Saturday, November 18, 2023 dawned early for me. In fairness, it dawned early for everyone in Provo, because that’s what a 10:00 am local time kickoff does to a person. It took a little time to rouse Elizabeth from bed because she was still so worn out from my birthday the day before. Our AirBNB was a full mile from LaVell Edwards Stadium. While I ate leftovers from brunch the day before, there was little time to worry when I realized I didn’t have the tickets downloaded off of my StubHub and they weren’t pulling up. One panicky call to customer support later, and the tickets were screenshotted on my phone, Elizabeth was dressed for the cool Utah morning, and we were out the door, beginning the 1.3 mile walk northbound on University Avenue.

It was 8:30 in the morning, and for the first and only time in Big 12 conference play, the University of Oklahoma Sooners were in Provo to play the BYU Cougats.

At first blush, this looked like it should be a rather easy game for the Sooners. Although BYU was 5-5, they had suffered absolute beatdowns in their previous three games – a 35-6 loss to Texas (who Oklahoma beat!), a 37-7 loss to West Virginia (who Oklahoma had literally just destroyed!), and a 45-13 loss to Iowa State (who Oklahoma had crushed earlier in the year!). They were down to their third option at QB, a junior college transfer named Jake Retzlaff who had really struggled in those blowout losses. Meanwhile, Oklahoma was coming in with some serious struggles in road games all year, but they had just crushed the Mountaineers at home to hopefully excorcise the demons of the back-to-back losses at Kansas and Oklahoma State. They were 26-point favorites in this game, and it felt like there was good reason for them to be such massive favorites.


Well before Elizabeth and I reached the stadium, there was every indication that BYU might not have the home-field advantage that they were accustomed to. Crimson and cream jackets, sweatshirts, and hats made up an impressive proportion of the sea of humanity all swirling northward toward the stadium. The Starbucks at University and Provo Canyon Road, which we stopped at to get Elizabeth her morning coffee, was entirely overrun by Sooner fans. Which seemed more impressive until just now as I was writing this post and remembered that Mormons don’t drink coffee.

In spite of the early start to the day, the two of us were to LaVell Edwards about 50 minutes before kickoff – plenty of time to enjoy the scenes at one of college football’s most beautiful venues.

A local BYU TV Show was hosting their own edition of a pregame show right in the street in front of the stadium.

People were happy. So happy! If I was one of them, forced to watch my badly-fading team play an 8-2 opponent that was favored by 4 touchdowns, I guess I’d be happy too, because I’d be freed from the pain of worrying about the outcome. Perhaps the secret to Mormon optimism isn’t too far away from good old-fashioned nihilism.

Or perhaps the secret to optimism is the almighty Cougar Tail. You see, the Cougar Tail is a legendary part of any BYU home game. It’s a 15-inch maple donut that BYU fans bake up thousands of before every single home game. The current estimate is that if you stacked up every single Cougar Tail sold on a given Saturday, they would extend for 2 whole miles. Elizabeth and I had first heard of them on a late Saturday night in 2022 while watching BYU and Baylor play, and I needed one. It was almost quite literally the first thing I did when we walked into the stadium: get in line for a Cougar Tail.

The people in line, the people we bumped into, the people handing us the treat – they were all so freaking nice. Someone told me they were so glad that OU fans had the chance to come here. They were all self-deprecating yet resolutely optimistic about their team. And they were all excited to see Elizabeth and me about to split a Cougar Tail. I’m not saying every crowd needs to treat me like I’m wearing an OU shirt in Stillwater (been there, done that), but it was a little bit much.

The Cougar Tail? Also a bit much. But zero regrets.

You are not seeing that entire donut. There is still a decent amount of donut covered up by the donut sleeve. And despite the fact that they were mass-produced, this thing was pillowy to the extreme and the icing was unbelievable. Elizabeth and I passed it back and forth until it was nothing but a wrapper before the game even kicked off.

Now – about that stadium view. Elizabeth claims it’s better than the Rose Bowl. I don’t buy that for a second, but the cloud deck was just high enough to make it an absolutely perfect edition of Football Weather With A View. I’d originally bought the tickets so we were facing the mountains, influenced by hours of watching BYU games on TV over the first 26 years of my life. That meant instead of being in the OU section, Elizabeth and I would be surrounded by BYU fans. I did at least wonder if I’d made the right choice – up until we walked up to the upper deck and saw the mountains capped in snow from the night before.

For the next 4 hours or so, that view belonged to us (and the exceedingly polite BYU fans around us). Oh, what a place Utah is.

The game kicked off at 10:00 local time, making it the earliest college football game I’d ever been to. OU got the ball first and quickly had to punt. BYU did the same thing. Then, in the middle of the first quarter, Dillon Gabriel found Jayden Gibson wide open on a bomb down the right sideline inside the 5. A few plays later, Gabriel hit Nic Anderson for a three-yard score. And just like that, it was 7-0, Sooners. We were on track.

Well, life is never that simple. Retzlaff might not have been any good in a dropback passing game, but BYU had a really solid gameplan to move the ball against a more-talented OU defense. They’d clearly learned from UCF and Kansas that misdirection and getting the ball outside were winning strategies against the Sooners, who were more eager than fundamentally sound. They came out running a modern variation of the triple option on their second drive and went down the field in 10 plays to score, capped by a 23-yard touchdown pass on a 4th and 1 rollout pass. Just like that, it was tied at 7 late in the first quarter.

Both teams traded disasters after that. Oklahoma pulled off a nifty fake punt on 4th down that was overturned by a (correct) offensive pass interference call, and when BYU was set up by a great punt return with field position at midfield, they promptly fumbled their first play. To me, this was a good sign that I didn’t need to start feeling the creep of “one of those” games. Elizabeth had already been angrily yelling at the game enough that I had to remind her that it was only the first quarter. Sometimes you just need to watch with a level head. And speaking of level heads, there was Gabriel calmly firing a strike to Jayden Gibson in the back of the end zone right in front of us to make it 14-7. This was feeling like a real win for team “Don’t panic too early”.

And then BYU put together another 10 play drive, this one feeling like it was right out of the Mike Stoops era. There was a third-down conversion with a missed tackle that turned into 30 yards. There was an inexplicably perfect throw by Retzlaff on a third and long under pressure. And there was no question once the Cougars got inside the 10 that they’d punch the ball home to tie the game at 14. And at this point, I accepted fate. It might be a 26-point spread, but this was indeed going to be one of those games.

I had to give it to the BYU fans a lot of credit. The stadium was a long way from completely full, and a good 20-30% of the people who were in the stadium were wearing the color red. LaVell Edwards Stadium holds 63,000 – not a bad total for a school that was making its major-conference debut, but also far from the most imposing venue OU had ever been to. And yet, those fans were loud. They were excited for every good play that their team made. They weren’t daunted by the weather, which had turned cloudy with occasional spits of rain. And they sang Taylor Swift during commercial breaks at alarmingly high participation rates. Between the crowd and the grass, which was super overgrown and slick, Provo was turning out to be a much bigger home field advantage than I think any Sooner could have guessed.

Gabriel and Company used their last possession before the half well. BYU was able to occasionally slow OU down, but it seemed like they could run the ball at will, and if given the time to process the field Gabriel was finding the open receiver. He hit huge third down conversions to Drake Stoops and Austin Stogner to help bring the ball inside the ten. But when OU turned to Gabriel to run the ball in as he had done so many times this year, the disgusting BYU turf proved to be a slipping hazard, and he fell backwards onto his head. Oklahoma had to settle for a field goal. After a BYU drive featuring another obnoxious fourth down conversion, their kicker absolutely drilled a 49-yard field goal to tie the game at 17 at the half. I shook my head in distaste.

Elizabeth and I separated at halftime, her to go get something to eat for lunch, and me to run to the bathroom (the game had taken away my appetite. Not joking). Along the way, I managed to settle myself down with the knowledge that as bad as OU’s defense looked, it seemed like OU’s offense was looking even more effortless. Sure, it was going to be ugly, but I thought Gabriel was probably going to drag OU to a 34-27 victory or something like that. So you can probably imagine my reaction when I got back to our seats and read the news on Twitter that OU’s starting quarterback had suffered an “upper body injury” on that headfirst fall at the end of the half. He was out for the game, and the much-ballyhooed Jackson Arnold was about to get his introduction to major collegiate football. 

I shared the news with the exceedingly polite BYU fans near me (who had given Elizabeth and myself towels to wipe down our bleachers because of course they had). And then I buried my head in my hands.

Elizabeth got back just in time for the second half to start, by which the whole stadium was beginning to buzz about the freshman Arnold’s sudden thrust into prominence. If things had been loud before, now they were electric. OU managed to hold BYU near midfield on their first possession, meaning that Arnold started in the shadow of his own goal line. And it was… shaky. Twice OU had to punt immediately with no real semblance of offense. They spent the first half of that third quarter in the shadow of their own end zone as the crowd just got more and more into it. BYU got the ball back for a third time in the quarter and immediately started gashing OU on the ground. It took just three plays to get to first and goal at the Oklahoma 2. I watched in resignation as Retzlaff dropped back to pass – and threw the ball straight into Billy Bowman’s chest.

Billy Bowman, the Oklahoma safety. Billy Bowman, who’d saved a touchdown with a tackle on the last play. Billy Bowman, who had been supposed to do something different with the play but noticed a slot receiver lining up with no one on him and hustled down to cut off the route, and who was now taking the ball the length of the field down the near sideline so that it looked like he was running right at Elizabeth and me. After the initial shock and disbelief, Elizabeth and I had popped out of our seats right as everyone around us sat down glumly. I was vaguely aware of the opposite corner of the stadium, where the OU partisans were wildly cheering in a peculiar noise that you loathe to hear as a home fan but now sounded like the sweetest sound in the world to me. Bowman finished off his pick-six in style, running out of gas just barely ahead of Retzlaff and somersaulting into the corner of the end zone just ahead of us. After high fives and an extra point, I turned to Elizabeth and said, “Boy, they needed that”. It was 24-17 and OU had just bought themselves a get out of jail free card.

And how long did the Sooners take to spend it? Not very. BYU put together yet another one of those annoying drives (wasn’t this team supposed to be the picture of offensive ineptitude???), marked by yet another of those fourth-down conversions, and Retzlaff dove into the end zone to tie the game once more at 24 near the end of the 3rd quarter. If OU was going to escape, Arnold would have to do something.

Or… would he? Jeff Lebby appeared to have a brilliant idea with Arnold’s third possession: what if OU just ran the ball? And with that, Gavin Sawchuk started to take the game over. He ran for 29 yards, then 13, then Arnold made his first “wow” throw of his career to Jalil Farooq to convert a 3rd and 13. Oklahoma did stall out, but kicker Zach Schmitt just needed to make a 28-yard field goal to take the lead back… and of course he hooked it. Well, ok. I could sense Elizabeth’s tension next to me. In my head, this was an annoying game but couldn’t ruin what had been an amazing birthday trip. But if you’re the planner of the trip like she was, don’t you want things to all work out? The whole story is so much better if the good guys win.

This time, it was Danny Stutsman who saved the day. He came off the edge on a 3rd and medium and dumped Retzlaff on the ground, separating the ball along the way. OU picked it up and suddenly with 8 minutes to go had a chance to go take control. Sawchuk did just that, picking up a tough 3rd and 1 and suddenly exploding to the next level to reach the end zone. This back-and-forth affair once more leaned to the Crimson and Cream, 31-24.

This time, the lead would hold. OU’s defense needed to make one more stop and did so emphatically, easily holding BYU to a three-and-out in a faint echo of the dominant defensive performance I had expected going in. Arnold briefly made me fear that we would all regret him barely overthrowing a wide open Nic Anderson on what would have been a dagger deep shot to start OU’s final drive, but Sawchuk picked up a first down on the ground, then Arnold did, and all of a sudden BYU was using their final timeouts and the game was coming down to a 3rd and 8 from the 38. Apparently the true freshman QB audibled into a pass play because he liked the matchup, and then he had the stones to fire in a dart to Farooq to put the game on ice. I’ve seen a lot of performances under pressure, and that one was noteworthy to me for how poised it was.

As disappointed BYU fans began to file toward the exit, Elizabeth and I looked at each other. Undoubtedly it had been an entertaining game to a neutral observer – a David vs. Goliath situation with many twist and turns. So, as the winners, were we elated? Not really. Relieved is the best word I can think of. It would be such a damn shame to go to this beautiful town, see this beautiful stadium, and then remember how you were part of college football’s biggest upset in 2023. I could see the humor in the game; in time, as the strain disappeared, it would probably be even more fun to look back on than it was to watch. But for now: OU had survived.

In the meantime, Michigan had survived their own unexpectedly close struggle with Maryland in their annual look-past-this-opponent-to-Ohio-State-next-week game. So my teams were off the hook.

As we began the walk back to the condo, I was struck once more by the BYU faithful. To let a winnable game like that – especially a winnable game against a top-15 opponent in a signature opportunity where you shot yourself in the foot too many times to win – would have been about all I could bear. If I was 10, I might damn well have been crying. And yet if Cougar fans were upset, they hid it extremely well. They chatted, laughed with each other, and two of them even took the time to give me unsolicited advice to get some nuggets from a food truck set up outside the stadium. Given that I hadn’t eaten lunch, that actually sounded delicious, so I did just that while Elizabeth went to Swig to get a celebratory frosty root Dr. Pepper.

It was good advice. The nuggets were piping hot and the fries with them were well-seasoned, which hit just right on a cold afternoon. But still, I found myself wishing some BYU fan would scream “fuck you” at me instead of giving me excellent dining advice. That’s how football is supposed to work.

We got back to the condo (just in time for Elizabeth, whose pants kept sliding down) and took some much-needed relaxation time. It had been an early morning, a couple of long walks, and a lot of stress. I think it would have been a perfectly fine afternoon to just lay on the couch in the condo and watch a little football. But the Houston Cougars jumped out to a big lead over Oklahoma State in a game that could accidentally put OU back into the driver’s seat to make the Big 12 title game. With that, OU fans and beat writers were making a lot of noise about taking over the only bar in Provo. You didn’t want to miss that kind of environment. So we got ourselves presentable for dinner and drove on over to ABG’s bar, just a block west of Station 22 on Center Street.

The bar was indeed filled up with Oklahoma fans. The TVs in the bar were set to the second half of the Oklahoma State game, where the Cowboys were coming back in the game to the chagrin of the patrons. There was nary a seat to be found for a while, as OU fans watched the game, drank the cheap whiskey sours (that might have just been me), and played pool. Eventually the crowd began to filter out closer to dinnertime and the two of us got some comfy barstools.

Houston wasn’t able to pull off the miracle for Oklahoma, but BYU might get the job done next week in Stillwater if both of those teams played like they did today. Meanwhile, we had a later reservation for dinner, so we watched the start of the Iowa State/Texas and Washington/Oregon State games while I drank whiskey sour number three. Mid-November football can’t be beat.

Dinner on November 18 was at another restaurant Elizabeth had found in the course of putting together this amazing weekend trip. This one was the Black Sheep Restaurant, a contemporary southwestern Native American restaurant (I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this, but Provo has an insanely good collection of various ethnic foods). This one lived up to the billing. First of all, they had green chili goat cheese queso as an appetizer option. If you know me, you know all 5 of those words are directly in my wheelhouse. And then when you factor in the homemade chips with it, you get a great start to the meal.

Next to that, just about any entree would work, and their frybread-style tacos were up to the task. In fact, the only thing I could say that wasn’t exactly perfect that evening was my fatigue level – Elizabeth and I were both starting to crash a bit. It was a bit comical how early it still was – like 7:30 on a Saturday evening – but I guess it’s not like Provo had some insane nightlife that we were missing out on. The two of us dragged our weary butts back to the condo. From there, we watched a little more football, brushed our teeth, and I fell deep into a slumber.

This wasn’t the first time we’d celebrated my birthday at an OU football game – that would have been the OU/Kansas game in 2017. Nor was this even the most exciting birthday football game – that was the OU/Baylor game in 2019. But the combination of the absolutely gorgeous venue, surprisingly close and exciting game, and the excellent company Elizabeth had provided turned it into a near-perfect day in its own right. I always say Saturdays in the fall are sacred, and that especially becomes true in November. On this particularly November Saturday we had lived out that sacred life to its fullest.

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