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BYU’s big plays, big second half, spell difference in 51-28 victory over Utah State

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They had that Wagon Wheel and we wanted it back. – Mitch Mathews

LOGAN — Utah State won the field possession battle, enjoyed decent success on third down and gained more yards of total offense.

But BYU's offense, defense and special teams pulled off the big plays, including a few unconventional ones. In the end, the Cougars were able to pull away from the Aggies, 51-28, on a cold and snowy Saturday afternoon at Maverik Stadium.

“They find a way to make plays when they need to,” coach Bronco Mendenhall said of his players. “It was a hard-fought game, a fitting game for the end of the season, an in-state matchup. About everything that could happen did in a college football game. I’m just glad we won.”

The Cougars outscored USU 27-7 in the second half.

With the victory BYU (9-3) reached the nine-win plateau for the first time since 2011 when it posted a 10-3 record. The Cougars also recaptured possession of the Old Wagon Wheel, emblematic of supremacy in the rivalry between the two schools, and avenged a bitter 35-20 loss in Provo last season. BYU also snapped USU’s 14-game home winning streak.

After Saturday’s game ended, several BYU players sprinted over to the Wheel in the back of the end zone, hoisted it in the air and carried it around triumphantly on the field.

“This week was one of our best weeks of preparation as a team and for myself,” said wide receiver Mitch Mathews, who caught six passes for 158 yards and two touchdowns. “They had that Wagon Wheel and we wanted it back.”

From a stretch late in the first half through the third quarter, the Cougars scored 28 consecutive points, flipping a 21-10 deficit into a 38-21 lead.

The biggest play — and the most unexpected — came courtesy of junior defensive lineman Tomasi Laulile.

Just before the end of the half, USU quarterback Chuckie Keeton was scrambling around when he fumbled the ball. The 6-foot-4, 280-pound Laulile scooped it up rumbled 37 yards as time expired and the Cougars went into the locker room at intermission with a 24-21 advantage.

“(The BYU coaches) on the headset was telling him to get down. I don’t know why,” Mendenhall said. “They didn’t think he could score. It was a really unique play. Utah State’s quarterback was just trying to fight right to the end. Luckily, we picked up the fumble and Tomasi did pretty good running. A huge momentum-changer in the game.”

“It was crazy, really. I was running with it and thinking, ‘I don’t know if I’m doing the right thing. Is there a flag or something?’” Laulile said. “I was looking around. I thought, ‘I guess I’ll keep running.’ I thought somebody was going to catch me. I just tried to run my fastest … I was just running for my life.”

“Tomasi is an unbelievable athlete. He can dunk it in basketball,” Mathews said. “He’s a great player. That (touchdown) was a huge jumpstart for us. We were going crazy in the locker room. Then we get the ball in the second half. It felt good.”

Laulile’s heroics were sandwiched around both of Mathews’ touchdown catches — a 72-yarder one play after the Aggies went up 21-10, then a 35-yard TD catch as he reached over the head of a USU defender in the end zone to make it 31-21 for the Cougars.

“That (72-yard) touchdown to Mitch got us going,” said quarterback Tanner Mangum. “Then Tomasi’s scoop-and-score, that was a game-changer right there. To take that into the half, then come out on the first drive and get another touchdown was a momentum changer that carried us throughout the second half. That’s how we’ve got to be. It doesn’t matter if we’re down. We’ve got to stay in it and stay focused because a few big plays can change the game.”

Late in the third quarter, Aggie kicker Jake Thompson had his second field goal attempt blocked by BYU’s Bronson Kaufusi. After Kaufusi blocked the 34-yard attempt, Micah Hannemann returned the ball 65 yards to the Aggie 10-yard line.

That set up a 10-yard run by Francis Bernard to push the Cougar lead to 38-21.

“It took an entire team effort to win the game today,” Mendenhall said. “But that’s what it’s been all year.”

Utah State outgained BYU in total offense 445-358 and ran for 202 yards. The Aggies also converted 8 of 19 third-down conversions (including 7 of 11) in the first half.

But USU was doomed by turnovers and blocked kicks and giving up long pass plays to the Cougars.

Early in the fourth quarter, USU’s Nick Vigil scored on a two-yard touchdown run to cut its deficit to 38-28.

BYU answered with an eight-play, 90-yard drive that was capped by a 4-yard touchdown pass from Mangum to Bernard with 12:06 remaining.

The Cougars closed out the scoring with an 18-yard touchdown pass from Mangum to Algernon Brown to make it 51-28.

BYU and Utah State (6-6) now await to find out their respective bowl destinations. The Cougars are set to play either in the Las Vegas Bowl on Dec. 19 against a Pac-12 opponent or in the Hawaii Bowl against a team from the American Athletic Conference.

EMAIL: jeffc@deseretnews.com