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.
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