Loyal Cougars

Lackluster Cougars fall to Utah, lose Jamaal Williams to scary injury

BYU struggled and lost to the Utes yet again — but Jamaal Williams’ health should be a much greater concern.

Confession: I started writing this recap in the second quarter — it was obvious where the game was headed.

I had an entire introduction comparing this rivalry to the early modern wars between France and England, and tonight’s game was Waterloo. The decisive battle in which Kyle Whittingham once and for all banished BYU — and their Napoleonic leader Bronco Mendenhall — to Saint Helena Island to write their memoirs and die of stomach cancer.[1]

There were also the usual gripes that have become all too familiar during BYU’s four-game losing streak in the Holy War: terrible offensive line play, perplexing play-calling[2], stupefying clock management[3], and frustrating quarterback play. There was a general despair over the remainder of the season, ambivalence towards Robert Anae 2.0, and a lot of “It could be worse — we could have to go to school at the University of Utah” jokes.[4]

The game went exactly according to script, BYU — as has been their M.O. the last few seasons — came out extremely tight against Utah, tried to battle back, and in the end came within a few breaks (and an insane no-call on the last play) of sending the game into overtime. Kyle Van Noy was spectacular, Taysom Hill was lackluster, the coaches were outcoached, and not a single ball bounced BYU’s way — resulting in a 20-13 Utah win.

For the next two years, every BYU fan will carry a bitter taste in their mouth from the last four seasons, a bitter taste that is starting to blight the Bronco Mendenhall era. Over the last three seasons, BYU has brought a more talented team into the rivalry game — and lost every time. The Utah fans will, conversely, get a lot of mileage out of this game over the next two years[5], driving anyone who bleeds blue crazy. For the weeks, months and years ahead, we’ll argue about these games, the lack of offense, 54–10, the not-quite-muffed punt, rushing the field, Adam Hine’s return called back, Van Noy’s greatness, Travis Wilson’s ascendance, Bronco Mendenhall’s defiance.

None of that matters.

In the third quarter, Jamaal Williams took a handoff from Taysom Hill, running to the left side, crashed into a pile of human bodies and collided helmet to helmet with a Ute defender, promptly collapsing to the turf and remaining prone on the ground, seemingly lifeless, as 63,000 fans watched in horror, silent, as medical officials treated him for an apparent neck injury, carting him off the field, motionless, on a stretcher.

I spent the last year on the BYU football beat as a credentialed media member, covering the team from spring football, media day, through fall camp, the entire 2012 season, spring football again, media day again, and then this season’s fall camp. During that time, no player was more gracious, more entertaining, more beloved, and more likable than Jamaal Williams. His youthful optimism was infectious. It was impossible to ask anyone on the team a question about Jamaal without them smiling. He’s like their little brother, the 18-year-old wide-eyed kid who, for much of last season, couldn’t believe he was actually there.

ESPN reported during the game that Jamaal—thankfully—was able to move his hands and feet as he was loaded onto the ambulance. As of the time of this writing, BYU has reported that his condition continues to improve, but there has been no official word as to the extent of his injuries.

But as Jamaal lay there on the ground, his helmet getting taken apart, I had to ask myself why we do this? Why we let 18-year-old kids put their lives on the line to play this violent of a game? Is it so we have something to argue about over Thanksgiving dinner? Something to waste time with at the water cooler? A way to kill three hours on Saturdays? In those few minutes, I had to ask myself, what about this — if anything — actually matters?

I’m not sure I have that answer.

But I do firmly believe that sport can be a force for good. That watching athletes elevate themselves can inspire us to elevate ourselves. I believe that sports is a microcosm of human existence — an arena in which the same drama, boredom, pain, joy and transcendence of daily human life are magnified and played out in front of millions. And I believe that — as divisive and as contentious as this rivalry can be — in moments like Jamaal’s injury, when 63,000 people were so silent that crickets could actually be heard over the ESPN broadcast, we can stop hating each other for just a few moments and unite.

Yes, the rivalry is on hiatus for the next two years. Yes, BYU lost the last four. Yes, it’s disappointing. But what I’ll remember from tonight wasn’t the pass interference no-call, the quarterback’s inaccurate arm, or the strange coaching decisions. I’ll remember the moment that reminded me when the game ends we can still like each other, laugh together, even love each other. I’ll remember an 18-year-old kid, full of potential, his entire life ahead of him, motionless on the cold ground. I’ll remember that silence.


  1. Or lead poisoning/mysterious circumstances.  ↩
  2. I, for one, look forward to the explanation of the logic behind the decision to throw a fade route in the “blue zone” to the stout Paul Lasike — instead of Cody Hoffman, Ross Apo, Bret Thompson, Mitch Matthews, or one of BYU’s other giant receivers.  ↩
  3. The usage of timeouts at the end of the first half was outright pathetic and may have cost BYU three points. Any 6-year-old who has played Madden for more than 15 minutes knows how to best utilize timeouts in that situation to maximize your limited time and produce points. The timeout management at the end of the fourth quarter was actually offensive.  ↩
  4. Which is really just a coping mechanism. (Although seriously, at least we don’t have to go to school at the University of Utah.)  ↩
  5. Especially when they’re getting killed in their Pac–12 schedule.  ↩


  1. Tonya

    September 22, 2013 at 9:49 am

    I’m a UTE fan since birth. Hats off to Mr. Wagner! Amazing story, when Jamal Williams didn’t get up, I felt the entire “Holy War” pause. Every word that this article states is very very true….remember the silence!

  2. Sanpete

    September 22, 2013 at 10:58 am

    That’s Jamaal (not Jamal)!

    Maybe Williams’ injury should put this all in a different light, but I don’t think it will. It’s not that we won’t care about him, we will. But if the game followed the script, so will fan reaction. A couple scripts, actually. Since we’re being philosophical . . .

    There’s always a range of reactions to a loss (or win) in sports. Some will put it all in a broader context in which a game is only a game, and not as important as, say, the Napoleonic Wars, or even a potentially life-altering injury. Others, or even the same people, will look at it from inside the frame of the game, in which success is defined ultimately in simple terms, winning or losing. No outside context matters from inside in that frame. No points are awarded for any kind of moral victory, injury, personal growth, kindness, or anything but moving the ball a certain way.

    I don’t think there’s any way to fully integrate those two frames. You can balance them and see ways in which they interconnect, e.g. how the game affects or reflects “real life.” But they’ll always remain different worlds with different rules and values. That’s true of many kinds of games we play everyday.

    Almost every fan takes both kinds of views to some degree or other, as this article does. There’s no entirely objective way to decide how to balance them. But they’ll battle it out in each fan every week.

    My own preference is to give a lot of weight to the values of the sponsoring institution in evaluating the performance in a BYU game. By my understanding, that includes a premium on charity. We appreciate it when the opposing players show respect for our players. We should appreciate it just as much when we show respect and charity for our own players and coaches. To me that means being careful in criticism, to look for the good of course, but also to keep in mind what we don’t know or what doesn’t first appear in looking at the bad.

    Was the offensive line play really terrible? Sometimes it looked positively great to me, moving the defensive line back, opening holes, protecting the pocket. Sometimes it got beat. Overall, given the skill of the opposing players, some of whom are likely to play in the NFL, it seemed at least fair, still in need of improvement but coming along well.

    “Perplexing” may be a suitably ambiguous word for some of the play calling, leaving open the possibility that there was some good reason for the calls we didn’t see the point of. As a rule, Anae has been criticized after losses for being too predictable and conservative and not being sufficiently predictable and conservative, often by the same people. Why pass to Lasike? To answer that we need to know how well others were being covered, whether he was the first read or the second or third, how well the play to him went in practices, and so on, but one thing that can be said about it was that it was unpredictable. The same can be said of a dive play where a pass is expected and other plays not expected in a situation. Hit them where they aren’t looking sometimes works.

    I don’t play video games and so may be at a disadvantage, but I didn’t notice the pathetic, offensive lapses in clock management, and apparently the TV commentators didn’t either, so I don’t know what to say about that.

    The bottom line is that BYU lost again, in arguably the most important game of the year. That hurts. One script calls for us to follow Mendenhall and admire the effort and sacrifice of the players (and hard work of the staff), to see the improvement and promise in Hill, the improvement in line play. Another calls for us to wish Mendenhall would be fired and replaced by some (at present mythical) better alternative, to call for Hill to be benched, etc. We’ll follow our scripts. Which kind of script will prevail over time is partly up to us. People interpret “loyal” differently.

  3. Sanpete

    September 22, 2013 at 1:56 pm

    “Williams doing well after suffering concussion and severe stinger”


  4. Auntie Nan

    September 22, 2013 at 7:37 pm

    Nice job Ben. xoxo

  5. Pingback: Opponent Notebook: Week 4 Results - Loyal Cougars

  6. neutral fan

    September 24, 2013 at 11:50 am

    (and an insane no-call on the last play)
    Did you watch that last play on replay. Ya on first sight it seemed like it was a defensive PI but when you look at the replay the BYU receiver clearly grabbed the Utah defender and pulled him down. It was a very checky and clever play that can draw a flag depending on what the ref can see. The ref saw it and it was a great no call.

  7. Sanpete

    September 25, 2013 at 5:37 pm

    In the news today, a sad, very different but related story:

    New York prep football team cancels season following in-game death of Damon Janes


    In 1979 BYU got a terrible scare when Danny Frazier went down with a broken neck in the season opener against Texas A&M. Frazier, who had to give up a promising football career but is otherwise recovered, now looks at it as a blessing in disguise, but not everyone is so fortunate.