State Colleges

Hard work has BYU Cougars rumbling into Beach Bowl

The Brigham Young University Cougars hold their practice for the Miami Beach Bowl at FIU Ocean Bank Stadium, Dec. 18, 2014. The Cougars will play the Memphis Tigers in the Bowl game at Marlins Park, Dec. 22, 2014.
The Brigham Young University Cougars hold their practice for the Miami Beach Bowl at FIU Ocean Bank Stadium, Dec. 18, 2014. The Cougars will play the Memphis Tigers in the Bowl game at Marlins Park, Dec. 22, 2014. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Quarterback Christian Stewart returned to Brigham Young University in 2013 thinking of football as his past and an accounting degree as his future. Only the end remains when every FBS school, even FIU, leaves you on the shelf.

As of Thursday, the accounting degree remains thus. But football, too, remains with Stewart for one more game, the Miami Beach Bowl, after one of the college football season’s biggest injuries started his 1980s sports movie rise from backup to late-season storied program star.

BYU finished the season on a four-game winning streak. In that run, Stewart threw 14 touchdowns, only one interception, and has been over 10 yards per attempt in each of the last three games.

“Every single game, he’s improved,” BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “His first start was Central Florida (a 31-24 overtime loss). He gave us a great chance. A game that got away from us early was Boise State (a 55-30 loss). That wasn’t so much him as the entire team and the supporting cast. Our team loves Christian, and our coaches love him. He’s worked really hard, he’s a great leader, he’s a fantastic kid, and he’s done everything he can to help our team.

“My challenge to the rest of the team has been that I’d love to see them improve, work as hard and mature and grow as fast as what he’s done.”

BYU was 4-0 and rumbling toward bashing through the College Football Playoff wall when quarterback Taysom Hill suffered a broken leg in the second quarter against Utah State. In came Stewart for the remainder of what would be a 35-20 loss, the first of four consecutive losses.

“When [Hill] went down, it was kind of, ‘What now?’” Mendenhall said. “I think our team thought the same thing. And it played that way for a while. For a while, the team identity was lost without Taysom.”

The list of Heisman Trophy contenders included Hill before a list of BYU football scholarship players included Stewart.

He had been a walk-on in 2008 out of Orem (Utah) Timpanogos High. After a redshirt season and serving his two-year Mormon mission in Japan, Stewart saw five scholarship quarterbacks ahead of him, with two more getting offers from BYU.

Stewart chose transferring to junior college, Snow College, over quitting football. As a starter his second year, he completed 55.7 percent of his passes, threw for 37 touchdowns, 10 interceptions, averaged 240.1 passing yards per game and 9.1 yards per attempt (that’s good).

“I was the second-rated junior college quarterback in the country, and I didn’t have one DivisionI offer,“ Stewart said while standing in FIU Stadium, where BYU is practicing this week. “Actually, FIU was recruiting me but decided not to offer me. I just decided to quit football and go back to BYU for school to have [a degree from] one of the top accounting programs in the country. I was pursuing that, and I ran into one of the coaches. He said, ‘Hey, we want you back on the team.’”

Though he appeared in only one 2013 game and threw two passes, Stewart earned a scholarship for 2014.

“I didn’t think I’d see much of the field because we had an amazing quarterback ahead of me,” Stewart said.

That changed when Hall’s break turned into Stewart’s. Believing Stewart was BYU’s only quarterback ready to play, Mendenhall took some of the quarterback runs out of the offense and worked to Stewart’s strength, throwing downfield.

“As far as my ability to play, score touchdowns and win games, I had that confidence all along,” Stewart said. “There were times when doubt was able to creep in just because we had lost four games in a row and it didn’t matter whether I’d played really well or really badly, we kept losing. That was when our team came together, after the Boise State game.

“We got our mouth kicked in. We had to come together as a team. We either lay down or we come together and turn this thing around. That’s what we’ve been able to do the last four games.”