BYU's defense picked a fine time to redeem itself.
With ESPN cameras rolling, rain falling and representatives from at least three postseason bowl games watching, the Cougars blanked San Diego State 13-0 before a crowd of 63,496 at Cougar Stadium.Thursday's win over the Pacific Division-leading Aztecs puts BYU in prime position for a berth in the WAC Championship Game (Dec. 5 in Las Vegas). It also eased pain caused by allowing San Jose State to score 43 points five days earlier.
"Not a lot was said. It was a pride issue," BYU middle linebacker Rob Morris said. "I think we were prepared to play tonight. We want to control our own destiny."
By holding San Diego State to record lows in total offense (122 yards) and passing yardage , BYU got what it wanted. The Cougars moved into a first-place tie with the Aztecs at 4-1 in conference play and can win the division with season-ending victories over New Mexico, UTEP and Utah.
"We're pleased," BYU coach LaVell Edwards said. "This win is just one more step toward our goal of winning the conference championship."
A loss would have been devastating. San Diego State could have gone up two games on the entire division.
The Aztecs, however, never had a chance to do so. BYU wasted little time establishing itself. The Cougars flexed their defensive muscle on the fourth play from scrimmage when Brian Gray returned an interception 39 yards for the game's only touchdown. He picked off a Brian Russell pass intended for Damon Gourdine, who was a teammate of Gray's at El Camino Junior College.
"I figured I could shut him down. I did it all the time in practice," Gray said. "When I made the pick, I figured it was my game."
Gourdine, who had 14 catches against Utah last week, managed just one reception. He lost a pair of end-zone duels with Gray midway through the fourth quarter when SDSU moved inside the BYU 10. The latter of the two came in the right corner with Gray slapping the ball away at the last second.
The Aztecs completed just 6 of 21 passes for 42 yards.
"BYU's defense was physical. They did not allow us to get anything going consistently," SDSU coach Ted Tollner said. "We got forced into throwing more than we wanted to and we couldn't get anything into sync with our running game."
Featured backs Larry Ned and Jonas Lewis teamed for only 80 yards on 25 carries.
"We just sicced Rob Morris on them," linebacker Derik Stevenson said. "He was just amazing sideline-to-sideline."
Morris racked up an incredible 38 defensive points with 17 tackles (10 unassisted and three for loss) and a pass break-up. He also provided his usual vocal leadership as well - especially when San Diego State had first-and-goal situations from the BYU 8 twice in the fourth quarter.
"We had two chances to prove ourselves and we came out on top," said Morris. "We finally got (a shutout). We're just happy to have played so well."
During the stops, which forced San Diego State to turn the ball over on a loss of downs without a single yard gained, Morris reminded teammates their season was on the line. And the 6-foot-2, 250-pounder wasn't about to open the door to anything that would endanger a team goal of playing in a bowl game.
"I don't want to be home for Christmas," he added.
San Diego State can attest to BYU's focus. The Aztecs left a field scoreless for the first time in 146 games - dating back to Oct. 12, 1985, and a 28-0 loss to the Cougars.
"Things went our way tonight," said defensive tackle Daren Yancey. "It would have been depressing to be on San Diego State's offense tonight."
After Gray became the first BYU defender in two years to return an interception for a touchdown, the Aztecs suffered another setback on the first play of their next possession. Russell was knocked from the game for a while with a mild concussion following a hard sack by Stevenson.
Two plays and a punt later, BYU marched downfield for another score. This one a 46-yard field goal by Owen Pochman. The Cougars nearly scored on their third drive as well, but Pochman's 51-yard attempt bounced off the right goalpost. He did, however, connect on a 40-yard kick in the second quarter to give BYU its final three points.
Trailing 13-0, San Diego State blew a golden opportunity to put some points on the board before the half. The Aztecs managed to tackle BYU punter J.D. Hartsfield, who bobbled a bad snap, on the Cougar 12 with 15 seconds remaining. Despite being emptied of timeouts, SDSU opted to run a play instead of kicking a field goal. Russell dropped back to pass, had the ball knocked from his hand and watched it fly into the backfield. Tackle Greg Spillane recovered it, but the final seconds of the half ticked away.
Heavy rain greeted the teams at the start of the third quarter and remained a constant throughout the remainder of the game. The moisture effectively dried up both offenses as the ball become slick.
"Our plan was to get ahead and have it start raining," Edwards deadpanned.
". . . Of course, the rain made it difficult to execute a whole lot."
Despite the adverse weather, BYU quarterback Kevin Feterik wound up completing 12 of 17 passes for 120 yards. Running back Ronney Jenkins, who had 250 yards against San Jose State, finished with 59 on 22 carries.
"Even though we didn't have a lot of yards, I'm not displeased with our offense," Edwards said. "We moved the ball in key situations."
The Cougars, who are scheduled to play 12 straight weeks without a bye, will take the rest of the week off. They'll resume practice Monday in preparation for next Saturday's home finale against New Mexico.