Termination of independence: BYU holds off SMU for 24-23 New Mexico Bowl victory

Of course it came down to the defense.

Of course BYU’s final pre-Big 12 test — an obscure bowl matchup to cap off a sometimes thrilling yet mostly awkward year of Cougar football — would be decided by its defense’s ability to prevent a critical two-point conversion.

For a team whose defense had been the scapegoat for most of its shortcomings all season long, it was somewhat poetic for BYU’s unit to determine the fate of 2022’s concluding contest Saturday night in Albuquerque.

SMU found the end zone with eight seconds remaining to make it a one-point affair, electing to risk it all on a potential game-winning two-point try rather than safely kick the extra point for overtime. Mustang quarterback Tanner Mordecai took the snap and shuffled right on a draw play, only to be met by BYU defensive back Jakob Robinson, who wrapped Mordecai cleanly and brought him to the turf for a game-saving tackle to clinch a 24-23 New Mexico Bowl victory for the Cougars.

“We made the one play that flips the entire thing,”  head coach Kalani Sitake said after the game. “We did our jobs, it was a team victory.”

Sol-Jay Maiava-Peters was BYU’s surprise starter at quarterback to replace an injured Jaren Hall, with the “Flyin’ Hawaiian” rushing 14 times for 97 yards and a touchdown in his first taste of meaningful collegiate action.

Despite completing just seven of 12 passes for 47 yards and an interception — and without attempting a single pass in the second half — Maiava-Peters did just enough with his legs to get the job done for the Cougars, even earning offensive MVP honors in the process.

Not bad for BYU’s fourth-string quarterback in his first career start.

“(Aaron Roderick) made the decision to go with Sol-Jay and Sol-Jay just ran with it, literally,” Sitake said.

BYU ran 42 times for 209 yards against the Mustangs, with Chris Brooks logging 19 carries for 88 yards and a score. Brayden Cosper and Hinckley Ropati were the only Cougars with multiple receptions, while Isaac Rex grabbed a 27-yard catch in the second quarter.

In addition to Robinson’s late heroics, linebacker Ben Bywater was a one man wrecking crew on defense, racking up 11 tackles and offering his best Max Tooley impression with a 75-yard pick six in the third quarter.

“I don’t know if that was the momentum changer, but definitely big plays like that and giving our offense the ball back with something like that is going to mix it up for SMU,” Bywater said of his touchdown. “I was grateful that happened.”

A noticeable increase in pressure from BYU’s front seven resulted in sacks for Alden Tofa and John Nelson along with a paltry 3.4 yards per carry for the Mustangs, who ran 50 times with minimal success.

In his final outing as a Cougar, Jake Oldroyd became the program’s all-time leading scorer with a field goal and three made extra points, and Ryan Rehkow boomed three separate 60-yard punts on the evening as well.

With the victory, BYU finishes the 2022 campaign at 8-5 and closes its 11-year independence era with a 99-56 mark.

“This was a tough year for our program,” Sitake said. “I asked the guys not to talk about the Big 12, but now they can. Let’s go.”

Adios, independence. Power 5 football awaits.

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