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Tale of a defensive odyssey: BYU got timely plays in overtime victory over Mississippi State

The final play of BYU’s 28-21 overtime win over Mississippi State Friday was kind of symbolic of the Cougar defense, a unit that’s witnessed an ever-changing lineup in a 4-3 season.

You had basketball center Corbin Kaufusi, all 6-foot-9 of him, flushing MSU quarterback Nick Fitzgerald from the pocket, forcing him to run to his right on a dead run towards the Bulldog sideline where his team and coaches anxiously looked on at the play that would either end or extend the game.

Kaufusi never got to Fitzgerald, but he felt Kaufusi’s pursuit like a something big after something smaller on the plains of the great Serengeti.

“I’ve mentioned it before in weeks past that we wanted to be disruptive and force a bad throw, and fortunately it worked out in our favor for that one,” head coach Kalani Sitake told reporters afterwards.

Fitzgerald, who’d been very comfortable sitting in the pocket making big third- and fourth-down plays through the third quarter, had dual duty on that run. He had to flee Kaufusi and he had to look to the end zone and try to find a receiver. Kaufusi was a hindrance, his speed was unwieldy motion and the angle he’d have to throw across his body was the kind of move coaches counsel never to do. He had no choice.

He let it go toward Justin Johnson, but MSU’s hopes died when Fred Warner blanketed Johnson. The ball ricocheted off Warner's hands and fell harmless to the grass.

Game over.

That defensive stand in second overtime included a 5-yard sack on Fitzgerald by Sae Tautu and Logan Taele that changed MSU’s rhythm and play calls, ultimately leading to the Kaufusi chase on the final play.

This was a defensive victory for the Cougars, a team that looked a little wobbly after a road win at East Lansing six days earlier.

And the shuffle of bodies continued this weekend.

We saw linebacker Butch Pa’uu make a gutsy return from a knee injury only to limp off the field late when an MSU lineman dove at his bad knee. We saw nose tackle Merrill Tolouli leave the game with an injury, make it back on the field and play multiple series, then lay on the turf, injured once more.

Then there was freshman corner Troy Warner making an appearance after missing multiple games due to a hamstring pull.

Francis Bernard, a converted running back, led BYU’s defense with a career high 16 tackles, 13 of them solo. You saw safeties Kai Nacua and Hannemann get interceptions.

The Cougar defense faced 86 plays from MSU yet held the Bulldogs without a score from the 3:54 mark of the second quarter until the end of regulation.

If that’s defense, this traveling cardiac TV drama team from Provo will need plenty of it this week against Boise State on the blue turf in Albertsons Stadium.

Sitake saw enough in that double overtime win to be pleased with, but he and his staff also saw plenty of mistakes from both the offense and defense to put an edge to practices Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday before heading to BSU.

Fitzgerald made enough big plays to lead MSU to a win that night.

But equally, BYU’s defense, which has played musical chairs with its roster from the start, found its own game winners.

“To be able to have those guys making clutch plays, it’s a big deal” said Tautu. “I don’t think people realize how tired we are when we’re out there making those plays. The effort that our guys put in is a special thing. It’s something we’re going to remember with our brothers forever, in our hearts forever.”

Well, yeah.

Now it’s on to Boise, where the Broncos rarely lose.

Anywhere Sitake’s crew goes, high drama tends to follow.

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