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BYU’s much-maligned defense rose up when it was needed against vaunted UCF offense

No. 16 Cougars held Knights’ explosive offense to several season lows in 49-23 victory at FAU Stadium

Brigham Young Cougars linebaker Pepe Tanuvasa hurries UCF Knights quarterback Dillon Gabriel (11) during the Boca Raton Bowl in Boca Raton, Fla., on Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2020.
BYU Cougars linebaker Pepe Tanuvasa hurries UCF Knights quarterback Dillon Gabriel (11) during the Boca Raton Bowl in Boca Raton, Fla., on Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2020.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

For good reason, plucky, playmaking quarterback Zach Wilson captured most of the attention and accolades for his spectacular performance in BYU’s easier-than-expected 49-23 rout of supposedly explosive UCF in the Boca Raton Bowl Tuesday night in South Florida.

The Cougars’ defense, criticized throughout the season for not being as dominant as Wilson and company — hey, BYU fans can be demanding, even delusional, at times — deserves kudos for being just as impressive against the Knights and their own brilliant QB, Dillon Gabriel.

“Really proud of our defense,” BYU coach Kalani Sitake said. “I would have taken holding them to 23 points in a heartbeat, if you had told me that before the game.”

The Knights, who fell to 6-4, were held to season lows for points (23) and total yards (411) and the left-handed Gabriel didn’t do much until the fourth quarter when Sitake was substituting freely on defense.

“There wasn’t a specific number that we had in mind, but our mindset week to week is always to dominate, to limit them scoring points,” said BYU senior safety Troy Warner, who had four tackles and broke up a pass. “We had some miscues early on that kind of affected that, but overall we did a really good job of just staying assignment-sound and executing.”

Fellow senior Isaiah Kaufusi, a linebacker who got dinged up in BYU’s 28-14 win over San Diego State on Dec. 12 and was a game-time decision before deciding to make a go of it in what was likely the final game of a brilliant career in Provo, said the key was a game plan devised by defensive coaches Ilaisa Tuiaki, Preston Hadley, Jernaro Gilford and Sitake, a former DC at Utah and Oregon State.

“I just want to give huge credit to our coaches,” said Kaufusi, who had eight tackles. “The game plan that they put together was one of the best I have seen throughout my time at BYU. That comes from coach Tuiaki and Kalani and just funnels down.”

Linebacker Keenan Pili led the Cougars (11-1) with nine tackles and earned defensive MVP honors, while Payton Wilgar had seven and Max Tooley six. The Cougars didn’t force any turnovers or make any sacks, but they were in Gabriel’s face all night and had the sophomore clearly rattled.

“The goal was to contain their quarterback,” Kaufusi said. “We knew they were going to get some big plays here and there, but just stay consistent. We rotated a lot of guys. A lot of young guys played. Overall, just a great team effort from everybody.”

Twenty-five Cougars made tackles. Cornerback Micah Harper seemingly had an interception, but a ruling on the field was reversed by replay officials.

Gabriel entered the game No. 2 in the nation in passing yards per game (372.4), but was held to 95 in the first half, when he was 9 of 22. He finished 21 of 45 for 217 yards. His two TD throws — a 21-yarder to Jacob Harris and 9-yarder to Jaylon Robinson — came in the fourth quarter after BYU had a 49-10 lead.

“We had seen on film that he struggled when the passing lanes were disrupted and there were guys in his face,” Kaufusi said. “The game plan was created around that concept. The D-line worked their butts off and really played a heckuva game. Huge credit to those guys for flushing the quarterback out of the pocket. That was what the game plan was based around, was getting in those passing windows.”

Toward the end of the second quarter, after the Knights had driven to BYU’s 18, Gabriel threw three straight incomplete passes and UCF had to settle for a 35-yard field goal, a curious call from coach Josh Heupel considering the Cougars were leading 35-7 at the time.

“We didn’t do a good job offensively, and the statistics showed that,” Heupel said.

Gabriel’s futility streak reached nine incompletions early in the third quarter before he connected with Harris for 13 yards. However, Troy Warner knocked down a pass intended for Tre Nixon on fourth-and-6 to end the drive.

“Coming in we felt very confident in our ability and just in the players that we have, and the game plan,” Warner said. “We came out here with a swagger and just wanted to execute at a high level. That was a big part of the game plan coming in.”

UCF did rush for 194 yards, but most of that damage was done late and allowed the clock to run. The Knights averaged just 4.7 yards per play. They ran 88 plays to BYU’s 73.

Sitake wasn’t totally satisfied, at least outwardly.

“Although we felt like we were disruptive as a team, honestly we felt like there were a lot of plays out there that could have been made,” he said. “Their run game got a few runs, but I feel like we were able to corral it, for the most part, and not let them break big ones.”

Another senior defensive ace likely playing his final game, safety Zayne Anderson, added four tackles and broke up a pass. Kick returner Caleb Christensen was the special teams MVP.

“These guys understand football. I think they increased their football IQ in the offseason, and it showed,” Sitake said. “It has been a pleasure, man. I can’t wait to see what these guys can do from here on out.”