Albuquerque, N.M. • In a ritzy Albuquerque ballroom just 24 hours before his team’s bowl game, BYU head coach Kalani Sitake went on stage in front of donors, fans and sponsors and felt the need to defend the record.
It was a typical bowl week luncheon, with both coaches required to speak in front of the paying customers — an event reserved mostly for pleasantries. But when it was Sitake’s turn to speak, he clearly had heard enough about the teams’ offenses and how much BYU’s defense was an afterthought.
“I’m excited to watch our defense play too,” BYU’s head coach said.
This was the same defense that BYU linebacker Ben Bywater called “broken” earlier this week. It was the same one that was missing five starters and going against the No. 11 offense in the country. It didn’t even have a defensive staff in the New Mexico Bowl, led instead by a young group of graduate assistants and analysts.
But Sitake believed, perhaps stubbornly so.
Fast forward one day, after a 24-23 defensive gem, Sitake sat in the weight room of University Stadium with a white New Mexico Bowl champions hat on and smiled.
“Defense did its job,” he said.
At last, validation.
For as much as BYU’s win was improbable, the most shocking part was BYU’s defense carried it over the edge. It punched above its weight class all day, right down to the last, game-clinching play of the game when SMU had a chance to win it on a two-point conversion.
Cornerback Jakob Robinson flew in on quarterback Tanner Mordecai’s rushing attempt and stuffed him two yards shy of the goal line. Sitake nearly jumped to the middle of the field knowing his unit won BYU the game.
And it wasn’t just the game-sealing stop either. It was the big, individual efforts throughout the night, at times BYU desperately needed a stop.
Like in the third quarter, when the Mustangs were threatening to take a lead, but Bywater came up with a pick-six to give the Cougars a cushion.
Or in the fourth quarter, when BYU had a 24-17 lead, and defensive lineman Alden Tofa forced a turnover on downs inside the 20-yard line to hold SMU without points.
Overall, SMU was held to 389 yards and under 250 yards passing. It averages 470.
“We had a chip on our shoulder,” Bywater said of the defense, saying he was aware of the defense’s perception. “Tonight, we just showed how resilient we are.”
And this BYU team needed every bit of what the defense gave it. The offense was without quarterback Jaren Hall. Top receiver Puka Nacua was also sidelined. Sol-Jay Maiava-Peters, a fourth-string quarterback, had to make his first career start.
By the fourth quarter, the offense was mostly running on fumes just trying to hang on. It was evident that BYU wouldn’t throw the ball. Maiava-Peters finished with just 12 passing attempts, with two in the second half. He also had an interception on one of those tries.
BYU ran the ball for 209 yards on 42 attempts, but a 24-10 lead was evaporating quickly until the final defensive stop.
“I had faith in our defense,” Maiava-Peters said, saying he was praying when the final stop was made. “It was a genuine prayer.”
Bywater acknowledged that this could have been a game BYU’s defense had excuses for. Defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki was gone and associate head coach Ed Lamb was out. Only one defensive coach on the staff was retained from the last regular season game.
Many players were playing out of position or simply getting on the field for the first time. Defensive lineman Fisher Jackson was starting at linebacker. Logan Pili, a deep reserve, was logging snaps. Every starting linebacker outside of Bywater was out.
Yet the defense held Mordecai to 218 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. It was a complete performance.
“The players rallied around” the situation, Sitake said.
Back in the weight room after the game, Sitake kept looking at the stat sheet of what this defense had done. He kept looking over to Bywater sitting next to him, who nodded his head in agreement about how impressive the stats were.
Then Sitake looked up and gave his final assessment of the night.
“It just felt really good to have our guys play assignment sound football,” Sitake finished. “... Our guys trusted each other and tackled pretty well. I’m really proud of our entire defensive staff.”