LAS VEGAS — BYU should consider the promotional adage "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas" following Saturday night's 24-14 victory over UNLV.
Sure, the Cougars (4-2, 2-0 Mountain West Conference) will take the win — as well as a lesson learned in brandishing a bruising, ball-control rushing offense that wears down both the opposing defense and the game clock.
What BYU should have left behind in Vegas is the Cougars' ongoing penchant for turnovers and penalties, both again rearing their ugly heads.
The Cougars tied their season-worst turnover total with three interceptions and a fumble. Three giveaways came well inside UNLV territory — one inside the Rebel 10.
And while the seven penalties for 64 yards were shy of the season average of nine fouls and 74 yards a game, they nearly doubled the Rebels' five-for-33 total and either hindered Cougar drives or sustained Rebel possessions.
Luckily, neither BYU's giveaways nor penalties proved too costly because a relatively ineffective UNLV offense could do little against a relatively stingy Cougar defense. The Rebels (2-5, 1-2 MWC) managed just 217 total yards offense — and 71 of those came on their late-game, playing-for-pride touchdown drive.
"We aren't a finished football team yet, but I'm happy with the win," BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall said.
Meanwhile, the Cougars had their way — when maintaining possession — by amassing 441 yards total offense on four drawn-out scoring possessions.
For those keeping score at home — a 12-play, 93-yard drive that took 6 minutes and 10 seconds resulted in Manase Tonga's 3-yard touchdown run in the first half; a 10-play, 66-yard drive over 5:03 was capped by Vic So'oto's 4-yard scoring pass from Max Hall to open the second half; a 14-play, 63-yard drive that took another 6:41 out of the third quarter ended with Mitch Payne's 27-yard knuckleball-like field goal; and a 15-play, 81-yard drive that consumed nearly nine minutes concluded the scoring on Harvey Unga's 5-yard TD run in the fourth.
That's 26 minutes and 43 seconds of the Cougars' total 37:24 possession time, and it resulted in three TDs and a field goal. It's like eating chocolate pudding with a fork — makes it last a long time.
Unga gained 177 yards on 25 carries, both Cougar season-highs. He carried 10 times for 87 yards on BYU's two third-quarter scoring drives, when the team came out of intermission smarting from its three first-half turnovers.
Turning to Unga was an obvious choice — he was gaining yards, punishing defenders, chewing up the clock and hanging onto the ball. And he has yet to fumble away the ball this season.
"Where the turnovers were coming, it made more sense to eliminate those options and what was working best with heightened ball security," Mendenhall said. "It was the offensive staff's idea. It was easy for everyone to see."
Hall completed 21-of-33 passes for 214 yards, with all but four of his passes going to backs Unga or Tonga or the three tight ends. Dennis Pitta collected a game-high seven catches for 97 yards and a long of 39.
Despite starting the first half with a Matt Allen fumble after a reception and a blitz-induced Hall interception by Elton Shackelford inside the UNLV 10, BYU enjoyed a 7-6 intermission margin on Tonga's TD dash. The second-quarter scoring possession was aided by two 15-yard Hall throws on third down and Unga's 31-yard rumble to the Rebel 4.
UNLV opened the scoring on Sergio Aguayo's 37-yard field goal in the first quarter, adding a 43-yarder midway in the second.
The Cougars had two possessions in the final three minutes of the half, the latter coming on Bryan Kehl's interception in Rebel territory with 1:01 to play before another Hall interception just before the half ended BYU's threat.
In the second half, BYU took control of the game and the clock with two sustained drives — both featuring a heavy dose of Unga, a smattering of Tonga and a sprinkle of Hall completions.
However, a third interception — the second of the night by UNLV linebacker Beau Bell — snuffed out another Cougar possession inside Rebel territory. But a stifling BYU defense — which allowed UNLV only 36 yards between halftime and their last-minute scoring drive and gave up only 50 total yards to featured Rebel tailback Frank Summers — helped compensate for the deficiencies.
Harvey's final run of the night — a 5-yard TD — concluded BYU's 15-play, nine-minute for much of the fourth quarter. UNLV tacked on a five-yard TD pass from backup QB Omar Clayton to Rodelin Anthony and a two-point PAT throw to Casey Flair for the final 24-14 score.