SAN DIEGO Before kicking off against San Diego State on Saturday night, the BYU Cougars spent part of the day sequestered in their hotel rooms watching, on television, other undefeated teams lose.
Eight teams entered the day unbeaten, and, in the end, five of those fell. The No. 16-ranked Cougars weren't one of them, but they did have some semi-tense moments during their 59-21 victory over the Aztecs. But, after leading 24-14 at halftime, BYU broke the game open, outscoring SDSU 35-7 in the second half.
Early on, it appeared that BYU (8-0 overall, 4-0 in the Mountain West Conference) could be headed for the same fate that befell Oklahoma, Virginia Tech, UCLA, Maryland and Washington State.
As Cougar fans know, stranger things have happened at Qualcomm Stadium. Instead, BYU remained unbeaten by overcoming a sluggish start by its offense (the Cougars relied on two touchdowns by their special teams and their defense in the first half) and a remarkable rushing performance by injured Aztec running back Larry Ned (17 carries, 239 yards, two TDs). Ned, who didn't practice this week due to a high ankle sprain, had his left foot heavily taped. Imagine what he might have done had he been healthy.
Meanwhile, BYU's Luke Staley ran for 165 yards and three touchdowns. He broke the school's single-season touchdown record (17) previously held by Waymon Hamilton (16) in 1981.
The upshot? BYU should move up in the polls today and will likely break into the Bowl Championship Series' Top 15 rankings when they are released on Monday. And, with Utah losing to Colorado State, BYU remains the only undefeated team in MWC play and is in sole possession of first place. Next Thursday, the Cougars host second-place CSU (4-4, 3-1).
"Hopefully, we can continue to focus one game at a time," said BYU coach Gary Crowton. "I know that's a cliche, but it's so true you can't think too far ahead."
BYU has won 10 consecutive games and owns the third-longest winning streak in the nation, behind Miami, Fla., (17) and Nebraska (11). The Cougars, Hurricanes and Cornhuskers are the only teams that still have perfect records.
Still, BYU looked less-than-perfect at times against San Diego State.
On the Cougars' third offensive play from scrimmage, SDSU linebacker Jomar Butler stripped quarterback Brandon Doman of the ball and recovered it on the BYU 18-yard line. The Aztecs later tried a 23-yard field goal, but it was blocked by linebacker Justin Ena. The Cougars' 6-foot-7 defensive end, Ryan Denney, picked up the ball and lumbered 82 yards for a touchdown.
"We have some guys that can make big plays," Crowton said. "That's why we're 8-0."
SDSU eventually tied the score at 7-7 on a 1-yard touchdown run by Ned. On the ensuing kickoff, the final play of the first quarter, Mike Rigell fumbled and the Aztecs recovered again. At that point in the game, BYU had two fumbles and had gained only three yards passing and 12 yards of total offense.
Two plays into the second quarter, Ned scored from 23 yards out to give SDSU a 14-7 lead. The Cougars responded by putting together a 60-yard, 5:22 drive that ended with a 34-yard field goal by Matt Payne.
That was followed by an interception by Cougar safety Levi Madarieta, setting up a 63-yard touchdown run by Staley BYU's first offensive touchdown with 5:21 left in the half. The Cougars scored again minutes later when a Lon Sheriff pass ricocheted off of Ned and into the hands of linebacker Isaac Kelley. Kelley ran 60 yards for a TD and spiked the ball, drawing an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. Payne made the 35-yard extra point and BYU was up 24-14. The Aztecs missed a 32-yard field goal attempt at the end of the half.
"It's the same old thing," said SDSU coach Ted Tollner. "We keep shooting ourselves in the foot."
Doman started to look more like himself in the third quarter, hooking up with Soren Halladay for a 31-yard scoring strike that put BYU up 31-14. The Cougars cruised from there. Even when the game was far out of reach, BYU kept looking for more points. Backup quarterback Charlie Peterson threw a 68-yard touchdown pass to Toby Christensen with 4:38 left in the fourth quarter to make the score 59-21.
"Gary Crowton came up to me and apologized and I said you don't need to," Tollner said. "We shouldn't let that happen."
Later on, the Cougars came up with two turnovers deep in Aztec territory, but they mercifully did not try to get into the end zone again."We were in a position to score some more but we didn't need to," Crowton said. "I have great respect for Ted Tollner and sometimes it's tough."
NOTES: Attendance was 30,064 . . . BYU center Jason Scukanec left the game in the third quarter with a left knee strain . . . Saturday marked BYU's 800th game in school history. The Cougars are now 438-336-26 overall . . . Ten years ago, BYU and San Diego State played to a 52-52 stalemate, the highest-scoring tie game in NCAA history . . . The Cougars haven't lost to the Aztecs at Qualcomm Stadium since 1988 . . . SDSU has never won back-to-back games in the series with BYU.