After narrowly losing to unbeaten Coastal Carolina a week ago, the BYU football team said all the right things. Coach Kalani Sitaki said it was an opportunity for “redemption” after the Cougars shed their undefeated tag and dropped in the Associated Press poll.
The No. 14 Cougars got some of that redemption Saturday in a 28-14 win over the San Diego State Aztecs. BYU finishes the regular season 10-1 and still has an outside opportunity for a New Year’s Six bowl appearance. The team was ranked No. 18 in the College Football Playoff rankings coming in to Saturday’s game.
“We just knew the more possessions that we would get, that we’d be OK,” junior wide receiver Neil Pau’u said. “But we knew that those possessions would be limited because of the offense that they run at San Diego State. So when we had those possessions, just to treasure them and be able continue just the roll that we know that we can do.”
Cougars junior quarterback Zach Wilson threw three touchdown passes and amassed 310 yards on 25-of-34 passing. He threw to four receivers, but Pau’u paced the group with a career-high 117 yards on eight catches.
BYU didn’t run the ball much. Junior running back Lopini Katoa led the way in that category with 85 yards on 13 carries. Wilson contributed 7 yards.
BYU’s win came in comeback fashion. It feel behind 14-7 in the first quarter, but buckled down on defense and shut out the Aztecs the rest of the way.
“All the other players on defense really stepped up in crucial moments,” senior defensive lineman Zac Dawe said. “I think that was the difference in the game.”
The Aztecs had the opportunity to take the lead in a period that bridged the third and fourth quarters. SDSU managed two third-down conversions and was just two yards from a fourth-down conversion to keep the drive going. But the Cougars forced a turnover on downs.
BYU forced another turnover on downs late in the fourth quarter when the Aztecs were enjoying a long drive and were inside the 10-yard line. San Diego State quarterback Jordon Brookshire, on fourth-and-2, had some daylight as he ran the ball himself, but slipped on the snowy field and fell.
“I’m super proud of the whole defense,” Dawe said. “I think everyone was just rallying and doing their job. Sometimes things weren’t going our way. We were bending but we didn’t break. And everyone showed effort, especially down in the goal line.”
Both teams benefitted from takeaways. The Aztecs recovered a Cougars fumble and turned it into a touchdown, while BYU sophomore linebacker Drew Jensen’s interception led to a touchdown and a 14-14 tie midway through the second quarter.
Pau’u said Jensen’s interception shifted the momentum toward BYU.
“Who knows, if we didn’t get the pick from Drew, they maybe go up 21-7 and now we’re trying to recover from that,” Pau’u said.
The Cougars took the lead for good when sophomore kicker Jake Oldroyd converted a 50-yard field goal the third quarter, giving BYU a 17-14 lead. He made another field goal later in the frame for a 20-14 lead.
NO. 14 BYU 28, SAN DIEGO STATE 14
• BYU quarterback Zach Wilson throws passes for 310 yards and three touchdowns.
• The Cougars use 21-0 run after first quarter to win the game.
• BYU forces two turnovers on downs in the fourth quarter.
What mattered about the latter field goal is it represented more points off turnovers for BYU. The Cougars had recovered an SDSU fumble to give them possession.
Wilson and the Cougars started fast, scoring on their first possession of the game as he threw a 5-yard pass to wide junior receiver Dax Milne. BYU gave up two consecutive touchdowns before Wilson threw a 2-yard pass to freshman tight end Isaac Rex.
“A lot of what happened in the first quarter was they were able to just break tackles and create a lot of plays,” Sitake said. “I thought assignment-wise, we were in good spots. But we just had to wrap up.”
The Aztecs’ Brookshire threw for 230 yards on 21-of-31 passing, while Kaegun Williams and Greg Bell provided the bulk of the run game at 95 and 68 yards, respectively. SDSU gained 399 yards of total offense to BYU’s 384.