LINCOLN — BYU backup quarterback Tanner Mangum rolled to his right and heaved a prayer — and 6-foot, 6-inch wide receiver Mitch Mathews answered it, snatching the Hail Mary pass in front of a Nebraska defender to seal the game’s fate.
The 42-yard, last-second touchdown — in the exact same spot where Jordan Westerkamp once caught a Hail Mary pass in the miracle over Northwestern two seasons ago — spoiled Nebraska head coach Mike Riley’s first game as BYU escaped in the 33-28 thriller.
“One thing that we have and I know we can build on after watching this team today is that this a competitive, fighting football team. I love that,” Riley said. “We’re going to be all right."
It was Nebraska’s first loss in a season opener in 30 years.
“We didn’t capitalize when we needed to. It sucks when this happens to you,” said NU quarterback Tommy Armstrong, Jr. “To work your tail off the entire game and to get it taken away from you like that… we just have to let it go now. That was my message to the team. It happened, and we let it happen. We could’ve avoided the situation and it’s on us."
But the fluke ending didn’t tell the whole story of what happened during the four quarters of football inside a steamy Memorial Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
“Nebraska’s to be praised,” said BYU (1-0) head coach Bronco Mendenhall. “They played really hard right to the end, and so did we."
Nebraska (0-1) started off quick with 14 points in the first quarter and then melted down in the second quarter to give up the lead at halftime.
The team showed all the deficiences that a Bo Pelini-coached squad usually showcased the past few seasons. Memorial Stadium felt like a funeral.
Yet, under new leadership, there was no sign of panic in the players. There was zero evidence of implosion. In fact, before the Cougars’ wild winning play, the defense hadn’t allowed a touchdown in four consecutive drives.
“When stuff hits the fan, you know if you’re going to start pointing the finger or if you’re goint to start coming together as a unit, and as a family, and taking everything on as a team,” said Trey Foster. “You know, today didn’t go our way, but I say we did come together as a team. And we will continue to do so."
Armstrong, Jr. was at times both briliant and questionable. He finished with 24-of-41 through the air for 319 yards and three touchdowns with one interception.
In the first quarter, the quarterback looked comfortable in offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf’s new system, completing 10-of-12 passes for 156 yards and two touchdowns.
He hooked up with Westerkamp for a 14-yard score on a screen play that saw the mustached wide out break a tackle and reverse field to reach paydirt.
Armstrong, Jr. also hit Alonzo Moore for a 22-yard touchdown on a play where he wasn’t covered by any BYU defender.
But in the second quarter, his decision making went awry, completing only three of his 15 passes while being indicted for two intentional grounding penalties.
“We just weren’t smart. We killed ourselves in certain situations,” Armstrong, Jr. said. “I think that we just have to communicate better, but there were times in situations where we didn’t do that well."
BYU attacked in the lull and took a 24-14 lead into the locker room. Taysom Hill, before later leaving the game with a season-ending leg fracture, found holes in the Blackshirt defense and rushed for two scores. He also threw a touchdown pass to Mathews in the first half.
Nebraska regained life in the second half, though. The Huskers scored 14 points in the third quarter with a 10-yard touchdown run by Terrell Newby as well as a 9-yard scoring reception from recent scholarship recipient Trey Foster to put them back up 28-24.
Nate Gerry sparked the rally with an interception, which he returned 43 yards down into the red zone.
“When it was 24-14, it didn’t look all that good. We were kind of sputtering and and they had their way a little bit,” Riley said. “We came back, scored a couple of times, made somple plays and just kept fighting.”
Armstrong vindicated himself with a better showing in the second half, completing 11-of-14 passes.
“I thought Tommy competed like crazy,” Riley said. “He made a lot of plays and I’m pretty excited about where we can go."
BYU outscored the Huskers 10-0 in the final 15 minutes of play. Nebraska kicker Drew Brown missed both of his field goal tries in the game, including a critical one with just over a minute to play in regulation, setting things up for one last BYU drive.
"We knew what we had to do," Mathews said. "(The pass) ending up being in the perfect place at the right time and I had to come down with it for my guys."
Riley said that while he liked the competitiveness by his team, its effort still wasn't flawless. The Huskers had 12 penalties and two turnovers.
Nebraska will get a chance to amend its loss with a home game against South Alabama next week.
But, for now, there’s no doubt the heartbreak will linger for the next few days. Riley’s choosing to remain optimistic.
“With continued effort, we can definitely imporve some things and change some things to make us better. I’ve got good faith that’ll happen,” Riley said. “I think there’s lots of good stuff there."
BYU (1-0)........................7 17 0 10 — 33
NU (0-1).........................14 0 14 0 — 28
NU — Jordan Westerkamp 14 pass from Tommy Armstrong (Drew Brown kick)
BYU — Taysom Hill 3 run (Trevor Samson kick)
NU — Alonzo Moore 22 pass from Armstrong (Brown kick)
BYU — Hill 21 run (Samson kick)
BYU — Samson 41 field goal
BYU —Mitch Mathews 10 pass from Hill (Samson kick)
NU — Terrell Newby 10 run (Brown kick)
NU — Trey Foster 9 pass from Armstrong (Brown kick)
BYU — Samson 35 field goal
BYU — Mathews 42 pass from Tanner Mangum
First downs 25 21
Rushes-yards 26-132 37-126
Passing yards 319 379
Att-Comp-Int 24-41-1 28-46-1
Total yards 445 511
Punts-Avg 6-44.2 5-51.0
Fumbles-lost 1-1 0-0
Penalties-Yards 12-90 4-30
RUSHING — NU, Terrell Newby 10-43-1, Imani Cross 7-34, Alonzo Moore 2-24, Mikale Wilbon 6-14; BYU, Taysom Hill 9-72-2, Adam Hine 4-37, Tanner Mangum 5-26, Mitch Juergens 1-7
PASSING — NU, Armstrong, Jr. 24-41-3 319; BYU, Hill 21-34-1 268, Mangum 7-11-1 111
RECEIVING — NU, Jordan Westerkamp 7-107-1, Brandon Reilly, 5-70, Alonzo Moore 3-48-1, Mikale Wilbon 2-28; BYU, Nick Kurtz 5-123, Devon Blackmon 5-43, Terenn Houk 4-59, Mitch Mathews 3-69-2