BYU is back to being lucky, and happy to be there, thank you.
The Cougars needed a fumble that resulted in a failed two-point conversion to edge San Diego State, 45-44, Thursday night at Jack Murphy Stadium in a vastly entertaining game that has the ESPN schedulemakers patting themselves on the back.And BYU coach LaVell Edwards wiping his brow.
"What can you say?" Edwards said. "I'm just proud of the guys. They hung in there."
Edwards said he saw this coming - "I could tell we were going to come down here and play hard" - but if so, he's about the only one who did. The oddsmakers had made the Aztecs a touchdown favorite, and just about everyone figured BYU's chances of going to a bowl game rested on winning its two remaining home games, not this road shootout.
But the team that refuses to be predictable surprised everyone again. The much-maligned Cougar defense, in particular, played its best game of the season. It allowed 495 yards, but San Diego State is a powerful offensive team and the Cougar defense forced them to punt five times. They also - Gasp! - made a legitimate interception.
"In spite of all the points, I thought the defense played well," Edwards said. "We didn't let them have many home runs."
And that's despite the fact SDSU has the WAC's leading home-run hitter in running back Marshall Faulk. Faulk gained 252 yards, averaged 7.8 per carry and scored two touchdowns, but heck, last year in Cougar Stadium he rushed for 299 yards and the Aztecs won.
Where BYU had the clearcut edge was at quarterback. Sophomore John Walsh had another impressive game, completing 19 of 35 passes for 417 yards and five TDs, throwing against a lot of pressure and the WAC's best pass defense.
His Aztec counterpart, Tim Gutierrez, completed 15 of 29 for 265 yards, with four TDs and one interception.
Walsh's only glaring mistake was a fourth-quarter interception that almost cost the Cougars the game. On third-and-10 at his own 12-yard line, with just over three minutes to play, Walsh threw a pass to Tim Nowatzke that SDSU's Shawn Smith picked off. It put the BYU offense in a position that hasn't worked out too well lately, of needing the defense to bail it out.
For a while, it didn't look like the defense could do it. Five plays after the interception, SDSU scored on an eight-yard pass from Gutierrez to Will Tate. That put the Aztecs in the position of kicking an extra point and settling for a tie, or going for two and the win. With one conference loss already, a tie would have availed little, so coach Al Luginbill told his team to go for two.
From the three-yard line, Gutierrez took the snap and dropped back, looking for Faulk in the flat. The BYU line collapsed the pocket, forcing Gutierrez toward the line of scrimmage. He then appeared to hit the ball off his own leg, fumbling, but it bounced right back to him. Before he could do anything, however, BYU's Nathan Hall and Jack Damuni buried him, preserving the win and ending a four-game losing streak.
"It's great to get out of the slump," Hall said. "I don't care how we did it, we did it."
"This is a new season," said Cougar noseguard Lenny Gomes. "We've blocked out all those games before."
From the start of this game, it was apparent that, at least attitude-wise, the Cougars had come to some kind of turning point. For one thing, they seemed to get a lift from the return of Hall, whose career appeared to be ended a couple of weeks ago when a heart episode forced him out of the Fresno State game. For another thing, the BYU defense forced San Diego State to punt on two straight first-quarter possessions, something that hasn't happened in a while. BYU also had two first-quarter sacks, and this is a team that has gotten sacks only slightly more often than PeeWee Herman has won Academy Awards.
Unfortunately, the Aztecs were also racking up some sacks, dropping Walsh four times in the first half. But the BYU QB managed to stay on his feet enough to keep the Cougs within one at halftime, 17-16.
In the third quarter, both offenses exploded. They combined for 36 points, more than they'd scored in the first half.
BYU struck first in the third, thanks in large part to Tyler Anderson's 50-yard return of the opening kickoff to the Aztec 37-yard line. Six plays later, Walsh rolled right and passed to Bryce Doman alone in the end zone for a TD, then capped that with a successful two-point conversion toss to Hema Heimuli to make it 24-17.
The Aztecs roared right back, using their successful formula of Faulk, Faulk, Faulk, Faulk and pass to go 75 yards in eight plays to tie it at 24-24.
BYU's next series ended in a missed 36-yard field goal, and SDSU took the lead two plays later when Faulk got his only home run - a 71-yard touchdown run.
BYU then threatened to put the game away, scoring on its next three possessions to take a 45-31 lead with 13 minutes left. The scores came on a two-yard run by Jamal Willis; a 73-yard pass to Steve Christensen set up by a fake reverse; and a 40-yard pass to Christensen that was aided by a key block from Kalin Hall. In the meantime, the BYU defense got an interception - by Jack Damuni - and forced two punts, handing the ball back to the offense with 8:22 left.
"We put ourselves in a hole, and you are not going to get away with that," said Luginbill.
The Cougs managed to make things a little hairy, though. They chewed up nearly four minutes getting inside the Aztec 10-yard line, but Joe Herrick missed another field goal, a 28-yarder, that likely would have finished SDSU.
Instead, the Aztecs went 80 yards in four plays, the last one a 30-yard TD pass between two Cougar defenders. Three plays later Walsh was intercepted, leading to the critical - and unsuccessful - two-point conversion.
SDSU had one last chance after that, on an onsides kick with 1:02 remaining, but BYU's Travis Hall covered it to preserve the win.
Hall, by the way, was one of several BYU defenders who had big games. The defensive end had six unassisted tackles, two tackles for loss, caused and recovered a fumble. Tackle Randy Brock had two tackles for loss and a sack; freshman pass-rush specialist Andy Nash had two sacks; and linebacker Shay Muirbrook and safety Cory Cook each had six unassisted tackles.
Offensively, BYU rediscovered its missing running game. Willis and Kalin Hall combined to gain 172 yards on 24 carries, providing enough threat to keep the Aztec pass rush honest.
The most amazing thing about all this, though, is that it puts BYU in a position of having a real shot at a Holiday Bowl berth. Though just 5-4 overall, the Cougs are 5-1 in WAC play, with remaining home games against Utah and UTEP. The competition is Wyoming, which is 5-0 in the WAC but must still play New Mexico in Albuquerque; Colorado State in Laramie; and San Diego State, here. For the 6-4 Aztecs, that game might determine their bowl chances.
"I like where we are," Edwards said.
It's certainly a lot better than where they used to be.
NOTES: The game will be rebroadcast on ESPN at 1:30 a.m. Saturday morning. The game will probably not be televised on KBYU until next summer.