the fourth quarter, that feat was within reach but growing increasingly unlikely.
The Cougars were gifted a favorable field position after a Cal turnover on special teams and prepared to take the snap at Cal’s 27-yard line as they attempted to string together a fourth-quarter comeback against the Bears. With less than 11 minutes to play, BYU found itself in a two-possession game, trailing Cal 21-10.
Just for a second, imagine you’re in cornerback Traveon Beck’s shoes. You’re standing just inside the 20-yard line, opposite BYU wide receiver Aleva Hifo, playing soft coverage on a third-and-long situation. That’s your man, and your job is to not get beat.
To the right of Beck is fellow cornerback Camryn Bynum, who is matched up with wide receiver Micah Simon. Behind Beck are Cal’s lockdown safeties — Jaylinn Hawkins and Quentin Tartabull — and on the far side of the field is cornerback Elijah Hicks, who is also dealing with a one-on-one matchup.
BYU’s 25-year-old veteran quarterback Tanner Mangum was faced with a bleak third down and 21, but the red zone was in clear sight. The only option to keep his team within striking distance: pass the ball. Mangum lined up with a running back to his side and three eligible receivers on the line of scrimmage — two on the left side of the field, one on the right.
Immediately after Mangum received the snap, he looked to the right side of the field. No good. Rather, he turned to his right side and scrambled toward the home team’s sideline. After Mangum spins out, he — oh snap. Now, I can’t guarantee you that those were the words that ran through Mangum’s head when he realized he was unprotected with inside linebacker Jordan Kunaszyk bearing down his throat. This forces Mangum to unleash a desperation heave before his receivers are finished with their routes.
Looking back, BYU lined up six men on its offensive line to counter two Cal defensive ends and two Cal outside linebackers. For the Bears, defensive ends Tevin Paul and Zeandae Johnson anchored the play, along with outside linebacker Joseph Ogunbanjo. While the defensive line executed with physical prowess, it left Kunaszyk — Cal’s defensive captain — untouched.
In the mere seconds that Mangum had to get rid of the ball, he targeted Hifo, who was covered by Beck near the original line of scrimmage. The play could have gone in the Cougars’ favor if it were not for the pass being just overthrown and Beck’s athleticism.
Both the receiver and the cornerback went up for the ball…
But only Beck came down with the pigskin — interception! — and he sprinted the opposite way.
At this point in the game, BYU fans likely felt deflated and defeated. Now, if one went on to watch the rest of the game, it was clear that the game was indeed not over. The Cougars managed to bring the game within three but ultimately dropped the contest 21-18.
Still, Beck’s play was a crucial momentum-breaker and gave Cal the opportunity to put the game away. BYU’s opportunity to capitalize on the turnover was dashed.
Again, imagine you’re in Beck’s shoes, celebrating with your teammates on the cusp of a marquee, statement victory. You just raked in your first career interception. You helped solidify a win over BYU, and you and your team are now 2-0, chasing a perfect start heading into Pac-12 play.
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Ashtyn Davis was on the field. In fact, Quentin Tartabull was on the field.