Coastal Carolina edges BYU in a battle of unbeatens to perfectly sum up an indescribable season

That delirium followed upon a palpitation, of course. BYU’s slot-machine offense and its dazzler of a quarterback, Zach Wilson, set aside a night spent harassed and slowed and spent the last 55 seconds of the game moving from their own 9-yard line to the other side’s 18. Then the game closed on one dramatic play suitable for a crowd bigger than the allotted 5,000, a play that conjured Steve McNair, Kevin Dyson and Mike Jones in that Rams-Titans Super Bowl XXXIV in Atlanta at the dawn of the century.

Wilson threw a pass up the right hash mark to Dax Milne, who caught it around the 3 and churned toward the end zone only to stall around the 1, then was yanked around the waist back near the 2 in a herculean turn by Mateo Sudipo, a 195-pound redshirt freshman safety from Wake Forest, N.C.

That sent the Chanticleers merrily onto the field, and sent kinetic defensive end Jeffrey Gunter to “one of the best feelings I’ve ever felt” and “pure joy,” and sent their second-year coach to the interview microphone exuberantly. “There’s no words that can explain it!” Jamey Chadwell, a native Tennessean in his early 40s, said on ESPN. “You know, we heard all week that we’re going to get killed! We’re ‘not big enough.’ We’re ‘not ready.’ ”

Hearing likewise had been an offensive lineman, Trey Carter, who estimated the pregame chatter mentioned the Chanticleers only about “10 percent” of the time. Now they’re 10-0 and the only unbeaten FBS team in South Carolina, which the recent Clemson years have rendered a mouthful. “If you watched the game,” Carter said, “we can obviously play with BYU in the line of scrimmage.”

With that “small guys” bit applying largely in casual conversation to the offensive line, the small guys reigned. They helped possess the football for 37:51 of the 60 minutes. They pushed their way into the BYU defense for drives of 94 yards in 17 plays and a whopping 9:05 in the first quarter for a 6-0 lead and of 85 yards in 13 plays and a cool 6:06 straddling the third and fourth quarters for a 22-17 lead. They helped a fast knot of muscles of a 5-foot-10 running back, CJ Marable, rush 23 times for 132 yards, including a six-yard touchdown for that first score and a two-yard run for the last. They helped the Chanticleers win the rushing battle 281-165 even as BYU won the yardage overall 405-366, even as Coastal quarterback Grayson McCall graced the field with toughness, not to mention eye black that roamed almost his entire face.

Those BYU totals, however, didn’t look the same as they might have. The 17 points came to a team that averaged 47 in its first nine games. The 405 yards went to a team averaging 535.8. Wilson, whose name had joined sentences near the word “Heisman” across a soaring season, often looked closer to average, going 19 for 30 for 240 yards, one touchdown and one forgivable interception on a Hail Mary before halftime. The Chanticleers bothered him repeatedly, with a heap of his trouble coming from Gunter, an all-Sun Belt defensive end.

It all made BYU exemplify the adage about good deeds never going unpunished. The Cougars (9-1) had begun the season with a schedule boasting two Pac-12 teams, two Big Ten teams and one SEC team, all of which got scrapped amid the coronavirus pandemic. Athletic Director Tom Holmoe carefully rebuilt the schedule until the team got to 9-0 and still rummaged around for more games.

When the scheduled fracas between Liberty (9-1) and Coastal Carolina met the same fate as more than 100 college football games this season, upended by the raging virus and canceled in that particular case, BYU stepped in. Eager to prove its spot in the CFP rankings qualified as a slight, it traveled to a strange land 1,840 miles away and upheld its vow that it would play anyone, anywhere.

Then it found itself in the middle of somebody else’s night, after somebody else’s “College GameDay.” “At our level,” Chadwell said, “you don’t get to experience that much, or often, or hardly ever. We were joking the other day: Coach [Willy] Korn was playing for me [a decade ago], Coach [Newland] Isaac was a [graduate assistant] for me, we were all at [Division II] North Greenville in Tigerville, South Carolina, and we’re sitting here, and we’re watching ‘GameDay’ on TV, and we can turn [toward] outside and watch ’em outside! It was surreal. . . . It was one of those days you’ll remember for a long time, personally and professionally.”

He’ll remember how his team withstood two BYU touchdowns in the second quarter, a 42-yard touchdown run through a Mack Truck hole by Tyler Allgeier and a 41-yard touchdown pass from Wilson to Milne along the left sideline, would prove insufficient. And he’ll remember how his team held BYU scoreless across the last 27-plus minutes of the game, until one last flourish during which Chadwell said, “I got real nervous.”

Wilson hit Gunner Romney for 33, Allgeier for 12, Milne for 15 across the middle with seven seconds left, Milne for 13 daringly on the left sideline with three seconds left, then Milne for 17 yards until a young Sudipo from an upstart program dragged Milne into a meaningful tackle in an oddball season, right down into the teal.

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