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BYU looks special after grinding out a physical win over Arizona State

Like they did against Arizona and Utah, the Cougars made just enough plays down the stretch to pull out the win, improve to 3-0 against Pac-12 teams

BYU tight end Isaac Rex catches a touchdown pass during games Arizona State at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo.
Brigham Young tight end Isaac Rex (83) receives the ball for a touchdown as Arizona State defensive back Macen Williams (25) tries to defend during an NCAA college football game at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021.
Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News

Another week, another gritty late-game drive to hold off an opponent from the Pac-12.

The Cougars are making a habit of this.

After knocking off Arizona and Utah by taking a big lead, weathering a mild comeback and then sealing it with a you-can’t-stop-us drive, BYU did the same thing Saturday night to the amazingly undisciplined Arizona State Sun Devils.

Final score: No. 23 BYU 27, No. 19 ASU 17.

But that doesn’t begin to tell the story from Provo, where 61,570 fans at LaVell Edwards Stadium witnessed the No. 23 Cougars improve to 3-0 on the season — all against the Pac-12 South. Perhaps the Cougars have finally silenced critics who claimed last year’s Zach Wilson-led 11-1 season was a fluke because they didn’t beat a single Power Five team.

They are now 3-0 against such opponents — and Wilson is long gone.

“Man, the fans were amazing tonight,” BYU coach Kalani Sitake said. “They were so loud tonight — huge advantage for us.”

To wit: Arizona State committed four false start penalties on one series after taking over at its five-yard line with 11 minutes, 34 seconds remaining and trailing just 21-17.

The crowd, especially BYU’s student section — the ROC — “was the difference-maker in this game,” BYU tight end Isaac Rex said.

The players weren’t bad, either.

Three plays stand out as being extraordinarily clutch — and that doesn’t even include Ryan Rehkow’s school-record 83-yard punt. Sorry, big guy, but you gotta do more than that to make headlines on this team, which is starting to look special in the way the 1996 BYU team — honored at halftime — did 25 years ago.

Certainly, Saturday night featured one of the most special plays in recent memory.

Running back Tyler Allgeier’s incredible hustle play may not have won the game — that will never be known — but it will go down with Kyle Morrell’s iconic stop of Hawaii quarterback Raphael Cherry in 1984 as worthy of the Mount Rushmore of “defensive” plays in Cougar gridiron history.

Having picked off BYU quarterback Jaren Hall, ASU’s Merlin Robertson, a one-time BYU recruit, was seemingly headed to the end zone for the pick-six, a TD that would have given the Sun Devils the lead.

But Allgeier, the former linebacker, chased down Robertson and then stripped him of the ball with a tomahawk chop after the 240-pound ASU senior had sprinted 60 yards with the ball. Hall jumped on the loose ball — like Allgeier, he didn’t give up on the play — and just like that, the Cougars had forced ASU’s fourth turnover in the most unlikely of ways.

“The play of the year in college football,” said Hall, who had the wind knocked out of him late and wasn’t able to throw the sealing touchdown pass, an honor that went to his backup, Baylor Romney (more on that later).

“Tyler literally saved the game for us,” said Rex, who caught two touchdown passes. “Tyler’s hustle was by far the most important play of the game.”

Said the ever-humble Allgeier: “Catch up to him and go get him. … Literally just trying to do my part. Literally anyone would have done it.”

Sitake gave Allgeier the game ball for the play. He also rushed for 69 yards and a TD, on 21 bruising carries. The Cougars finished with 144 rushing yards to ASU’s 161.

Great play No. 2 was turned in by Romney, who was rushed onto the field after Hall got the wind knocked out of him. Facing a third-and-goal from the 3, BYU was seemingly going to run the ball with Hall on the sidelines.

“We trust Baylor. I think a lot of people thought we would run the ball,” Sitake said. “… You have seen him play enough now, you know the composure that he has.”

Rex, who was well-defended on the play, said the last thing he remembers coaches telling Romney — who stumbled after taking the snap — was that he better not throw it unless Rex was wide open.

“I was the second option,” Rex said, later adding that Hall deserved a shoutout for getting the Cougars in position for the game-sealing TD. Hall, who said he will be OK and will be at practice Monday, had seven carries for 38 yards and was 15 of 27 passing for 214 yards and two TDs, with two picks — the first interceptions of his career.

“It felt like a dogfight all game long,” Hall said.

Great play No. 3 was long forgotten when Romney was hitting Rex for the 3-yard TD, but it was just as important.

On the opening kickoff, ASU’s Geordon Porter brought the ball out from five yards deep in the end zone, and BYU special teams ace Talmage Gunther struck him hard enough to dislodge the football. Hayden Livingston pounced on it, and three plays later Allgeier’s one-yard TD run gave the Cougars the early lead.

BYU has not trailed in three games this season.

“Warriors, man,” is how Hall describes the Cougars. “We haven’t won pretty … We grind it out from beginning to end.”

Playing in front of a hostile crowd for the first time in nearly two years, the Sun Devils unraveled down the stretch with false starts and stupid plays that cost them any chance of snapping BYU’s now 12-game home winning streak.

Arizona State was flagged 16 times for 121 yards — BYU just three times for 25 yards — by a Pac-12 officiating crew.

Sitake apologized to the fans for giving them “such a heart attack there” when ASU scored 10 unanswered points to get back into the game.

“We were just fortunate we were able to make a few more plays,” he said.

He said Allgeier’s play “is a good example of what our team is all about.”

The Cougars used an opportunistic defense, a couple of breaks and some nifty play-calling by offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick to take a 21-7 halftime lead.

But just before the half ended, the Cougars blew a great chance to make it a three-score game and take some big-time momentum into the locker room.

They drove to the ASU 24, but after officials missed a possible targeting penalty when Hall was sacked, his next pass was picked off in the end zone by Jack Jones — who out-fought Gunner Romney for the ball.

Prior to that play, BYU’s offensive execution was strong.

After BYU’s opening TD, ASU struck back, thanks to Andre Johnson’s 58-yard catch on third-and-14 when the Cougars got caught in a blitz. The Sun Devils finished with 426 yards, but star QB Jayden Daniels wasn’t able to hurt the Cougars with his leg, rushing for just 18 yards after picking up more than 100 in last week’s win over UNLV.

BYU’s offense sputtered with three straight three-and-outs in the first half, but was rescued when Rehkow got off the 83-yard punt.

Max Tooley’s interception on a ball tipped by Payton Wilgar thwarted ASU’s next drive.

The Cougars used some trickeration to take a 14-7 lead, as Hall threw a 34-yard TD pass to Romney after taking a pitch back Neil Pau’u on a reverse.

After a rare ASU three-and-out, the Cougars took a 21-7 lead after driving 74 yards on eight plays. Rex was wide open for a 15-yard pass from Hall, those passer rating after the TD was 202.1. He finished with a 131.8 rating.

Malik’s Moore pick — ASU’s third turnover of the first half — stopped another promising Sun Devils drive, and the Cougars appeared on their way to marching for another score until the interception in the end zone with 23 seconds left in the half.