It sounds simple, but what you saw is not new. We came in ranked in the top three or four in red zone stops. Our team did what it does. —BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall
SAN DIEGO — If BYU junior linebacker Kyle Van Noy decides to forgo next year for the NFL, he couldn’t have scripted a finer final college football game to say goodbye than Thursday night and his heroics in the Cougars’ Poinsettia Bowl victory over San Diego State.
While fireworks exploded at halftime, on the field, this game was a dud. Until Van Noy set the stadium on fire.
In a game that mimicked BYU’s entire 2012 season, its defense, and Van Noy, saved its offense. Again.
With a game slipping away, Bronco Mendenhall had to do something. He upped the gamble factor with his defense to force the action.
Trailing 6-3 with a dozen minutes left, BYU was all but baked and done. Toothless on offense, the Cougars needed somebody, anybody to score. You could sense it in the stadium; if the Cougars were to get it done, it would have to be a guy on defense, most likely No. 3.
As if on cue, Van Noy gobbled up the role with two defensive touchdowns. In the final 12 minutes, he played a career. His heroics lifted BYU to a 17-point win, 23-6. It elevated BYU to an 8-5 finish and fourth-straight bowl victory. The Cougars have six wins in the last eight postseason games.
“This was for the seniors,” Van Noy told fans that lingered for the trophy ceremony and his defensive MVP honor. Teammate Cody Hoffman earned the offensive MVP citation.
Van Noy repeated an act witnessed a year ago at Mississippi. The old hit-fumble- touchdown play. With 12:32 to play, Van Noy forced SDSU quarterback Adam Dingwell to fumble in his own end zone where he jumped on the ball for BYU’s first touchdown and a 10-6 lead. Jordan Johnson then recovered a SDSU fumble to set up Jamaal Williams' 14-yard touchdown. The pair of TDs in 17 seconds set a Poinsettia Bowl record.
But Van Noy wasn’t done. When Spencer Hadley blitzed Dingwell with just over six minutes to play, Van Noy caught Dingwell’s sideline throw, cut across the field and scored from 17 yards out to put the Cougars up by the final margin, 23-6. His two scores tied an NCAA record for defensive touchdowns by a fumble and an interception.
Van Noy was simply Superman — cape and all — for Mendenhall, who told the media, this game was a rerun of 2012. BYU had little offense but it fielded a defense for the ages.
Van Noy’s performance, in a bowl, may be best defensive performance by a Cougar ever.
Van Noy wasn’t the entire story. BYU’s offense struggled and the defense, ranked in the top five most of the year, delivered time and time again.
“It became apparent we needed to press the issue,” said Mendenhall of a need for his defense to get turnovers. “It was going to be key.”
And it was.
All-America punter Riley Stephenson artfully punted to SDSU’s 1, 2, 3 and 1 yard-line where safety Daniel Sorensen calmly downed the ball. This put tremendous pressure on SDSU, and the Aztecs handled it well only once.
In the key fourth period, BYU’s defense forced SDSU’s offense to fumble twice, punt and give up two interceptions.
That is called taking over a game.
With Aztec superstar running back Adam Muema wearing down with a lot of work, BYU’s defense forced SDSU to go to the air late and it was ugly.
Mendenhall had waited patiently to pull the trigger. When the Aztecs fell behind and became one-dimensional, he let the dogs out.
“We weren’t aggressive enough early when we had them pinned down. We were more aggressive once they got down,” said Mendenhall.
Van Noy, Ezekiel Ansah, Jordan Johnson and Alani Fua had interceptions. Van Noy and Johnson recovered fumbles. Brandon Ogletree, Hadley and Van Noy all had key tackles for losses in the key third and fourth quarters.
“Our team has a saying that touchdowns are not good,” said Mendenhall. “It sounds simple, but what you saw is not new. We came in ranked in the top three or four in red-zone stops. Our team did what it does.”
With the win over the Aztecs, BYU’s defense held its fifth opponent without an offensive touchdown in 2012. The others were Washington State, Boise State, Utah State and Hawaii.
Van Noy has not announced if he’ll return to BYU for his senior year. But he did an NFL evaluation and, according to some private reports, has it in his possession. His father experienced a forced retirement earlier this month, complicating his family’s financial picture.
If Van Noy is done in college, he’s had a very storied career. And as he joked around with Mendenhall in the press room, pressing that the coach should have used him more on offense, you saw the guy relax and let the season, his career, and this game wash all over him.
When Van Noy left Qualcomm Stadium on Thursday night, he took with him a performance that will last in memory for a very long, long time.
Indeed, BYU’s return to San Diego for a bowl game this week kind of took on a historical hue here where so many Cougar stars became legends.
Van Noy, welcome to the club.
Dick Harmon, Deseret News sports columnist, can be found on Twitter as Harmonwrites and can be contacted at [email protected].