BYU Cougars show they can win ugly if they need to

Team showed grit in rallying past San Diego State late Saturday night

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brigham Young Cougars running back Lopini Katoa (4) runs the ball as BYU hosts San Diego State, NCAA football in Provo on Saturday, December 12, 2020.

It’s been a while since the BYU football team has played in a tight game and won.

In fact, one would have to go all the way back to Oct. 10 against UTSA to find a game that BYU won by less than 17 points. That game, which was homecoming, ended in a 27-20 victory for the Cougars after they gave up the first three points.

Fans might not think the 28-14 victory over San Diego State on Saturday was close because of the two-touchdown advantage. But much like looking in the side mirror of a car, it was closer than it appeared.

BYU didn’t tackle well early in the game and gave up a slew of third-down conversions to the Aztecs. Then the Cougars turned the ball over, and the Aztecs got a touchdown off of it. Things weren’t looking good early on for BYU, to say the least.

The Cougars needed a momentum-shifting play on defense just to put themselves in a position to tie the game. Then they needed a deeper-than-deep field goal to take the lead. BYU got both those sequences to go in their favor, and they cruised from there on out.

San Diego State is no slouch. It gave BYU problems even when it was down two touchdowns but making a late run. Again, though, the Cougars’ sheer grit helped keep the Aztecs at bay. They forced two turnovers in the fourth quarter, despite SDSU being in the red zone in both sequences.

“These guys are resilient, they’re hard workers,” coach Kalani Sitake said. “I just love the way that they respond to anything that has any type of adversity. The leadership that we saw from those guys, it’s really a great thing for me as a coach to see, so I’m thankful that I had these players.”

Three takeaways

• The Cougars can play some very gritty defense. It was most apparent in the fourth quarter when San Diego State was trying to get back in the game and in the middle of an elongated drive.

It was first and goal on the BYU 4-yard line and the Aztecs, who run better than they pass, were looking to cut the lead in half. But for four straight downs, BYU’s defensive line just didn’t let up.

That sequence ensured that SDSU stayed scoreless for three quarters after scoring 14 points in the first.

• BYU might have to be careful going forward against teams that run the ball well and like to eat clock. Coastal Carolina did it to the Cougars, so did San Diego State.

BYU’s defense helped against the Aztecs, and it helped that Zach Wilson looked like Zach Wilson again. But if the blueprint on how to compete and maybe beat the Cougars is out there now, they’ll need to find a way to adjust more quickly to that.

• Jake Oldroyd should get drafted to the NFL. His 50-yard field goal Saturday was the third this season alone from at least that distance. Plus he’s 12-of-12 on field goals this year to boot. And he’s only a sophomore, so he’s just going to get better.

“He’s a big-time weapon for us,” Sitake said, adding that he wants Oldroyd to take more field goals and PATs going forward. “The guy has ice in his veins.”

Player of the game

Zach Wilson, junior, quarterback.

Wilson threw three touchdown passes and tallied 310 yards on 25-of-34 passing. He once again showed off his NFL-caliber arm strength but also his creativity. In one sequence, he got out of pressure by floating a push pass to Lopini Katoa, who got the conversion to keep the drive alive.

Play of the game

With BYU trailing 14-7 earlier in the second quarter, Drew Jensen snatched a pass out of the air for an interception. Forcing that turnover led to a Cougars touchdown and shifted the momentum — particularly on defense — in their favor for the remainder of the game.

Up next

BYU awaits a bowl opponent after finishing the season 10-1. But Sitake did not rule out playing again if the bowl game is far enough in the future.

“We love playing football,” Sitake said. “We’ll see how it works. But I’m not [BYU athletic director] Tom Holmoe. He knows what we want — we want to play football. Depending on when the bowl game is and who we face in the bowl game, if there’s time in between, we would love to fit a game there.”