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Provo • Embattled BYU football coach Bronco Mendenhall jogged off the field as fans hung over the railings at LaVell Edwards Stadium and chanted, "Bronco! Bronco!" He gave them a slight fist pump before heading into the tunnel, where athletic director Tom Holmoe and President Cecil Samuelson greeted him with handshakes and hugs.
In the past, a win against San Diego State would have been almost forgotten by the time the coach reached the locker room. But not this one. Not anymore.
Snapping a four-game losing skid, the Cougars used a late defensive stand that featured some aggressive, attacking plays called by Mendenhall to claim a 24-21 win against the Aztecs in front of a non-sellout crowd of 62,176 on Saturday night.
"To just glance over [the win], no way," Mendenhall said. "The team should celebrate it all weekend and come back Monday. This one was hard. This was a meaningful victory to me and my team."
In other words, that sigh of relief emanating out of Provo Saturday night will be enjoyed all Sunday, even if high and mighty, No. 5-ranked TCU awaits this week in Fort Worth, Texas.
"We needed this win," said freshman quarterback Jake Heaps, who mostly just got out of the way in picking up his first career victory as a starter. "We wanted this win."
The Cougars took a 14-0 lead and never trailed, but they could never breathe easily against an explosive offense that was averaging 38 points and more than 500 yards a game.
A defense that has been riddled the past four weeks against some of the best running quarterbacks in the country had an answer for the best thrower they've seen so far, SDSU's Ryan Lindley.
Clinging to a 24-21 lead with 3 minutes, 26 seconds remaining, the defense forced Lindley to throw three incomplete passes. The Cougars were then able to run out the clock thanks, in part, to an iffy pass-interference call on SDSU's Jose Perez, who was defending the catchless O'Neill Chambers and avoided losing five straight games for the first time since 1970.
"They made critical plays when they needed to," Mendenhall said, speaking of a defense that held the Aztecs to 273 yards.
It was BYU's offense, though, that can take a lot of the credit for SDSU's lack of firepower.
The Cougars kept the ball for 45:01, meaning that all Aztec stars such as Ronnie Hillman and Vincent Brown could do was watch from the sidelines. SDSU had the ball for 14:59.
"Bronco did a good job melting the game clock when they were on offense, which is a good coaching strategy," said SDSU coach Brady Hoke. "But we had some opportunities we just didn't capitalize on."
The Cougars rushed for 271 yards, setting the tone early with a 19-play, 78-yard drive that took 8:28 off the clock and resulted in a 7-0 lead on their first possession. The drive was kept alive by a fake field goal, with holder Matt Marshall throwing a pass to Mike Muehlmann to pick up the first down.
Junior J.J. DiLuigi rushed for a career-high 134 yards and a touchdown on a career-high 22 carries, and he also caught three passes for 23 yards. Bryan Kariya added 85 yards and two TDs on an equal number of carries. Freshman Josh Quezada also reached career highs with 11 rushes for 50 yards.
"It was methodical," Mendenhall said. "It wasn't flashy. … That's BYU football, when we are playing well."
San Diego State pulled to within 17-14 on a short touchdown pass from Lindley to Gavin Escobar. But the Cougars answered with perhaps their most important drive of the season, going 67 yards in nine plays to take a 24-14 lead.
The drive wasn't without controversy, though. It appeared that DiLuigi lost the ball on a fumble midway through the drive, and SDSU challenged the call on the field that he was down.
But the call stood, and five plays later, Kariya broke into the end zone.
The Aztecs needed just six plays to get back within three, but they couldn't muster a drive in the final minutes.
"We still had that swagger you've seen from BYU football players," said offensive lineman Matt Reynolds.
The Cougars blew a great opportunity to take a 21-0 lead in the second quarter. On first-and-goal from the 3, Heaps was intercepted in the end zone by Leon McFadden. The Cougars had driven 76 yards on mostly running plays before the interception with 9:49 remaining in the first half.
"It was frustrating to make a mistake like that, with all the momentum we had," said Heaps, who was 15-of-22 for 126 yards in just his third career start.
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R In Short • Clock-hogging BYU avoids its first five-game losing skid in 40 years with a late defensive stand against longtime whipping boy San Diego State.
Key Moment • Clinging to a three-point lead, the Cougars force three incomplete passes on SDSU's last possession.
Key Stat • BYU's offense had the ball for 45 minutes, San Diego State had it 15 minutes.