Provo • It took 11 games, but BYU finally reached one of its goals for the 2018 season on a chilly Senior Night, crushing fellow independent New Mexico State 45-10 at one-third empty LaVell Edwards Stadium to get its sixth win and become bowl-eligible.
Next up is the chance to do something it has failed to do in two tries — win one of its three self-described rivalry games.
The Cougars (6-5) finish regular-season play Saturday at rival Utah (8-3) with a little bit of momentum and confidence after two consecutive blowout wins against overmatched teams, but still haven’t figured out how to start games with force or purpose. That won’t work in Salt Lake City, where they haven’t won since 2006.
BYU scored 38 unanswered points after falling behind 7-0 as temperatures dropped into the low 30s to pay off the announced crowd of 47,505 hardy souls who braved the cold and late-night kickoff to honor 25 seniors. It was the second-smallest announced crowd since LES was renovated in 1982, a thousand or so more than the 46,451 who watched BYU rout San Jose State last year.
Freshman quarterback Zach Wilson heated up to throw for 172 yards after repeatedly misfiring early and the Cougars’ rushing attack did the rest against one of the worst defenses in the Football Championship Subdivision. BYU rushed for more than 300 yards yards, with freshman Lopini Katoa picking up four touchdowns and senior Matt Hadley two.
The folks who hung around for the fourth quarter got to see senior quarterback Tanner Mangum relieve Wilson with 14:14 remaining — drawing the biggest applause of the night — and lead the Cougars on a 73-yard touchdown drive. Mangum connected with tight end Dallin Holker for a 21-yard strike after Katoa’s 50-yard run, his first completion since Oct. 5 against Utah State.
However, he was intercepted in the end zone on BYU’s next drive after walk-on freshman Tyler Allgeier ran 44 yards to the NMSU 1.
It wouldn’t be a BYU football game in a dramatic 2018 season without a rocky opening act. After falling behind Boise State 14-0 and UMass 10-0 in successive weeks, the Cougars spotted the Aggies an early touchdown and netted just 11 yards on their first three possessions.
Trailing 7-0 after NMSU’s Drew Dan made a fantastic diving catch in the end zone, the Cougars caught a break when a pass ricocheted off Rhett Sandlin to Malik Moore, who recorded his first career interception and set BYU up at the Aggies’ 15. Four plays later, Hadley powered into the end zone to tie the score at 7.
Isaiah Kaufusi’s second career pick thwarted a promising NMSU drive, and BYU subsequently drove 77 yards to take a lead it would not relinquish. Hadley’s nifty 40-yard touchdown run made it 14-7.
Katoa then scored on BYU’s next two possessions in the second quarter with 15- and 13-yard touchdown runs, capping 58- and 60-yard drives, and the rout was on. Katoa finished with a career-high 156 yards on 14 carries.
The Cougars added a 23-yard field goal by Skyler Southam to end the first half with a 31-7 lead, having scored 31 unanswered points after the abysmal opening 10 minutes.
Wilson was 9 of 20 for 119 yards in the first half. Kieffer Longson got his first career start at left guard, replacing Keanu Saleapaga in the lineup.
After gaining 85 yards on its touchdown drive, NMSU picked up just 86 yards the rest of the half.
BYU played without star defensive end Corbin Kaufusi, who sustained a season-ending foot injury early in the 35-16 win over UMass last week. His brother, freshman Devin Kaufusi, started in his place.
Kaufusi joins linebacker Zayne Anderson, cornerback Chris Wilcox and tight end Moroni Laulu Pututau among starters who have suffered a season-ending injury in 2018.
Running back Squally Canada and linebacker Riggs Powell were also held out Saturday; Their status for the Utah game is unclear.
BYU 45, New Mexico State 10
• BYU scores 38 unanswered points in after spotting NMSU an early touchdown and rolls to its sixth win of the season
• Standout senior defensive end Corbin Kaufusi did not play after sustaining a season-ending foot injury in last week’s game at UMass
• Bowl-eligible BYU (6-5) finishes the regular season Saturday at rival Utah