PROVO — A year ago at TCU, BYU linebacker David Nixon forced quarterback Jeff Ballard to fumble early in the game and the Cougars recovered. It turned out to be a season-changing play as BYU went on to upset the Horned Frogs.
Fast forward to Thursday night at LaVell Edwards Stadium, in another BYU-TCU battle. With the game on the line, and the Cougars clinging to a five-point lead with a little more than two minutes remaining, the Cougar defense was called on to save the game.
On second down, Nixon came up big again with an eight-yard sack of quarterback Andy Dalton, which all but sealed a 27-22 Mountain West Conference victory over TCU.
"I'm so proud of him," coach Bronco Mendenhall said of Nixon, who is a Texas native. "What a great memory to have two key plays against a team from his home state to have with him forever."
Yet Nixon wasn't the only Cougar linebacker who turned in an outstanding performance. Senior Kelly Poppinga racked up a team-high 17 tackles, including seven unassisted tackles, to lead the BYU defense.
With BYU up 17-9, TCU had the ball to start the second half. Less than a minute into the third quarter, Poppinga intercepted a Dalton pass and returned it to the TCU 3-yard line.
One play later, Harvey Unga ran three yards for a touchdown. It was BYU's only TD of the second half.
"That stuff doesn't matter to me," Poppinga said about his individual statistics. "I'm just glad we came out with a victory. It was a sweet victory."
Nixon and another linebacker, Bryan Kehl, each had eight tackles. On fourth-and-17 on TCU's final drive, Kehl was credited with a sack when Dalton slipped and fell after taking the snap.
"When you have two guys like Nixon and Kehl and (Chris) Bolden playing outside, it makes your job easier," Poppinga said. "We blitzed four times in a row (on the last defensive series) and we stepped up at the right time. It was fun."
The strength of the BYU defense is the linebackers, and they showed why Thursday night.
"If you look at the critical plays that were made," Mendenhall said, "they're who we've designed the defense around, and for them to play the way that they did, when they needed to, it was good."