Why BYU's 1996 football team was the best in school history

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PROVO — As hard as it may be to believe, BYU football is celebrating the 20-year anniversary of the 1996 season, when the Cougars won 14 games and appeared in the school’s only New Year’s Bowl. A full celebration will be available all day during BYU media day Thursday in Provo.

For now, here are four reasons the 1996 team was the best in school history.

The 1996 team had the most balanced offense in BYU football history

It is not outrageous to claim that the 1996 team had the most explosive offense in school history. That is a bold statement given the program’s long track record of producing offensive fireworks since legendary head coach LaVell Edwards took over in 1972. The Y averaged almost 41 points a game, good for fifth best in the nation, and scored at least 40 points in nine different contests in 1996. While fans can spend hours debating whether Cougar offenses headed by different members of the Quarterback Factory were superior to the one Steve Sarkisian led, it is my opinion that the ‘96 squad was the most balanced offense in BYU football history.

First, opposing defenses had to deal with the ridiculously accurate arm of Sarkisian. The Cougar signal-caller completed nearly 69 percent of his pass attempts and dropped 33 passing touchdowns. Those impressive statistics, coupled with his 4,027 passing yards, added up to a ridiculous 173.56 passing efficiency. That was good for fourth best in the history of college football at the time, finishing only behind Heisman trophy winners Danny Wuerfel (1995) and Ty Detmer (1989), and another Cougar, Jim McMahon (1980).

Something that made Sarkisian so effective is that he spread the ball all over the field. Defenses could not key in on a particular receiver because they would be punished for doing so. Each position that was eligible to catch passes became a weapon as Sarkisian spread the wealth to tight ends, receivers and running backs. In all, six different receivers caught at least three touchdowns and at least 28 passes. Watching Sarkisian’s decision-making that year was a thing of beauty as he put on a clinic of how the West Coast offense was designed to run.

BYU quarterback Steve Sarkisian runs against Wyoming during a 28-25 win in 1996. (Photo: Mark A. Philbrick, BYU Photo)
BYU quarterback Steve Sarkisian runs against Wyoming during a 28-25 win in 1996. (Photo: Mark A. Philbrick, BYU Photo)

If dealing with the passing attack of the Cougs wasn’t enough, defensive coordinators also had to scheme for BYU's own version of thunder and lightning in Brian McKenzie and Ronney Jenkins out of the backfield. McKenzie, the big back, ran over helpless linebackers and secondary players on his way to 950 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns. Not to be outdone, Jenkins, one of the quickest running backs in BYU history, put up 768 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground. The Y’s offense was nearly unstoppable in 1996 because of how many different ways they could beat teams. In short, in my opinion, they were the most balanced offense in school history.

The 1996 had one of the best defenses in BYU football history

Following the memorable Cotton Bowl victory over Kansas State, Edwards remarked, “This is probably the best defense we’ve ever had at BYU.” Personally, I think the 1984 team boasted the best defensive unit in program history up until that point, but who am I to contradict one of the winningest college football coaches of all time? The 1996 defense definitely belongs in the conversation of being the best the school has produced.

The stellar play of the defense started with the secondary. Having a lock-down cornerback has been a rare occurrence in Provo. So it was a major anomaly when BYU had two of them in Omarr Morgan and Tim McTyer. Morgan was nicknamed “The Blanket” for his coverage skills and essentially took the receiver he was guarding out of the game. McTyer is arguably the most physical corner BYU has had and was a nightmare for receivers that lined up against him. Morgan and McTyer’s strong play, coupled with good protection over the top provided by safeties Chris Ellison and Jason Walker, helped the defense rack up 19 interceptions and 61 pass break-ups.

2016 BYU Media Day
BYU Broadcasting Building, Provo (closed to the public)
Thursday, June 30
Coverage on BYUtv, KSL Newsradio and KSL.com
9 AM: BYU State of the Program (BYUtv; WatchESPN)
12 PM: BYU Football: Four Decades of Dominance (BYUtv)
1PM-3PM: BYU Football on KSL NewsRadio
2PM-3PM: 1996 Revisited (BYUtv; WatchESPN)

The linebacker corps and defensive line were also stout for BYU. Linebackers Shay Muirbrook and Brad Martin wreaked havoc all season and combined for 15 sacks and 166 tackles. Muirbrook was a one-man wrecking crew in the Cotton Bowl as he piled up a bowl record six sacks against the Wildcats. On the defensive line, Henry Bloomfield led the way with 25 quarterback hits and helped the Cougs hold opponents to just 11 rushing touchdowns on the season.

In all, BYUs defense gave up just 18.7 points a game in 1996, which ranked 25th in the nation. They also finished as the 25th best team in terms of total defense. The defense held opponents to 21 or fewer points in 10 of their 15 contests and more than held up their end of the bargain to enable the team to be the first FBS program to win 14 games.

The 1996 team’s special teams were special

BYU dominated in all three phases of the game in 1996. The offense put up big numbers, the defense was stifling and improved with each game throughout the season and the special teams were incredible. The program had never before, and hasn’t since, seen as talented of a return specialist as James Dye.

Dye’s combination of quickness, vision and fearlessness made him the prototypical punt and kick returner. For the season, the speedster averaged, that’s right averaged, 17.6 yards per punt return. He took two punts all the way to the house and gave the offense great starting field position on many occasions throughout the season, prompting fans to shout, “You punt, you Dye.” Dye also returned one kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown.

Amazingly, Dye didn’t even lead the team in kick-return average as that honor belonged to Jenkins, who averaged nearly 28 yards a return. The return game was the best it has ever been in Provo in 1996.

The kicking game was also exceptional for the Cougars in their magical season. Ethan Pochman drilled 20 field goals on the year and was nails when it mattered most. In the WAC championship, Pochman hit a field goal as time expired to send the game into overtime and later split the uprights again to ensure the team a spot in the Cotton Bowl. The special teams were truly special in 1996 and were a major factor in the team’s historic run.

Legendary BYU football coach LaVell Edwards. (Photo: Tom Smart, Deseret News)
Legendary BYU football coach LaVell Edwards. (Photo: Tom Smart, Deseret News)

The Cotton Bowl victory was the best bowl win in BYU history

No doubt about it, the 1984 Holiday Bowl win is the most important bowl win in BYU football history — the win over Michigan capped the Cougars’ undefeated season and, with some fortuitous losses by teams ranked below them, wrapped up a national championship for the program.

But the Wolverines were an average team. Such was not the case with Kansas State.

K-State came into the 1997 Cotton Bowl with a 9-2 record and ranked 14th in the country. The Wildcats, apparently feeling disrespected being pitted against a team from the WAC, refused to interact with Cougar coaches and players during the festivities leading up to the game. After the kickoff, though, they couldn’t stop talking — until BYU made them stop.

Cougar fans will never forget receiver K.O. Kealaluhi pumping the ball up and down after scoring the winning touchdown and Sarkisian reeling in the Kansas State bench. The 19-15 victory validated BYU's season and proved that they were a legitimate top-5 team in the nation. It also called into question the Bowl Alliance system that college football was using to crown a champion. For the purpose of this piece, Kansas State is the best team the Cougs have beaten in a bowl game and ranks as one of the best wins in the program’s history.

The dominance of the 1996 squad in all three phases of the game and the incredible come-from-behind victory in the Cotton Bowl solidifies the team’s place as the best one that the school has produced.

![Dylan Cannon](http://img.ksl.com/slc/2539/253958/25395882\.jpg?filter=ksl/65x65)
About the Author: Dylan Cannon ------------------------------

Dylan Cannon is a regular KSL.com contributor and can be reached at DylanCannon86@gmail.com or via twitter @DylanCannon11.


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