BYU football escapes USC 35-31 in tense regular-season finale
Saving the year’s most dramatic affair for last, No. 13 BYU football overcame a late collapse to snatch a 35-31 road victory from USC and notch double-digit wins in consecutive seasons for the first time since 2008-09.
BYU carried a 21-13 lead into halftime and led by as many as 15 in the third quarter, but the Trojans— fighting for bowl eligibility and pride— refused to surrender and fired back for 18 unanswered points. USC made the Cougars look silly for the majority of the closing minutes, only to stumble just short at the finish line and preserve BYU’s ‘no loss November’.
“We knew we were gonna get USC’s best shot, this was their senior night and they’re playing for bowl eligibility,” head coach Kalani Sitake said. “I’m glad we were able to rally back and get this win.”
The injury bug continued to bite BYU all night, with Allgeier, Puka Nacua, Lopa Leiataua and others all leaving the game at some point to receive medical attention. Tight end Isaac Rex was even carted off the field with an apparently ankle injury after landing awkwardly in the end zone, further depleting a Cougar receiving corps already without Neil Pau’u and Gunner Romney.
On a night where the end result would ultimately define BYU’s season, the Cougars would need to count on their depth to step up and play the hero. If you had predicted Keanu Hill, Jackson McChesney and Kaleb Hayes to each save the Cougars at some point, you were probably the only one.
Nevertheless, Hill filled in for Pau’u and Romney by leading the Cougars with 72 receiving yards and a deep touchdown grab, and McChesney stepped in for a banged-up Tyler Allgeier to score the eventual game-winning touchdown.
Just like they drew it up.
“Tyler was just spent. He was tired and was running on fumes,” Sitake said. “We trust Jackson McChesney to get in there and make plays.”
After McChesney’s touchdown put the Cougars up by four with just under four minutes left to play, the Trojans continued to torture BYU’s defense on the ground with a heavy load of clock-grinding runs from Vavae Malepeai, marching all the way down into the red zone at the BYU 15-yard line. USC quarterback and former Corner Canyon star Jaxson Dart attempted to bury the Cougars with a pair of deep end zone shots to favorite target Gary Bryant, Jr., but stout defense from Hayes garnered two swatted incompletions and forced a critical fourth-and-six for all the marbles.
Fourth down, six yards to go, just 44 seconds on the clock. A local kid under center trying to take down his hometown team chasing history. Newly confident offense riding red-hot momentum versus a worn down and tattered defense. It was the showdown of the year.
Dart fired on a slant to Bryant, who picked up five yards before being met by Hayes. While BYU had continued their season-long tackling woes all night in Los Angeles, Hayes made the textbook execution and dropped Bryant a mere yard short of the first down marker.
“There was no doubt in my mind that we were going to get that 4th down stop and win the game,” linebacker Max Tooley said.
Just a year removed from finishing just a yard shy of an undefeated season at Coastal Carolina, BYU maintained their fight for 10 wins and a bowl upgrade by that same margin against USC.
You just can’t make this stuff up.
It was only fitting that BYU’s chaotic campaign finished as wild and unpredictable as the ‘Trojan tussle’ turned out to be. Even backup tight end Dallin Holker shined bright, stepping in for Rex with the finest night of his career with three catches for 56 yards and scooping up an Allgeier fumble for a 22-yard recovery gain. BYU coughed up three fumbles and two interceptions on the night, but the Cougars recovered each loose ball and only swallowed three total points off turnovers.
Sometimes it’s just better to be lucky than good.
Dart shook off a sluggish start to shred the Cougar defense down the stretch, finishing with 248 passing yards and a touchdown while rated at a 134.7 clip. While his two interceptions nearly cost the game, BYU quarterback Jaren Hall still threw for 276 yards, tossed touchdown passes to Hill and Nacua and led the Cougars to convert seven of 14 tries on third down. Additionally, BYU scored on all three red zone trips and was perfect on three fourth-down attempts.
Allgeier posted more than 100 yards for the sixth time this season, finishing with 21 carries, 111 yards and a pair of scores while shooting up to second place on BYU’s all-time single season rushing mark with 1,414 yards.
Tooley led the defensive charge with 13 tackles and nine solo stops. Ben Bywater logged 13 tackles of his own and Hayes broke up three passes along with his late heroics.
With the win, the 10-2 Cougars finished the toughest schedule of the independence era with a 6-1 showing against Power 5 opponents and a clean sweep of the Pac-12.
Who saw that coming?
“I think this year was just a year to prove we can play against Power 5 teams,” Tooley said. “I don’t think anyone doubted us within the program that we couldn’t win any of those games.”
While a New Years Six bowl is a long shot following the earlier results of the day, BYU will likely jump a spot or two in the College Football Playoff rankings and elevate their bowl invitation to a higher-profile matchup.
“We played well enough to get one more game together as a team,” Sitake said. “We’ll be ready, regardless of where (the bowl) is.”