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BYU's seniors lead the way in Poinsettia Bowl victory, 9-win season

PROVO — It shouldn’t have been surprising that BYU’s 24-21 Poinsettia Bowl victory over Wyoming Wednesday night at Qualcomm Stadium came down to the final seconds.

The Cougars, who won eight of their final nine games to finish with a 9-4 record, lived on the edge for much of the 2016 campaign under first-year coach Kalani Sitake.

In fact, BYU set an NCAA record with four losses by a total of eight points, it marks fewest points separating a four-loss team from an unbeaten season.

On the other hand, the Cougars won three games by a total of 11 points. BYU tied another NCAA record — most games (seven) decided by three points or less.

“I'll take wins no matter how they come but, it would be nice to not keep 'em so close,” Sitake said. “Obviously, we would like to end the game and had some opportunities to maybe make plays to end the game and put it out of reach, but you have to give credit to our opponents and in this one.”

The Cowboys rallied from a 24-7 fourth-quarter deficit, then, with 1:22 remaining, BYU senior safety Kai Nacua saved the game by intercepting a Josh Allen pass.

“We needed someone to make a big play and it happened to be Kai's turn,” Sitake said.

Other seniors played big roles in BYU’s win, just as they did throughout the season. Running back Jamaal Williams ran 26 times for 210 yards and a touchdown — the best rushing performance in a bowl game in school history. He earned Poinsettia Bowl offensive MVP honors.

Williams gained 31 yards and scored a touchdown in his first bowl experience as a freshman in the 2012 Poinsettia Bowl.

“It felt almost the same, because I scored in both of them, because it brings back a whole bunch of memories — and in the same end zone — so it brought back a bunch of memories from my freshman year and I was still in the game and it was just great offensive blocking,” Williams said.

Williams withdrew from school and sat out last season before breaking numerous BYU rushing records this season. He became the Cougars’ all-time leading rusher and finished his career with 3,901 yards.

“I knew from my trials and everything and working hard that one day God would give me a blessing and coach Sitake and all the coaches, they are the blessing,” Williams said. “I'm just grateful to be able to play with them for this year and to give them 100 percent of whatever I got and for us as seniors. For him to put it on our shoulders to talk to the team and get the team ready for games and everything, is just him, you know — he sets it for us and he let us lead. It's just something that you're just grateful to have in a coach, to let his players lead the team and just do what's best. Grateful to have him and the coaching staff.”

And linebacker Harvey Langi, who played defensive end most of the season and had a stint at running back, recorded a career-high 16 tackles, career-high 10 solo stops, one tackle-for-loss, and a pass break-up against Wyoming. Langi was named the Poinsettia Bowl defensive MVP.

“First and foremost I want to give a shout out to the D-line,” Langi said. “The other linebackers that got me up to speed these past couple of weeks trying to come back to linebacker. Coach, the way he coaches the linebackers and the defense really got me back up to speed in that short of amount of time that I had. But it was cool. It was so fun just being out there.”

Sitake was happy with the way his players, particularly the seniors, performed in his first season at the helm.

There was a time, back in late September, when his team had a 1-3 record and it appeared the goal of reaching a bowl game was in jeopardy.

“They just bought into everything I have asked them to do and that our coaches have,” Sitake said. “These guys are the leaders and the reason why we were able to make the change from 1-3 and go off a string of wins. The guys played their butts off and they lead and they're great young men. I sat there and watched them take the team and they did it. Made me look good.”

EMAIL: jeffc@deseretnews.com