RENO, Nev. — Nobody revealed exactly what was said inside the BYU locker room at halftime Saturday afternoon at Mackay Stadium, but coach Bronco Mendenhall admitted he was “maybe as mad as I’ve been as the coach at BYU.”
The listless, uninspired, mistake-prone, penalty-plagued Cougars trailed Nevada at intermission, 7-0.
“I didn’t like the way they were playing,” Mendenhall said of his players. “I didn’t like their ... just ‘expecting it to happen.’”
It didn’t take long for the message to resonate with his players, as running back Jamaal Williams scored on a 66-yard touchdown run on the second play from scrimmage in the second half.
In fact, BYU scored on each of its first four possessions of the half to earn a 28-23 victory over the Wolf Pack before a crowd of 21,540.
With the win, the Cougars finished the regular season with an 8-4 record, while Nevada ended its season with a 4-8 mark.
The victory also made senior linebacker Kyle Van Noy’s homecoming a successful one.
Mendenhall conceded that he raised his voice at halftime.
“What happens in the locker room stays in the locker room,” he said. “I try to be fairly calm on the sideline in these settings. But that wasn’t the moment to be calm. I was furious.”
“It wasn’t pretty,” Van Noy said of the halftime atmosphere.
BYU received the second-half kickoff. Then, on second-and-1 at its own 34, Williams took a handoff from quarterback Taysom Hill and sprinted untouched into the end zone, changing the complexion of the game.
Mendenhall called it a “huge” play “because it showed instant credibility and change from the message that was (presented) at halftime.”
“It gave us a lot of momentum. I think that’s what sprung us, Hill said. “I knew we were going to put points on the board. I knew they weren’t going to shut us out for four quarters. That was a big play for us. Right after we scored, there wasn’t a doubt in my mind that we weren’t going to win that football game.”
Williams credited the offensive line and the way it asserted itself in the second half. The Cougars rushed for 394 yards for the game.
“I wouldn’t have gotten it without the blocking. I did even get touched,” said Williams, who rushed for a career-high 219 yards. “Not even close. It was pretty much the linemen and (fullback) Paul (Lasike) getting people out of the way. It was wonderful. It’s every running back’s dream to run through a hole like that.”
Hill completed 14 of 18 passes for 98 yards and two touchdowns — one to tight end Kaneakua Friel in the third quarter and one to wide receiver JD Falslev early in the fourth — and ran 26 times for 154 yards and another TD.
Meanwhile, BYU’s defense kept the Cougars in the game in the first half. Nevada scored on its opening drive — the fourth time that’s happened this season — with a 2-yard run by Kendall Brock.
The Cougars began with a three-and-out, then Cody Hoffman fumbled a punt after the Wolf Pack had a three-and-out.
Nevada drove deep into BYU territory again before Logan Taele blocked a 38-yard field goal attempt.
Early in the second quarter, Cougar cornerback Robertson Daniel picked off quarterback Cody Fajardo in the end zone to thwart another Nevada drive.
“It was a huge boost,” safety Daniel Sorensen said of Daniel’s interception. “I was very excited for Rob. He made a play when we needed it.”
“Rob’s pick in the end zone really changed the way we were feeling about ourselves,” Van Noy said.
Neither team could generate much offense the rest of the half.
Falslev was grateful that the defense kept the game close.
“That’s how our defense does things. They’ve done it time and time again,” he said. “It’s frustrating to put that much pressure on them, but they continue to make big plays for us until the offense gets going. It’s nice having a defense like that.”
BYU’s offense was facing a Nevada defense that had surrendered an average of 35 points and 500 yards per game, but the Cougars sputtered and stumbled.
“Their defense had struggled, so that was the biggest surprise that we weren’t moving the ball as well,” Mendenhall said. “However, in the second half, we actually chose to play and try the way I know that they’re capable of. That’s what I’m taking away from it.”
“That showed a lot of character,” Hill said of his team’s second-half performance. “Not a lot needed to be said because that’s who we are. We’re not going to come down and lay an egg. We’re going to come out and battle. I wasn’t ever worried. I always knew we were going to win that football game.”
BYU was whistled for 14 penalties for 142 yards. That was one of the obstacles the Cougars had to overcome, just a week after a disappointing loss at Notre Dame and needing to make adjustments in schedules due to Thanksgiving.
“Then the team having to choose and battle and respond to win the game, which is what they did in the second half,” Mendenhall said. “I’m proud of them for that. A completely different team, not only in terms of effort, but emotion and execution.”
Van Noy was happy that his team came out on top in his final regular-season game as a Cougar in his hometown, although he said he wasn’t sure why his team started so flat.
“It was weird. I can’t describe what happened,” said Van Noy, who intercepted Nevada's two-point conversion attempt after it scored a touchdown with 2:42 remaining. “But it wasn’t acceptable, and we needed to fix it. We did in the second half.”
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