Los Angeles • The BYU football team gave up prime field position on the opening drive of the game when the USC Trojans returned the kickoff for 61 yards. But the Cougars followed up that subpar sequence with gritty defense and allowed only a field goal as opposed to a touchdown.
On USC’s final drive, when it was inside the red zone and knocking on the door of a win, the BYU defense showed up again, this time forcing a turnover on downs.
When the Cougars needed them most, the defense came up big, allowing them to eke out a 35-31 victory over the Trojans on Saturday at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum after they gave up a 15-point third-quarter lead.
The times when BYU’s defense delivered against USC was a reminder of not only the depth it that’s developed on that side of the ball, but also that the Cougars don’t necessarily have to play lights on offense to win games.
“I think that’s what’s helped us be so successful this year,” said quarterback Jaren Hall, who threw two touchdowns and two interceptions while tallying 276 yards. “It hasn’t just been one side of the ball doing one thing and the offense scoring a bunch of points to win these games.
“The defense has really been slept on a lot from the outside.”
The win over USC gave BYU a 10-2 season and also an undefeated record against the five Pac-12 teams it faced in the regular season. The Cougars allowed an average of 24.3 points through 12 games.
The Cougars trailed 31-28 after USC scored and added a 2-point conversation in the fourth quarter. Quarterback Jaren Hall threw an interception — his second of the game — but the Cougars forced a USC punt just two minutes later.
The resulting drive by BYU featured a fumble that was then recovered, and a strong 7-yard rushing touchdown by Jackson McChesney, who entered the game for Tyler Allgeier. That TD provided the final score, but the Cougars forcing the turnover on downs secured the win.
“We have guys that have stepped in and we believe in,” sophomore linebacker Max Tooley said. “We have confidence in them. There was no doubt in my mind that we were going to get that fourth-down stop and win the game.”
Coach Kalani Sitake said with all the players missing on the defensive end — Keenan Ellis, Chaz Ah You and Keenan Pili to name a few — the ones who saw the field in their stead Saturday hadn’t really played much at all, particularly early in the season.
So guys like Tooley and Ben Bywater had to step up. They each contributed 13 tackles. Sitake also mentioned the defensive performances and overall development of Jacob Boren, Matthew Criddle, Ammon Hennemann, Jakob Robinson and others.
“I credit them for getting better and developing even during the season,” Sitake said. “We felt really good about the progress that we saw from a lot of different people.”
BYU has an outside chance of getting a New Year’s Six bowl as an at-large team. Whether that happens or it’s another bowl game, the Cougars proved plenty on the defensive end Saturday — and that side of the ball isn’t even at full strength.