BYU’s football coaches said all week that they would find out what their team was made of Saturday night in wintry Provo, what with the physical, defense- and ground-oriented San Diego State Aztecs coming to town and the Cougars trying to recover from that deflating loss last week at Coastal Carolina that ruined their perfect season.

It took awhile, but the No. 14 Cougars were eventually able to impose their will on the visitors from Southern California as temperatures dipped into the low 20s. They answered their coaches’ questions loud and clear, showing a toughness and resolve in the face of early adversity to get their 10th win of this pandemic-altered season.

“I was impressed with the toughness of both teams.” — BYU coach Kalani Sitake

San Diego State didn’t back down, either, in the tradition of hard-nosed former coach Rocky Long. This wasn’t another of those classic, offense-dominated games of yesteryear when they were WAC and Mountain West Conference rivals.

The Cougars won it in the trenches, and with a more skilled quarterback.

“I was impressed with the toughness of both teams,” BYU coach Kalani Sitake said.

The Cougars had too much offensive firepower, though, even without star running back Tyler Allgeier and receiver Gunner Romney and escaped with a 28-14 win on Senior Night at near-empty LaVell Edwards Stadium.

Zach Wilson utilizes different weapons, defense rises to lead BYU past SDSU

Sitake said Allgeier wasn’t hurt, “but he just wasn’t able to play in this game.”

BYU’s win avenged a 13-3 loss to SDSU last year; the difference was the Cougars cashed in on their nearly 400 yards of offense, instead of like last year when they faltered time and again in the red zone and on special teams.

Wilson completed 25 of 34 passes for 310 yards and three touchdowns, a remarkable feat considering the Aztecs were giving up just 4.05 yards per play coming in, best in the country. BYU averaged 7.2 yards per play.

Highlights, key plays and photos from No. 18 BYU’s 28-14 win over San Diego State
BYU honors 15 seniors before SDSU game, including a player who was just put on scholarship

BYU missed the bruising, tackle-breaking Allgeier, but Lopini Katoa stepped up with 83 rushing yards on 13 carries for a 6.4-yard average against SDSU’s always-tough rush defense.

“It looked really tough for us at the beginning,” Sitake said.

The Cougars’ bend-don’t-break defense that was so infuriating last week against the No. 13 Chanticleers did that again in the first quarter, giving up 134 yards in the first 15 minutes alone, but also came up with two huge turnovers, one in each half.

Sure, SDSU channeled what Coastal did last week to make things interesting, unleashing a capable ground game to keep the ball away from Wilson, especially in the first half.

But the Cougars’ much-maligned defense bowed up when it had to, forced the turnovers and made a huge goal-line stop to restore that swagger that was missing last week on the East Coast.

“They got a lot of yards on us,” Sitake acknowledged. “… They were able to break tackles and create plays. … Their backs are hard to handle.”

At no time was BYU’s toughness on bigger display than in the final five minutes, when SDSU drove 70 yards and had a first-and-goal at the 5. Three straight stops followed, then BYU caught a break when quarterback Jordon Brookshire slipped on the icy field on fourth down and fell at the 3.

“San Diego State (4-4) is a really good team,” Sitake said, noting the success of teams that also beat the Aztecs — undefeated San Jose State, Colorado and Nevada.

A case could be made that a SDSU turnover on its first possession of the second half changed the complexion of the game. The Aztecs drove to the BYU 10, but Kavika Fonua knocked the ball out of Kaegun Williams’ hands, and Seleti Fevaleaki pounced on the loose ball on the frozen turf.

BYU drove 80 yards for a field goal to get ahead 20-14.

On SDSU’s next possession, reserve defensive lineman Gabe Summers, a walk-on, stopped Brookshire on fourth-and-2. They were the kinds of plays the Cougars didn’t make last week. Some players’ manhood was questioned, and they responded in spades.

BYU turned that takeaway, as it were, into a seven-play, 72-yard touchdown drive to get some breathing room.

In pure Wilson fashion, the junior who almost certainly will enter next April’s NFL draft, made an NFL throw to Isaac Rex for a 20-yard touchdown. Rex had coughed up the ball in the first quarter, a fumble that led to SDSU’s second TD.

“We don’t give up on our guys,” Sitake said. “The team had his back. … Zach kept targeting him and throwing the ball to him.”

BYU was fortunate to be leading 17-14 at halftime, because it got pushed around pretty good in the first half.

San Diego State rushed for 119 yards in the first half, and took time off the clock — 18 minutes, 33 seconds — with slow, methodical drives and waited to snap the ball until just seconds remained on the play clock.

There were plenty of moments in the first half that tested BYU’s desire to complete an undefeated home season.

After the Cougars went 75 yards through SDSU’s defense like it was butter on their first possession, the Aztecs immediately answered with a 77-yard touchdown drive. 

On a short field after Rex’s fumble, San Diego State drove 33 yards for a TD, but not before cashing in on a fake field goal on fourth-and-1. Two plays later, Elijah Kothe made a spectacular diving catch in the end zone to give the visitors a 14-7 lead.

SDSU would not score again, remarkable considering how easily it found the end zone on its first two possessions. “We knew we had to start getting them behind the chains,” Sitake said.

Scoring summary:

BYU 28, San Diego State 14

First quarter

BYU, Dax Milne 5-yard pass from Zach Wilson (10:56), Jake Oldroyd kick

SDSU, Kaegun Williams 25-yard run (5:56), Matt Araiza kick

SDSU, Elijah Kothe 15-yard pass from Jordan Brookshire (3:08), Matt Araiza kick

Second quarter

BYU, Isaac Rex 2-yard pass from Zach Wilson (8:34), Jake Oldroyd kick

BYU, Jake Oldroyd 50-yard field goal (0:00)

Third quarter

BYU, Jake Oldroyd 29-yard field goal (5:47)

Fourth quarter

BYU, Isaac Rex 20-yard pass from Zach Wilson (10:53), Lopini Katoa pass from Zach Wilson

Another outstanding defensive play came from the most unlikely of sources — backup linebacker Drew Jensen, cousin of former BYU basketball great Jackson Emery.

San Diego State forced a punt and started driving in the second quarter, but Jensen stepped in front of a Brookshire pass when it appeared a tight end was open over the middle and made a nice return.

“So happy for Drew,” Sitake said. “He works hard and he studies hard and he gets better every day.”

Maybe Jensen’s pick lifted its confidence, because BYU’s defense forced a couple punts to end the first half, seemingly getting a handle on SDSU’s rushing attack. 

“Drew Jensen came up clutch,” said defensive lineman Zac Dawe. “That was a game-changer right there. That was a momentum-changer.”

Even BYU’s kicker was tough in conditions that receiver Neil Pau’u (eight catches, 117 yards) called “the coldest game I’ve ever been a part of.”

Jake Oldroyd sent BYU into halftime with a 50-yard field goal, his third field goal of 50 or more yards this season. The sophomore made another field goal in the second half and is a perfect 13-for-13 on the season. He should be a Lou Groza award candidate.

“He’s a big-time weapon for us,” Sitake said.

Wilson was 15 of 22 for 164 yards and two TDs in the first half, with a couple drops. He was solid at the end of the half, when BYU drove into field goal range after taking over on its 32 with 1:18 remaining in the half and no timeouts.

“Tough game, freezing cold conditions,” Sitake said.

Won by a pretty tough team.