SAN DIEGO — Somehow it was fitting that BYU reached a notable milestone — earning its 500th all-time victory — here at Qualcomm Stadium, the site of so many memorable Cougar wins over the years.
Saturday's game between BYU and San Diego State didn't come down to the waning seconds, but it did feature plenty of big plays and great quarterback performances. And the outcome wasn't decided until late in the fourth quarter.
At times it was reminiscent of past Holiday Bowls, as well as high-scoring shootouts with the Aztecs that the Cougars have staged in this venue.
In the end, No. 18 BYU put up big offensive numbers, overcame defensive deficiencies and held on to defeat upstart SDSU, 38-28.
"We're competing for conference championship. When you're doing that, the teams at the top of the league get everybody's best," said Cougar coach Bronco Mendenhall. "That's what we got again."
"I've come to the conclusion that every team we play is going to battle us hard," said running back Harvey Unga. "It's one of those things where we have to play to the best of our ability. It's a big thing when you're ranked. There's a target there. … (The game) was a little too close."
Senior Max Hall turned in a vintage BYU quarterback effort, completing 27 of 39 passes for 346 yards and three touchdowns. Hall also had 14 carries for 47 yards and a TD. For the second straight week, he didn't throw an interception. Hall showed flashes of Jim McMahon, Ty Detmer and Steve Young ?— calling his own number, improvising, scrambling around on the field and leading his team to the end zone.
"Max, the last two weeks, has played exceptional. We're not turning the ball over, and he's running the football," Mendenhall said. "He's staying healthy, he's getting first downs, and he's a competitor. I think our offense played very well and our defense played well enough to win. The combination was a Mountain West Conference victory on the road and that's something I'm always happy to win."
"That was one of those games where at the end you feel really good to win the game. It was a battle," Hall said. "San Diego State's coaches and players did a phenomenal job. They played really hard and gave us everything we could handle. We battled for four quarters and did what we had to do to win the game. … That's the best San Diego State team we've played since I've been here."
The Cougars, who ran 91 plays and rolled up 512 yards of total offense, improved to 6-1 overall and 3-0 in league play. Next up? A big showdown against undefeated TCU next Saturday in Provo.
The Aztec offense was explosive at times as quarterback Ryan Lindley, who completed only 7 of 27 passes in his last game, was 21-of-33 for 298 yards and three touchdowns against BYU. He torched the Cougar secondary for several long passes to his favorite target, wide receiver Vincent Brown, who caught eight passes for 147 yards.
"They were really well-prepared. They played awesome," said BYU safety Scott Johnson. "They have some great athletes. (Brown) is a great player. We have nothing but respect for those guys. They played hard and they knew how to expose some of our weaknesses."
In the first half, with the game knotted at 14-14, a 35-yard catch by Brown moved the Aztecs (2-4, 0-2) down to the Cougar 9-yard line. But on third-and-7, Johnson stepped in front of wide receiver Roberto Wallace and made a diving interception in the end zone to end that threat.
"It was giant," Mendenhall said of Johnson's pick. "At that point we were having such a difficult time covering them downfield. For Scott to make that play at the time was really a critical, critical play."
"I kind of was a bonus player in that defense," Johnson said. "I read the route and was able to come underneath the receiver and grab it."
BYU's offense responded by driving 80 yards, capped by a two-yard touchdown run by Hall as time expired at the end of the half. On that play, BYU's coaches had called for Hall to spike the ball to stop the clock for a field goal attempt. Hall, seeing the clock running down, skirted around the left side and scored easily to give the Cougars a 21-14 halftime edge.
"Phenomenal," Mendenhall said of that play. "If he wouldn't have scored, I would have been upset. But he scored. How do you take that away from him?"
"It was one of those last-minute decisions where I thought, 'This is either going to be really good or really bad,' " Hall said.
In the second half, Hall engineered three scoring drives that kept the Aztecs at bay, including a pair of touchdown passes to tight ends Andrew George and Dennis Pitta. Hall was fearless throughout the game, tucking the ball and running when he needed to.
Some of those were designed running plays, Hall said, but most were improvisation.
"It keeps guys honest on defense," Hall said. "Teams don't account for me. They account for Harvey and Dennis but they don't spy me. A lot of times it's open for me to take off running. A couple of times I had to do that."
"It's always fun to see Max out there running," said Unga. "It's a little scary to see him running around out there because defenses get hungry and they start head-hunting. Max did a great job protecting himself, protecting the ball and then he was making plays. My hat's off to him."
After the game, Hall admitted all the running took a toll.
"They hit me a few times. … This is the most tired I've felt physically after a football game," he said. "But it felt good to win."
The Cougars won't have long to savor the victory, not with the Horned Frogs coming to town.
Pitta said the Cougars were focused on the Aztecs and weren't looking ahead to TCU.
But after vanquishing the Aztecs, Pitta said it's time to get ready for the Frogs, who handed BYU an embarrassing 32-7 drubbing last season in Fort Worth.
"It was a hard-fought battle (against the Aztecs) and you're going to have games like that," he said. "Every team brings their best against us. We have to be prepared for that. We're happy with the win. Now we can look to TCU next week."