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How BYU won a bowl game it had no business winning on a frosty night in Albuquerque

Cougars rallied around their makeshift defensive coaching staff, got big plays from Ben Bywater and Jakob Robinson to stun SMU

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BYU linebacker Ben Bywater (2) smiles during the New Mexico Bowl on Saturday, Dec. 17, 2022, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Bywater scored on a 76-yard interception return for a touchdown in the Cougars’ 24-23 win over SMU.

BYU linebacker Ben Bywater (2) smiles during the New Mexico Bowl on Saturday, Dec. 17, 2022, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Bywater scored on a 76-yard interception return for a touchdown in the Cougars’ 24-23 win over SMU.

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ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico — Standing on the makeshift podium after accepting the cool dreamcatcher trophy that goes to the most outstanding defensive player of the New Mexico Bowl, BYU linebacker Ben Bywater summed up the improbable 24-23 win over favored SMU the best way he knew how.

“You know, we are a broken team right now,” Bywater said. “I mean, a lot of guys are injured. We had a lot of mix up on the coaching staff. So for us to go out there and do our thing, man, and win this game, I couldn’t be more proud of everybody.”

It was truly a dream ending for the Cougars, who finished their final season of independence with an 8-5 record and a little bit of momentum for Big 12 entrance, which has officially begun. It has to go down as one of the most improbable bowl wins of the 17 the program has acquired, among the 40 BYU has played.

“You know, we are a broken team right now. I mean, a lot of guys are injured. We had a lot of mix up on the coaching staff. So for us to go out there and do our thing, man, and win this game, I couldn’t be more proud of everybody.” — BYU linebacker Ben Bywater

Back in the SMU locker room at the south end of University Stadium, the Mustangs (7-6) had to be wondering how they let this one get away. They were missing a few good players, too, most notably NFL-bound receiver Rashee Rice, but were clearly the more healthy team and weren’t in the game with a mixture of analysts and graduate assistants for defensive coaches, as BYU was.

It was a game SMU had no business losing.

It was a game BYU had no business winning.

But that’s college football.

Bottom line: “We got one more point than they did and made the one play that flips the entire thing,” said BYU coach Kalani Sitake.

That “one play” was made by nickel back Jakob Robinson, of course, an open-field tackle on SMU quarterback Tanner Mordecai just outside the 1-yard line after Mustangs coach Rhett Lashlee gambled and lost. Robinson, diehard BYU fans might recall, made a big stop last year in the final seconds to beat USC.

“This is a good way to end the independence era, so we are looking forward to being in a conference next year and to start working towards that,” Sitake said. “Now we can officially talk about it.”

Yes, but the last game of independence won’t soon be forgotten.

“It seems like BYU and SMU have some really good history in bowl games, and this was a fun one to be a part of,” Sitake said.

For the Cougars, that is.

In a strange way, it feels like they stole this one, sort of like in the 1980 Holiday Bowl when Jim McMahon led the big comeback to beat SMU 46-45 in San Diego.

BYU’s 256 yards were the fewest by a winning team in the 17-year history of the New Mexico Bowl; SMU had 13 more first downs — 29 to 16 — and 133 more yards and was an outstanding 10 of 18 on third down, but failed in its attempt to win its first bowl game since 2012.

Bywater, whose bowl-record 76-yard interception return for a touchdown and game-high 11 tackles were the reason he was a unanimous pick for the defensive award, said the game became “personal” for the BYU defense after the coaching shakeup and the departures to the transfer portal.

And many pundits predicted SMU, which brought one of the country’s most prolific offenses to the Land of Enchantment, would hang a 50-burger on the beleaguered BYU defense.

“Absolutely,” Bywater said. “For us, it is the way the world works. Everybody is going to gas up the offense, talk about the offense. For us, we had a chip on our shoulder, and I think tonight we just showed how resilient we are.”

Sitake said Jan Jorgensen (outside linebackers/outside ends), Vince Feula (interior defensive line), Randy Coy (safeties) and Gavin Fowler (linebackers and special teams) joined cornerbacks coach Jernaro Gilford to put together a solid game plan that enabled the Cougars to keep Mordecai guessing and put some pressure on the senior who has declared for the NFL draft.

“I was over there just trying not to mess it up,” Sitake said. “It just goes to show we are doing things the right way in our group, and then the players, they rallied around the coaching.”

The broken team, Bywater explained, found a way to mend itself.

“That builds momentum going into this offseason,” he said. “We are super excited for (new defensive coordinator) Jay Hill to come in and put his defense in. A lot of the guys could not be more excited. We are going to have a great offseason, get bigger, get stronger, and then go into Big 12 play.”

Speaking of bending but not breaking, five of SMU’s 10 possessions lasted 10 or more plays. The Mustangs were averaging nearly 35 points a game, but had just 23.

How improbable was Sitake’s fourth bowl win?

The Cougars had fewer completions (seven), passing attempts (12) and passing yards (47) than in any of their previous bowl games — wins or losses. Quarterback U. did not complete a pass in the second half.

“I just want our guys to play well, and play their best,” Sitake said. “The other stuff is just a byproduct of our guys playing well. If we play at our best, I have a good feeling that we are going to be happy. So that was the emphasis.

“I try to not put too much pressure on them,” he continued. “These guys put enough pressure on themselves. I am going to love them whether we win or lose, so we might as well win.”

Even when they had no business doing so.