Editor's note: This is the second in an eight-part series celebrating the 25th anniversary of BYU's 1984 national championship.
PROVO — The single greatest defensive play in BYU football history lives on, 25 years later.
On Sept. 22, 1984, in Honolulu, Hawaii, Cougar safety Kyle Morrell's timed leap over the line of scrimmage and subsequent tackle of Hawaii quarterback Rafael Cherry just short of the goal line helped preserve a hard-fought 18-13 win and, as it turned out, helped lead to BYU's national championship.
"Whenever I go anywhere, like the golf course or a movie, there's always somebody who introduces me as that guy who jumped over the line at Hawaii," Morrell says. "They don't remember my name. They just remember that play. It's kind of funny. I've gotten a lot of recognition for it, which is nice. But I'm just an average guy who was put in position to make a play and fortunately, it worked out."
As great as that play was, is it frustrating to be remembered for only one?
"That's the thing. I remember a lot of other plays I made," says Morrell, who ended up playing three seasons in the NFL. "The coaches have told me, 'That play won the national championship, but you made so many other great plays.' A lot of the coaches remember me as a kid who was willing to fly around on the football field and sacrifice his body."
Vai Sikahema, who starred on that '84 team, says this about Morrell's play: "I have said this at numerous events at BYU. Sometimes it's met with raised eyebrows. It's arguable, but the greatest single play in BYU sports was Kyle Morrell's leap over the line at Hawaii. Our offense wasn't playing very well that night. That play, to me, kept us on course that season. That one play, to me, epitomized an entire season. It was a microcosm of the entire season. Guys on our team did that — left their assignments for the greater good of the team, to make a play."
Weeks before Morrell's heroics, another amazing play occurred thousands of miles and several time zones away — in Pittsburgh. Unheralded wide receiver Adam Haysbert caught a 50-yard pass with 1:40 remaining in a 20-14 upset of then-No. 3 Pitt in the 1984 season-opener to kick-start what ended up being an undefeated season. It turned out to be one of the biggest touchdowns in BYU history.
"I remember that pass at the end of that game and Haysbert running through the end zone with his arms outstretched," remembers offensive lineman Trevor Matich. "That set off the season. From there, we didn't really talk about going undefeated, but there was an undercurrent that if we took care of business, at the end of the season, we could find ourselves at 13-0."
That game was historic because it was the first live college football game televised by ESPN.
The Panthers were No. 3 in the preseason rankings and boasted All-Americans and future NFL mainstays Bill Fralic and Chris Doleman. The unranked Cougars, meanwhile, had lost stars like Steve Young and Gordon Hudson from the previous season.
"Once we got there (to Pitt) we knew the game wasn't going to be a pushover," Haysbert said later. "We were confident we could win, but we knew we had to play our best game. When we got into town I remember that the media were comparing us to a high school team. And before the game Pitt was taunting us and trying to intimidate us."
The game was a defensive struggle. It wasn't pretty offensively. It took junior quarterback Robbie Bosco, feeling the pressure of replacing Young, a while to feel comfortable in his first career start.
"That first game, we were very raw. I was lacking confidence," Bosco says. "I didn't have any confidence. I always felt good in practice, but game-time was a whole different thing. The way we won it and the way the defense stepped up, that brings back a lot of great memories. That was one of the great games."
At the half, BYU led 3-0. In the second half, Pitt surged to a 14-12 advantage thanks to a couple of interceptions thrown by Bosco.
With less than two minutes remaining in the game, the Cougars trailed by two points and had the ball, third-down-and-four at midfield. The plan was to be conservative and move deeper into Pitt territory to give Lee Johnson the chance to kick a field goal, which, if successful, would have given the Cougars a one-point advantage. But first, BYU needed to convert on third down.
In the huddle, Bosco called for play "63," in which Haysbert would run a post pattern to clear out the defenders underneath the coverage while Glen Kozlowski would cut across the middle. All afternoon long, it was apparent that Pitt didn't respect BYU's ability to go deep. So when Panther free safety Bill Callahan left Haysbert, Bosco pulled the trigger and drilled a strike to his senior receiver, who hauled in the pass and dashed into the end zone, propelling the Cougars to a 20-14 lead.
Haysbert said later that throughout that game, he and other Cougars noticed holes in the Panther defense and were waiting for the perfect time to exploit it. "I knew that I could beat them deep," he said.
The play was thrilling for BYU's defense, which had been waiting for the offense to make a big play.
"Our defense was crushing Pittsburgh, which I think was a big surprise to them and everybody in the nation," remembers linebacker Leon White. "It was great to see Adam just break free for that touchdown. It was a crazy play and a great part of the history of that year."
What was coach LaVell Edwards' reaction to Haysbert's TD?
"I was excited about it," he says. "Then I looked at the clock and saw there was still a minute and a half left. We may have scored too quick."
Two days later, the previously unranked Cougars jumped to No. 13 in the Associated Press poll.
Three weeks later, No. 6, 3-0 BYU was in the Islands facing a fired-up Hawaii squad.
At the end of three quarters, the score was BYU 12, Hawaii 10. In the fourth quarter, Cherry led his team on a 10-minute, 84-yard drive down to the BYU two-yard line, first and goal. On first and second down, Cherry tried a quarterback sneak but both times he was stopped, after minimal gains, by linebacker Marv Allen. That brought third down and inches to go. Morrell decided, on his own, to line up across the line of scrimmage from Cherry as if he were the middle linebacker.
Just as Cherry took the snap, Morrell, with flawless timing, ran toward the line of scrimmage, launched himself over the center, collared Cherry by the shoulder pads, and made a complete flip in the air. On his way down to the Aloha Stadium turf, his teammates smothered Cherry. Hawaii had to settle for the field goal, giving it a 13-12 lead.
"Throughout the game, I really got to know their cadences," Morrell explains. "We were trying to disguise our coverages all night. I always tried to keep myself in position. I just thought, 'You've got to make something happen.' It was an instinctive thing. I'll never forget Rafael Cherry. I remember I could see his eyes as I went over the line. They were as big as saucers."
"I had no idea whatsoever that Kyle was going to do something like that. Honestly, even at the time, I didn't really know what happened," says defensive lineman Jim Herrmann. "I remember thinking the front got a good push. I remember the officials come in signaling that we had stopped them. It wasn't until I got back from Hawaii, after seeing the replay, that I realized what had happened. He timed it perfectly. He sacrificed the body, flew over there and reached down and grabbed him just right. It honestly was one of the top five plays in college football history. Some people will read that and roll their eyes. But when you look at the net effect of an undefeated season and what he did, it was a big play for sure."
At the time, Morrell didn't think of his heady play as a big deal. But over the course of the next week, The Play was being shown all across the nation, including on David Letterman's show.
Still, while Morrell's improvisational play is remembered by die-hard Cougar fans, it's not so well-known nationally.
"That may be one of the single most outstanding plays that I've ever seen a guy make," Edwards says. "It's a shame it didn't happen today because it would have been on ESPN and all of the other (highlight shows) because that play never got the (play) it should have. It was special."
"I'm a college football analyst for ESPN now and I see a lot of plays. I still haven't seen a play that tops that, in terms of timing and importance," says Matich, who says the closest comparison he knows of was the touchdown catch by Texas Tech's Michael Crabtree in the final seconds against Texas last season. "Morrell's play was just as big when you look back on it, as far as what it meant to the season."
"That has to be one of the greatest plays, given the situation," Bosco says. "The game was on the line, the season was on the line. It wasn't like we could afford to lose a game and still have a chance to win the national championship. For him to make that play was amazing. It was one of the great plays of all time."
After Hawaii's field goal, BYU re-took the lead by scoring on its next possession, a drive capped by a touchdown pass from Bosco to Kozlowski on third-and-21 with a little more than five minutes left. Still, the drama wasn't over.
Hawaii punted on its ensuing possession, but BYU failed to move the ball and also had to punt. Johnson's punt was blocked by Al Noga, giving Hawaii the ball at Cougar 16-yard line. Once again, BYU's defense kept Hawaii out of the end zone. Receiver Walter Murray dropped a pass that hit his hands in the end zone with 40 seconds remaining.
The Cougars escaped Honolulu that night with their perfect season still intact, barely. Two days later, when the polls came out, BYU had fallen to No. 8. No one in Provo was upset about that, though.
And — who knows? — without Haysbert's TD catch against Pitt, Morrell's high-flying antics probably wouldn't be remembered like it is today.
Those two plays, which occurred weeks apart and on opposite ends of the country, served as cornerstones of BYU's national championship season.
TOMORROW: What's happened to the BYU players who won the 1984 national championship?