Photo by Mark A. Philbrick/BYU
Fans in Austin are anxiously awaiting Steve Sarkisian’s debut as Texas’ head coach. On this day 25 years ago however, it was his alma mater who left happy after knocking off one of the Longhorns’ rivals.
In a Pigskin Classic for the ages, Sarkisian threw six touchdowns, including the game-winner, to lead BYU past No. 13 Texas A&M in a 41-37 thriller. The comeback in Provo would spark a phenomenal season for the Cougars.
Setting the Stage
BYU was coming off a 7-4 campaign as it began its 25th season under legendary LaVell Edwards on Aug. 24, 1996. The Cougars were unranked to start the season as Texas A&M arrived.
The Aggies were ranked No. 13 under eighth-year head coach R.C. Slocum. Texas A&M entered the year having finished in the AP top 15 in six straight seasons.
Sarkisian finished the game with 536 yards passing and six touchdowns. He needed every one of them.
After trailing by as many as 14 points in the first half, the Cougars took their only lead of the second half with just over a minute to go. After the third field goal of the day from Texas A&M’s Kyle Bryant — a 52-yard make — gave the Aggies a 37-34 lead with 1:31 to play, Sarkisian needed just three plays to put the Cougars ahead for good.
After a pair of first-down strikes, K.O. Kealaluhi was able to get behind the Texas A&M secondary and Sarkisian didn’t miss him. His 46-yard strike put BYU ahead 41-37 with 1:03 remaining.
On the game’s final possession, Texas A&M reached midfield, but quarterback Brandonn Stewart coughed the ball up with just seconds remaining. BYU’s Daren Young fell on the fumble to preserve the victory.
It was BYU that struck first as Sarkisian found tight end Chad Lewis for the game’s first touchdown. The Cougars led 6-0, but it wouldn’t be until the game’s final minute that BYU led again.
By the midway point in the second quarter, Texas A&M had scored 20 unanswered points to take a 14-point lead. Before the half however, the Cougars drew even. Sarkisian tossed scoring strikes to Itulu Mili and Kaipo McGuire to tie the contest at 20.
The third quarter belonged to Texas A&M. A 40-yard touchdown run by Eric Bernard and a 6-yard touchdown pass from Stewart to D’Andre Hardeman bookended a 51-yard hook-up from Sarkisian to McGuire. As things went to the final quarter, the Aggies led 34-26.
BYU drew even when Sarksian found James Dye for the 12-yard touchdown, followed by the 2-point conversion.
Sarkisian had a career-day, but he wasn’t the only one to put up big numbers that day. Kealaluhi (151 yards) and McGuire (146 yards) combined for nearly 300 yards receiving and three touchdowns.
A Tennessee transfer making his Texas A&M debut, Stewart passed for 232 yards and two touchdowns in the loss. Bernard and Sirr Parker each went over the century mark on the ground for the Aggies with 108 and 106 yards, respectively, and a touchdown apiece in the loss. The teams combined for nearly 1,100 yards of offense.
Texas A&M would go on to finish a disappointing 6-6. It would be just one of two non-winning seasons for Slocum, who spent 14 years as head coach of the Aggies.
BYU would go on to finish 14-1 and No. 5 in the AP Poll with the lone loss coming at Washington. The 1996 campaign marked the first top-5 finish for the Cougars since their national championship season of 1984 and the last one since. It got underway on this day a quarter-century ago.