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BYU football: Players credit home crowd in aiding key defensive performances

The BYU defense got stronger as the game wore on during its thrilling overtime win over USC on Saturday, and were quick to credit the home crowd for at least some of it.

BYU fans storm the field after BYU beat USC in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019. BYU won 30-27 in overtime.
BYU fans storm the field after BYU beat USC in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019. BYU won 30-27 in overtime.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

PROVO — BYU defensive players saw firsthand what a raucous home crowd can do to disrupt an offense last week during the Cougars’ 29-26 overtime win over Tennessee. On Saturday, during the Cougars’ 30-27 overtime win over No. 24 USC, those same players saw the tables turned, and it didn’t go unnoticed.

Big wins haven’t come for BYU at home in recent history, with at least one player even offering commentary on how players don’t feel their home crowd provides an advantage. But fast-forward to Saturday’s win, when players were very much aware and thankful for the help they received.

“Big time,” was the phrase used by BYU defensive back Dayan Ghanwoloku regarding the fan factor. “On a third down play, (USC) had to call timeout, and that’s like the feeling when we were at Tennessee — that when the fans were so loud that we had to change things up ... So I felt that when (USC’s) offense was going. That’s what it’s about it. LaVell’s house is rocking right now.”

Of course the BYU defense gave fans a lot to cheer about, even with giving up 27 points and 452 yards of total offense.

The difference was key plays being made at key moments, along with the defense providing improved play as the game wore on.

“We made an air raid team rely on the run, and that was a good thing for us,” said BYU coach Kalani Sitake. “We asked a lot from our (defensive) line in this game, and I thought they did an amazing job owning the line of scrimmage as much as they did and for applying the pressure they did with a three-man (pass) rush.”

A lot of that defensive line pressure was provided by junior defensive tackle Khyiris Tonga initially, although all contributed with sophomore Lorenzo Fauatea perhaps providing his best play as a Cougar.

“Our (defensive) line did a great job of creating pressure,” Ghanwoloku said. “When we changed up the coverage type it would mess with the quarterback’s head. He’s a young quarterback, and it was working.”

The pressure didn’t create sacks, but forced USC freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis to be uncomfortable with his reads against the Cougars’ scheme of dropping eight players in coverage time and again.

The result was turnovers, with BYU finishing with three interceptions, all of which played big in determining the final outcome.

“We knew those were going to be there,” Sitake said of the turnovers. “We knew we were going to have opportunities to make some turnovers, and we even dropped a few today. So feel really good with our opportunity to scheme and strategize ... the players believed in the scheme ... it took all 11 guys.”

Those 11 guys on defense had to make do without some key components, namely starting defensive backs Sawyer Powell and Zayne Anderson, but also linebacker Keenan Pili, who was hurt on USC’s first series, and Devin Kaufusi, who sat out the first half due to a targeting penalty assessed in the second half of BYU’s win over Tennessee.

But enter a bevy of backups, such as defensive back Malik Moore and defensive end JJ Nwigwe, and it proved enough.

“Defensively we were able to rely on all our depth,” Sitake said. “We were fortunate the first two weeks to not have too many injuries, so I’m so proud of how they performed today.”

Fittingly it was a defensive play which ended the game, with Ghanwoloku intercepting a pass on a third-down play in overtime to seal the win and set the home crowd into a frenzy, with many storming the field to celebrate.

“We live for this,” said BYU linebacker Kavika Fonua while referring to a group of people beyond just his teammates. “It’s an amazing feeling to be with our brothers out there.”