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Couple of late BYU gems that rocked the Gem State

In a 72-hour period, the heroics of two Utah County products — Puka Nacua and Spencer Johnson — left Boise State and Idaho State teams hurting

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It was hugs all around in the aftermath of the Cougars’ dramatic victory over Idaho State Monday night in the Marriott Center.

It was hugs all around in the aftermath of the Cougars’ dramatic victory over Idaho State Monday night in the Marriott Center. Spencer Johnson, center, drilled a 3-pointer with 11 seconds on the clock that sealed the deal for the Cougars.

BYU, Photo

It took a pair of jewels in the final moments for BYU to outshine the Gem State twice during 72 hours of wildness. One saved the end of a season, while the other saved the beginning of one.

The Cougars’ football and basketball programs swept the best Idaho has to offer in dramatic fashion, leaving Boise State fans reeling in the southwest part of the state and Idaho State fans heartbroken in the southeast.

They can blame two Utah County boys for their troubles — former Orem Tiger Puka Nacua and former American Fork Caveman Spencer Johnson.

Nacua’s circus touchdown catch with 1:46 remaining on fourth and goal from the six-yard line beat the Broncos 31-28 on Saturday night. The win snapped BYU’s four-game losing streak and assured the Cougars of a bowl game — so long as they beat either Utah Tech (3-6) at home (Nov. 19) or Stanford (3-6) on the road (Nov. 26).

The defeat snapped Boise State’s four-game winning streak, kept them out of the national polls and severely questioned their top-ranked defense after allowing 532 yards of offense and 31 points.

Adding to the Broncos’ pain was the high level of difficulty and improbability of Nacua’s catch. Not only did he have a defender draped on him, which should have warranted a penalty, but the pass forced him to leap, while turning his body around midair, tip the ball with his right arm and secure it with his left, while managing to skip his right toe along the surface of the end zone just before landing out of bounds on his left shoulder.

If that catch alone doesn’t land Nacua a job in the NFL, it should definitely catch the attention of Cirque du Soleil in his native Las Vegas.  

The Boise State defender was quick to dispute Nacua’s touchdown grab, but instant replay proved otherwise and BYU left the Broncos reeling in the wake of a second straight home defeat by their rivals to the south.

Meanwhile, Johnson’s heroics were just as impactful on the outcome of Monday night’s BYU basketball season opener against Idaho State, but his journey to the spotlight is much different from Nacua’s.

In 62 previous games, Johnson had come off the bench to make his contribution. But on Monday, he heard his name called by the public address announcer as a starter for the first time.

The game wasn’t pretty as both teams combined for just 41 made shots, 30 missed 3-pointers and a whopping 45 turnovers. Much to the surprise of the nearly 14,000 in attendance at the Marriott Center and many more watching on BYUtv, Idaho State built an eight-point lead midway through the second half.

To the Cougars’ credit, they mounted a spirited rally to tie the game in the final minute. Idaho State, which hadn’t defeated BYU since 1977, took a shocking 56-55 lead with Miguel Tomley’s free throw with 21 seconds remaining.

Similar to BYU’s scenario at Boise State, the Cougars figured they had one last shot to win the game.

With the ball in Johnson’s hands, the junior, whose basketball journey began at Weber State before moving to Salt Lake Community College and finally to BYU in 2020, first looked for a cutter to the basket.

It wasn’t there, and time was ticking down. So Johnson stepped back behind the 3-point line and buried a shot that sank the Bengals with 11 seconds to play. He followed up his biggest basket at BYU with a clutch rebound and pair of free throws to seal the win, 60-56.

Johnson’s shot saved the start of an unpredictable basketball season, just as Nacua’s touchdown saved the ending of an unforeseen 5-5 football season.

Two Utah County products delivered the two jewels, within 72 hours of each other, that will keep some shine on the Cougars, while the two biggest programs in the Gem State try to digest the pair of rocks in their stomachs.

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BYU receiver Puka Nacua catches the ball against Boise State in the first half Saturday, Nov. 5, 2022, in Boise, Idaho. But it’s the catch Nacua made with less than two minutes remaining in the game that was the knockout.

Steve Conner, Associated Press