BYU’s defense came alive to topple San Diego State 23-6 as the Poinsettia Bowl drew to a close on Thursday night.
San Diego started the game off strong, kicking a field goal within the first seven minutes of the game for an early 3-0 lead.
The early dominance the Aztecs showed over BYU continued throughout the first half. The Aztecs’ Chance Marden kicked his second field goal of the half to boost the lead over the Cougars to 6-0 with 10:46 left in the second quarter.
BYU quarterback James Lark started with quarterback Riley Nelson entering the game for the first time in the middle of the half. Nelson’s return wasn’t everything Cougar fans were hoping for, and Lark returned shortly after Nelson threw an interception.
Although Nelson didn’t stay in long, BYU head football coach Bronco Mendenhall said he did not regret putting Nelson in the game.
“I thought that we were a little bit sluggish and just kind of flattening out after the first three series or so, and I trust Riley, I love him, and he’s a great leader for us,” Mendenhall said. “I want to give him every opportunity to have a fantastic finish to his senior season, and he’d earned the chance to play. I was hoping to play him more, but it just so happened that with the turnover that happened I just felt like the momentum had shifted a little and we ought to go back to James.”
The Cougars picked up some momentum with less than two minutes remaining in the first half and launched an unsuccessful touchdown attempt from the 6 yard line. BYU got on the board with 5 seconds remaining as Justin Sorenson kicked a 23-yard field goal, making the score at halftime 6-3.
It wasn’t until the fourth quarter that the stadium felt the first real roar of the crowd. Linebacker Kyle Van Noy sacked Aztec quarterback Adam Dingwell within five yards of the goal line then recovered the fumble in the endzone to score BYU’s first touchdown of the night, which gave the Cougars their first lead. The extra point set their lead to 10-6.
Van Noy didn’t take the credit though; he said after the game it was a team effort.
“Well it goes back to the sideline,” the linebacker said. “We were talking about, as a unit, that we need to step up and someone needs to cause a turnover. All of the guys worked as a unit, and Coach Mendenhall always calls about 90 percent right plays. I just happened to get lucky and make the play and come up with the ball.”
Dingwell fumbled again on the Aztecs’ next possession. Defensive back Jordan Johnson recovered it, and on the Cougars’ first down, Jamaal Williams rushed up the middle for a 14-yard touchdown. A missed extra point kept the lead 16-6.
Mendenhall credited the team’s aggressiveness to its burgeoning lead.
“We got progressively more aggressive as we extended a lead, and that then forced San Diego State to become more one-dimensional,” Mendenhall said. “And anytime someone becomes one-dimensional, we can pressure, and that’s what started to happen.”
These two touchdowns changed the pace of the game. The Cougars’ defense showed once again how much of an asset it could be, as with just over six minutes left in the game, Van Noy intercepted a pass from Dingwell and ran it to the endzone. With the completed extra point through the uprights, the lead for BYU was 23-6 with half of a quarter remaining.
Even though Van Noy scored two of the three touchdowns for BYU, Mendenhall joked that the most impressive aspect of Van Noy’s playing was just that he was able to catch the interception.
“It was remarkable that Kyle actually caught the the ball on the interception,” Mendenhall said. “He’s not known for having the best hands. … Just to trying to get (him) back humble again.”
It was a great way for the Cougars to end their season. When asked about looking ahead to next season, Mendenhall said he was more focused on the present. “Right now I’m not so interested in looking ahead,” he said. “I’m looking forward to just celebrating with our seniors and the players for this team.”