San Francisco • If the BYU Cougars' football season could be summed up in two words, it was this: opportunity lost.
That storyline continued in the 12th annual Fight Hunger Bowl, as the mistake-plagued Cougars failed to score in the second half and fell 31-16 to the Washington Huskies on Friday night in front of 34,176 fans at AT&T Park and a national television audience.
Slight underdogs, the Cougars (8-5) racked up a lot of yards, 473, and first downs, 28, but not nearly enough points, and saw their bowl-game winning streak snapped at four. Washington, with Marques Tuiasosopo acting as interim coach, improved to 9-4.
"That to me was two evenly matched teams," BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall said. "I thought we had time of possession, I thought we had ball control, et cetera. We weren't able to put it into the end zone, maybe on a couple of occasions. But really the difference in the game, to Washington's credit, was their kick return game."
A plethora of costly mistakes including some drive-killing penalties, dropped passes and two botched punt attempts and the inability to cash in with touchdowns when it got close to UW's goal line, kept BYU from getting the win that might have turned an OK season into a memorable one.
Of course, the Huskies had something to do with that. They took a 14-7 lead on an electrifying 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by John Ross in the second quarter and never let go of that advantage, despite the Cougars coming to life after that highlight of the game.
"Players play as they are prepared," Mendenhall said of the special teams breakdowns. "Certainly, you have to look at the model, which hadn't changed in how we played before. â¦ But when there are multiple mistakes in the same area, it deserves a closer look."
Washington led 21-16 at halftime, despite having given up 297 yards.
If a sequence summed up the game for BYU, it came midway through the third quarter.
Trailing 28-16, the Cougars had a golden chance to get back into the game after Robertson Daniel returned an interception to the Washington 11. However, Bronson Kaufusi was assessed a personal foul on the play, backing the Cougars to the 26, and they went three and out. Cody Hoffman dropped a pass in the end zone to put a blemish on an otherwise spectacular final game as a Cougar (8 catches, 109 yards). Then, Justin Sorensen's 44-yard field goal was wide left after a bad snap.
"First of all, things get tight [near the end zone]," said BYU quarterback Taysom Hill. "When we get down there, we have to execute at a really high level, and we didn't do that. We had a couple of penalties that really killed us."
That ineffectiveness in the scoring zone was the story of the game, and the Cougars' season at least against good teams.
The Cougars lost despite another strong performance by Hill, who carried the ball a career-high 31 times for 133 yards and a touchdown, and completed 25 of 48 passes for 293 yards, with one late interception.
But Hill couldn't get the Cougars into the end zone enough, especially in the first half when they had chance after chance.
The Cougars racked up 297 yards in the first two quarters, but only 16 points as the last three drives of the half sputtered once they reached the red zone, or close to it.
"I thought Taysom led our team really well," Mendenhall said. "I thought he played hard and physical. He gave us a great chance to win the game, and stay in it."
Washington's offense is the one that looked good early, driving 71 yards for an easy 11-yard touchdown run by Bishop Sankey on its first possession. Sankey earned Offensive Player of the Game honors after rushing for 95 yards and two touchdowns.
Washington's Hau'oli Kikaha was the Defensive Player of the Game.
However, a big defensive stop by BYU's Kyle Van Noy when Tuiasosopo gambled on fourth-and-2 at the BYU 4 pumped some life into the Cougars, who promptly drove 88 yards for the tying touchdown, a 1-yard dive by Hill.
The Cougars gambled on fourth-and-2 early in the drive, lining safety Daniel Sorensen in short punt formation. The senior ran around the right side to pick up the first down on the first and only carry of his career.
"We came to win the game," Mendenhall told a radio reporter as he left the field at halftime.
It didn't stay tied long. Ross returned the subsequent kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown, the longest kickoff return in the bowl's 12-year history.
"Really, the game was summarized by our kickoff coverage team [allowing] a touchdown, and another one back to the 30-ish," Mendenhall said.
Washington's third touchdown in the first half was also set up by a long kickoff return, 47 yards.
The Cougars answered with a decent drive after Ross' TD, but it stalled after Ryker Mathews was flagged for holding, and Justin Sorensen kicked a 45-yard field goal, his longest of the season. Sorensen kicked two more field goals in the first half, from 31 yard and 32 yards, as promising drives stalled in the red zone. His 21 field goals in 2013 is a school record.
The Cougars faced the five-point deficit at the break despite having outgained the Huskies 152 yards and having picked up 18 first downs to UW's 11. They couldn't move the ball nearly as well in the second half, however, and fell to 13-17-1 as a program in bowl games.
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