Analysis: BYU’s much-maligned defense delivers when it matters most in 24-23 New Mexico Bowl win over SMU
Cougars stop SMU’s two-point conversion attempt with eight seconds remaining in their final game before joining the Big 12 in 2023
Calling what happened here Saturday night in the New Mexico Bowl something like Miracle Bowl II is a bit of a stretch, but not by much for those familiar with how BYU’s much-maligned defense has played this season.
42 years after Jim McMahon’s Hail Mary pass to Clay Brown defeated SMU 46-45 in the 1980 Holiday Bowl, er, Miracle Bowl, it was the Cougars’ defense that came up big to secure a one-point win, 24-23 over the Mustangs in front of 22,209 frostbitten fans at University Stadium.
“We made the one play that flips the entire thing,” marveled coach Kalani Sitake, who later added he was “happy” his counterpart, SMU first-year coach Rhett Lashlee, decided to go for two with the 17th annual New Mexico Bowl on the line with eight seconds remaining.
“I would go for it again in a heartbeat.” — SMU coach Rhett Lashlee on failed two-point conversion attempt
Sitake was even happier that sophomore Jakob Robinson tackled SMU quarterback Tanner Mordecai at the 1-yard line to preserve BYU’s win after the Mustangs had scored a touchdown on Mordecai’s 12-yard touchdown pass to a soaring Jordan Kerley.
“That’s the right move,” Sitake said of Lashlee’s decision, which had to seem odd to some SMU fans considering the Mustangs had all the momentum in the world after the TD drive that started at the SMU 12 with 3:01 on the clock.
Also, BYU had done nothing the last two times it touched the ball in the fourth quarter and was playing with a freshman quarterback Sol-Jay Maiava-Peters, who was making his first start. Overtime certainly would have favored the more balanced Mustangs, no?
“I would go for it again in a heartbeat,” Lashlee said. The former offensive coordinator at Miami said Mordecai had three options on the play in which four SMU receivers were lined up wide left, and made correct read.
“Their guy just made a play,” Lashlee said.
It could be considered a minor miracle, considering how that same BYU defense was so bad in October that Sitake took over play-calling duties himself.
SMU, which came into the game averaging 325 passing yards a game, sixth-best in the country, was held to 218 yards through the air. The Mustangs finished with 389 yards, BYU just 256.
“J-Rob just came up and made a huge play,” said BYU linebacker Ben Bywater, who until that point had made the defensive play of the game, returning an interception 76 yards for a touchdown with 8:17 remaining in the third quarter to give BYU a 17-10 lead.
Credit Sitake and his depleted staff for out-coaching Lashlee and company in the final seconds. He took two timeouts after SMU had lined up to go for two to get a better look at what the Mustangs might run.
“Basically I just told them to watch out for everything,” Sitake said.
Bywater was named the defensive most outstanding player, while Maiava-Peters picked up the offensive award after being tabbed to fill in for starter Jaren Hall, out with a sprained ankle, as expected.
Remarkably, BYU’s defense played without five guys who were starters at the beginning of the season and still delivered one of the more inspiring efforts in the school’s bowl history.
“We did our jobs, it was a team victory,” Sitake said.
Clearly not know for his passing prowess, Maiava-Peters completed just enough passes — 7 of 12 for 47 yards, with one interception — to keep SMU’s defense honest until the end, when the Mustangs packed the box and the Cougars still insisted on trying to run the ball.
Maiava-Peters did the most damage with his legs, rushing 14 times for 96 yards and a TD.
Why go with the third-year freshman?
“We knew that we could play with three quarterbacks,” Sitake said, referring to Maiava-Peters, Nick Billoups and the presumed starter, Boise State transfer Cade Fennegan. “A Rod went with the hot hand.”
Make no mistake — BYU’s defense deserves the game ball, but going with the better runner was a brilliant call by Roderick, in retrospect.
“A Rod made the decision to go with Sol-Jay and Sol-Jay just ran with it, literally,” Sitake said.
Cal transfer Chris Brooks added 88 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries in his final game as a Cougar, after saying in Friday’s news conference that he made the “right decision” in transferring to BYU.
BYU is paying new defensive coordinator Jay Hill $1 million a year to revive its defense, and Saturday’s game showed the former Weber State coach has some talent to work with.
Bywater led the way with 11 tackles and will be back, along with Robinson (nine tackles, including the game-winner) and defensive lineman Tyler Batty (six tackles). Lost in the hubbub over Robinson’s tackle and Bywater’s pick-six was a 12-yard sack by fifth-year senior Alden Tofa, only the second of Tofa’s career.
Before the last two possessions, BYU’s powerful offensive line was doing its thing. Hard to blame it for the last two futile drives, however, as SMU put nine or 10 guys in the box knowing the Cougars were going to stick to the run after Maiava-Peters got picked by Shanon Reid on the Cougars’ second drive of the second half.
BYU didn’t attempt another pass after that.
Roderick had a game plan, and he stuck to it — come heck or high water.
If he hasn’t already, Roderick should march into Sitake’s office Monday and ask for something similar to what Hill is getting. Going with Maiava-Peters, who is clearly a gamer in the mode of Hall, but without the big arm, was a brilliant move. And a tip of the cap to all the graduate assistants and analysts who stepped in when all the defensive assistants except cornerbacks coach Jernaro Gilford were let go.
“Those guys were awesome,” Sitake said. “… And the players, they rallied around the coaching.”
There was a time in the game when it appeared the Cougars would cruise to the win.
BYU was in great shape after Brooks’ 22-yard touchdown run — fullback Houston Heimuli paved the way — gave the Cougars a 24-10 lead with 1:21 left in the third quarter.
But after Kelvontay Dixon wrestled a 35-yard pass away from a BYU defender, replay officials ruled it a catch after review, and the Mustangs drove to the end zone from there to cut the deficit to 24-17.
The Cougars went three-and-out on their next possession, as Brooks was held to two short runs after Chase Roberts’ first-down run netted 6 yards, and BYU had to punt.
Momentum had clearly swung in SMU’s favor.
Taking over at their 20 after Ryan Rehkow’s bowl-record 67-yard punt, the Mustangs got to the BYU 24 before Tofa’s big sack of Mordecai.
So the Cougars finished their 12-year independence run with 99 wins, and Sitake improved to 4-2 in bowl games in his seven years. After the game, he finally gave reporters permission to ask questions about the Big 12.
“This was a tough year for our program, some changes and stuff like that,” Sitake said. “I asked the guys not to talk about the Big 12. Now they can. So let’s go.”