Despite injuries, BYU’s defense comes up big when it counts in the win over USC

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brigham Young Cougars defensive back Dayan Ghanwoloku (5) celebrates a touchdown as BYU hosts USC, NCAA football in Provo on Saturday Sept. 14, 2019.

Provo • On a 3rd-and-6, after his team had forced BYU to settle for a field goal to start overtime, USC quarterback Kedon Slovis’s pass tipped by Cougar linebacker Kavika Fonua — and intercepted by teammate Dayan Ghanwoloku.

The LaVell Edwards Stadium crowd roared and fans started storming the field, but Fonua had no idea what was going on — he hadn’t seen his teammate’s pick.

“When the crowd rushed the field, I was jumping up and down,” Fonua said. “I just tried to grab one person and said 'what happened?' I didn't know what we're cheering for, but something happened.”

The officials asked fans to get off the field as they reviewed the play. After they announced it was indeed an interception, sealing the 30-27 win for BYU, the fans once again took to the field.

During the wait, Ghanwoloku sat on the sidelines with Micah Simon. The pair wasn’t worried about a possible reversal — Ghanwoloku knocked himself over trying to keep a hold on the ball.

“The refs, you never know what’s going to happen,” he said. “So, me and Micah were on the bench... we didn’t have any doubt I didn’t catch it.”

The game-deciding, overtime interception was one of three picks from the BYU defense — a unit that went without a starters Zayne Anderson, Sawyer Powell and Keenan Pili, who was knocked out early in the game.

Still, BYU coach Kalani Sitake said the defense was able to do everything that was asked on it, and was able to rely on its depth.

“We were fortunate the first two weeks to not have so many injuries — in this one we got kind of banged up,” Sitake said. “I’m not sure how severe some of the injuries that we had, but we were able to go back to our depth that we were able to rely on and they all stepped up.”

After being slashed on the ground by Utah and Tennessee, BYU still gave up 171 rushing yards to the Trojans, but that was a big improvement over Weeks 1 and 2.

But the game was ultimately decided on turnovers. BYU picked off Slovis three times Saturday. The Cougars converted them into 10 points.

“It gets the crowd going, it gets the guys on the sideline going and just kind of flip the momentum back on our side,” BYU quarterback Zach Wilson said of the defense-inspired momentum shifts. “And that was kind of what we needed.”

Sitake was proud of the way the defense was able to get the ball back to the offense.

“They were excited to be on the field and the sidelines were all tuned in,” Sitake said.“We had pretty much the whole team involved in every play and the energy was really good and strong. And that’s nothing to do with the head coach — that’s the culture of the team and the leadership.”