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3 takeaways from No. 13 BYU’s back-and-forth win over USC

BYU tight end Dallin Holker (32) is tackled by Southern California safety Calen Bullock (27).
BYU tight end Dallin Holker (32) is tackled by Southern California safety Calen Bullock (27) during the second half of an NCAA college football game in Los Angeles, Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021.
Ashley Landis, Associated Press

Perhaps it’s appropriate that BYU’s 35-31 win over USC came at a venue like Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum late Saturday night.

A thrilling game deserved a top-notch atmosphere, even if the stands were far from full.

Here are three takeaways from the contest, as the Cougars improved to 10-2 on the season with their fifth win over a Pac-12 opponent:

BYU’s defense made the stops when it absolutely had to

The Cougar defense had its back against the wall after USC rallied to take a 31-28 lead — at that point, the Trojans had scored 18 straight points and scored points on five of their previous six possessions.

BYU, though, had a pair of critical stops on USC’s final two possessions. On the first, the Trojans got the ball after Jaren Hall threw an interception in the end zone with just over eight minutes to play.

The Cougars forced a three-and-out, their third of the game, and that led to BYU’s game-winning drive.

After the Cougars regained the lead at 35-31, the Trojans marched deep inside BYU territory using a healthy dose of running from Vavae Malepeai.

The Cougar defense finally stiffened after USC reached the red zone, though, and on fourth-and-6, Jaxson Dart completed a pass to Gary Bryant Jr., but Kaleb Hayes brought down Bryant a yard short of the first down, preserving the BYU win.

Hall’s first-half interception was a major turning point

Hall hasn’t thrown many interceptions this season — he had tossed just three prior to Saturday — but his costly pick just over a minute before halftime changed the complexion of the game.

BYU was leading 21-10 at the time and had scored touchdowns on three of its four possessions at that point.

The Cougars were driving again, with the ball at the USC 45.

Hall, though, had a first-down pass intercepted by the Trojans’ Kana’i Mauga, and USC turned that into three points, cutting the BYU lead to 21-13 at the break.

While the Cougars scored on their first possession of the second half, that turnover signaled a change in momentum as the Trojans turned a 21-10 deficit into a 31-28 lead before the Cougars rallied to win.

BYU finished minus-two in turnover differential in the game, including Hall’s second interception of the night when he was picked off in the end zone in the fourth quarter.

Unsung players come through with critical plays

BYU got some key contributions from several players who haven’t spent a lot of time in the spotlight this year.

Running back Jackson McChesney, who entered the game with just 11 carries this season, came in for a banged-up Tyler Allgeier on BYU’s final drive and had three carries for 17 yards, including the game-winning 7-yard touchdown run with just under four minutes to play.

Tight end Dallin Holker has played a supporting role much of the year, but on Saturday he had three catches for 56 yards.

He also had one of the game’s biggest plays — Allgeier fumbled the ball near midfield on the Cougars’ final drive, and Holker alertly picked up the fumble and gained 22 more yards, setting up the game-winning score.

Another offensive upcoming star, wide receiver Keanu Hill, had a team-high 72 receiving yards on four receptions and a third-quarter touchdown of 41 yards.

Hayes, the Oregon State defensive back transfer, also had a phenomenal night. He finished with a team-high three pass breakups, including one near the goal line.

Hayes then made the game-saving tackle on USC’s final play that prevented the Trojans from picking up the first down.