Short-handed BYU beats SMU in New Mexico Bowl to cap off independence era

Led by third-string quarterback Sol-Jay Maiava-Peters and buoyed by an opportunistic defense, BYU pulls off unexpected win

SMU's Camar Wheaton, center, is tackled by BYU's Logan Pili (46) and Matthew Criddle, right, during the first half of the New Mexico Bowl NCAA college football game in Albuquerque, N.M., Saturday, Dec. 17, 2022. (Chancey Bush/The Albuquerque Journal via AP)

Albuquerque, N.M. • After the SMU Mustangs and quarterback Tanner Mordecai drove 88 yards in the final minutes of the New Mexico Bowl, the Cougars’ season came down to a single play.

BYU’s much-maligned defense finally got the stop it needed.

The Cougars wrapped up and stopped a two-point conversion with 8 seconds on the clock and beat SMU 24-23 on Saturday night.

“I don’t think anybody expected either defense to show up and I thought both defenses did a great job,” BYU head coach Kalani Sitake said in his walk-off interview. “I’m happy for our guys. Nothing warms your heart like a win.”

BYU started its third-string quarterback, Sol-Jay Maiava-Peters, and gambled it could keep it close if it ran the ball, bled the block and just waited for a few SMU turnovers. Playing short-handed at every position, and facing an SMU offense ranked No. 11 in the country, it was the only way to pull off an unexpected victory.

And in the first half, BYU did everything it wanted. It ran the ball for 90 yards and held it for over 19 minutes. But it was still 10-10, would it be enough?

In the second half, a ragtag roster proved it was in a 24-23 win.

Boosted by a pick-6 from linebacker Ben Bywater and steadied by the constant grind of a running game, the Cougars knocked off SMU for a New Mexico Bowl win. It finished the season 8-5, winning its last four games.

Maiava-Peters finished with 96 rushing yards, 47 passing yards and a touchdown in his first career start. Chris Brooks chipped in 88 yards and a touchdown of his own as the Cougars ran for 211 yards as a team.

Every time SMU threatened to break the game open with its offense, BYU responded with either a turnover or stop followed by a long drive.

With the game tied at 10 in the third quarter, and SMU threatening inside the 30-yard line, Bywater came up with a pick-6. A little while later, BYU went on a six-minute, 82-yard drive to break the game open to a 24-10 lead.

Then in the fourth quarter, with the score back within a score, BYU came up with a fourth-down stop inside the 30-yard line again with a sack by Alden Tofa. It did enough, got the breaks it needed, to get by.

Four Cougar drives went for over four minutes and BYU held SMU quarterback Tanner Mordecai to 206 yards passing.