SAN DIEGO — Standing by himself on the turf at Qualcomm Stadium Thursday night, BYU outside linebackers coach Kelly Poppinga hugged players making their way to the locker room and quietly savored the Cougars' 23-6 victory in the Poinsettia Bowl over San Diego State.
In the decisive fourth quarter, BYU rallied from a 6-3 deficit to score 20 unanswered points, including two defensive touchdowns off turnovers created by junior linebacker Kyle Van Noy.
Poppinga couldn't help but wonder what might have been — with such a dominating defense — in a season that saw the Cougars finish with a disappointing 8-5 record.
"It was fun to see guys play like that. It was a wave of emotion and passion and effort that happened at the end of the third quarter going into the fourth," he said. "Our team came together and we played well. It's just little glimpses like that that showed what could have been this season. If we could have played like that all season It's frustrating, but you've got to enjoy the moment. It was fun."
BYU's defense held the Aztecs to 263 yards of total offense and two field goals, and for the fifth time this season, the Cougar 'D' did not allow a touchdown.
So now that the season is in the books, where does this Cougar defense rank in school history?
"They have to be the best ever at BYU statistically. It's fun to be a part of it," Poppinga said. "We talked about it from fall camp all the way through the season. I thought I played on pretty good defenses in '06 and '07. This defense is better. Probably will go down as the best in BYU history."
Then he looked toward the future.
"Hopefully next year's will be the best," Poppinga continued. "I think we have a good thing going for us in this program defensively. Offensively, there are some good pieces coming back next year that can help us make some noise. It's just another step we had to take of reaching our goal of reaching a BCS game."
If the Cougars are going to reach such lofty heights, they'll have to do it without the services of two dozen seniors that played in their final collegiate game Thursday.
And it's very likely they'll have to do it without the star of the Poinsettia Bowl, Van Noy, who recorded eight tackles, 3.5 tackles-for-loss, 1.5 sacks, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery, one interception and two touchdowns against the Aztecs.
Both of his TDs came in the final quarter off of SDSU turnovers — a sack fumble recovery in the end zone and a pick-six.
"I was telling him (Wednesday), 'Man, you've gotten into the end zone your freshman year, your sophomore year and it hasn't happened this year,'" Poppinga said of Van Noy, who is expected to skip his senior year in order to enter the NFL draft. "Then he does it twice. He has four touchdowns in his career. He's an impressive player. The one thing people don't know is how much he's matured, not just as a football player, but as a person. It's fun to see him play like that. If that was his last game, it's a good way to go out."
BYU entered the game ranked No. 2 in the country in rushing defense, allowing 84 yards per game. SDSU entered the contest ranked No. 16 in rushing offense, averaging 229 yards. The Aztecs finished with 119 yards, including 103 by running back Adam Muema.
"It was gratifying to play against them the way we did," said senior linebacker Brandon Ogletree. "We prided ourselves all year in stopping the run and I think we did a good job of that. We love playing physical football and so do they. We knew it was going to be a good challenge. I think we won that challenge."
Senior punter Riley Stephenson also turned in a tremendous performance, kicking eight punts inside the SDSU 20-yard line, including several inside the five.
"I don't know who got the most valuable player, but I thought the most valuable player was their punter," said Aztec coach Rocky Long. "He put the ball inside the 5-yard line at least five or six times. Field position made it tough on the offense."
On the offensive side for BYU, senior quarterback James Lark made his second career start and finished 2-0 as a starter.
Lark was spelled for one series in the second quarter by senior Riley Nelson, who threw a pass that was deflected and intercepted. Nelson did not return to the game.
"I thought we were sluggish and flattening out after the first three series or so and I trust Riley and wanted to give him an opportunity to have a fantastic finish to his senior season and he earned the chance to play and I was hoping to play him more," Mendenhall explained. "With the turnover that happened, I just felt like the momentum shifted a little bit and we ought to go back to James. So I take full responsibility for the decision and I'm happy for James but also I just love Riley and I really appreciate all the hard work and who he is and I respect him as much or more than anyone I've coached."
Wide receiver Cody Hoffman, who caught 10 passes for 114 yards against SDSU, moved into fifth all-time at BYU with 2,178 career yards and fourth all-time with 203 career receptions. He also became the third player in school history to record 100 receptions in a season and the fourth to have more than 200 receptions for his career. If Hoffman stays for his senior year, he will likely become the most prolific receiver in school history.
"The season didn't go the way we planned with the tough losses," Hoffman said, "but it felt good to come out and close with a win."
Jamaal Williams, who became the most prolific true freshman running back ever at BYU, is eager for his sophomore season.
"I'm very excited," Williams said. "My first year, to come out and finish it with a bowl win is pretty good. I have a lot of motivation to come back next year and do the same thing."
But first comes the long offseason.
Coach Mendenhall announced after the game that longtime assistant Lance Reynolds is retiring. It's likely there will be other changes on the offensive staff. Answers are expected to come in the coming weeks.
Yet immediately after the game, Mendenhall didn't want to think about losing a large group of seniors, or the possibility of losing a talented underclassman like Van Noy. He simply wanted to enjoy the moment — a satisfying ending to an unsatisfactory season.
"What I've come to understand is BYU football is bigger than myself as the head coach and it's bigger than any single player," he said. "There are strong core values and a strong organization that's in place and anyone that's lucky enough to join the program I think we'll get the most out of them and the program will continue to grow, but it will provide a unique challenge. I'm not interested in looking ahead, I'm looking forward to celebrating with our seniors and the players on this team."