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Jake Schoellkopf, Associated Press
BYU's Harvey Unga, right, fights off New Mexico's Brett Madsen.

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — There were plenty of twists and turnovers Saturday night at University Stadium.

And in the fourth quarter, with the outcome in doubt, BYU came up with two New Mexico fumbles and turned them into points to escape Albuquerque with a 31-24 Mountain West Conference victory before a crowd of 34,204.

With the score tied at 21, Cougar defensive lineman Ian Dulan recovered a fumble inside New Mexico territory that set up a 14-yard touchdown pass from Max Hall to Dennis Pitta. After hitting a 43-yard field goal to make it 28-24, the Lobos stopped BYU's offense, only to give the ball right back.

UNM's Frankie Solomon took a Cougar punt on a bounce, then dropped the ball, which was recovered by linebacker Chris Bolden. BYU cashed in a few plays later on a 22-yard field goal by Mitch Payne to lift the Cougars to a 31-24 lead. In all, the Lobos turned the ball over five times, compared to two times for the Cougars.

"I think the players played extremely hard, but we turned the ball over too much," said Lobo coach Rocky Long. "We turned the ball over way too many times to expect a win. I appreciated their effort, we played hard, but BYU is no better football team than we are. Make no mistake, they deserved to win the game, but they're no better football team than we are."

Turnovers were expected to play a major role in this game, but as it turned out, the two MWC foes staged a role reversal.

Entering the game New Mexico was No. 1 in the conference and No. 12 in the nation in turnover margin (plus six) while BYU was last in the league and No. 109 in the nation in turnover margin (minus seven). The Lobos had forced nine turnovers (eight in the previous three games), and six of those turnovers came in the second half.

This time, however, it was UNM that coughed up costly turnovers late in the game, dooming its shot at knocking off the defending MWC champions.

"Turnovers played a huge part in the nature of the game and our win," said BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall. "You take the turnovers away and the Lobos easily could have won the football game."

Not that BYU was perfect in terms of holding on to the football. The Cougars fumbled the ball three times, but only lost one. In fact, on BYU's final scoring drive, running back Harvey Unga fumbled deep inside Lobo territory, but offensive lineman David Oswald pounced on the ball to prolong the drive.

The tone of this game was set early, as BYU linebacker Bryan Kehl intercepted a Donovan Porterie pass on the Lobos' first series and returned it 36 yards for a touchdown, giving the Cougars a quick 7-0 advantage.

But those expecting to watch a shootout had to wait until the second half. BYU held a tight 14-6 halftime lead as the defenses on both sides controlled the game.

Turnovers were the story all night long and UNM had three of them in the second half. Besides returning a pick for a TD, Kehl recovered a Porterie fumble in the third quarter that set up a 59-yard touchdown strike from Hall to Austin Collie, giving BYU a 21-6 lead.

Still, the Lobos outscored the Cougars 18-17 in the second half as they rallied from that 15-point deficit. Running back Rodney Ferguson managed to make big plays and none was bigger than his 71-yard catch-and-run late in the third quarter that knotted the score at 21. Ferguson finished with 22 carries for 87 yards and he had four catches for 105 yards.

"I give New Mexico a ton of credit," Mendenhall said. "Coach Long had his team very well prepared, getting after us defensively. They gave our offensive line the max, everything they could handle. The bottom line to me is we played on the road against a conference team and found a way to make enough plays to win the game."

The Cougars (3-2 overall, 2-0 in the MWC) have a bye next week before returning to action Oct. 13 at UNLV. The Lobos (3-2, 0-1) also have a bye next week.

E-mail: jeffc@desnews.com