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Murfreesboro, Tenn. • It took a school-record 81-yard punt, three sacks from an unknown linebacker who is barely on the two-deep and a key position adjustment that seemed like a no-brainer to everybody in Cougar Nation except the coaches, but BYU finally, mercifully, ended its four-game losing skid on Saturday afternoon smack dab in the middle of Tennessee.
"It is just relief," said embattled coach Bronco Mendenhall, summing up his emotions after the 27-7 win over Middle Tennessee State in front of a disappointing crowd of 18,952 at Floyd Stadium.
The Cougars broke from a 7-7 halftime lead, took another two-touchdown advantage in the third quarter and held on this time to improve to 5-4 and avoid what would have been the most embarrassing defeat yet in a season full of them. Middle Tennessee fell to 5-4 after getting shut out in the second half by a BYU defense that rose to the occasion after having allowed 30 or more points in each of its last four games.
"Our defense really did win this game for us," said BYU quarterback Christian Stewart. "They did a great job."
Reserve junior linebacker Teu Kautai, listed on the depth chart as the third-string middle linebacker, led the way with three sacks, including one on MTSU's first drive. The Blue Raiders missed a 28-yard field goal on the next play.
Other seldom-used defenders also shined, as cornerback Jordan Preator made an interception and also tipped a pass that Tomasi Laulile corralled for a pick.
Bronson Kaufusi, who lined up about 40 percent of the time with his hand on the ground as a defensive end, added a sack and helped disrupt a MTSU offense that was averaging 461 yards a game. The Blue Raiders picked up just 228, or about as many yards as Boise State had in the first quarter last week.
"We were humbled," Kautai said. "We knew our record, we knew what we could do, and we just practiced hard and studied a lot more. That just brought us back to how we play BYU defense."
Stewart drove the offense 69 yards for a touchdown on BYU's opening possession - finding Colby Pearson on a 37-yard catch-and-run for the score, but the Cougars struggled to move the ball despite excellent field position the rest of the half.
The frustration was evident as the players headed to the locker room at halftime, having gained 179 yards but with just a touchdown to show for it.
"First of all, guys were pretty upset," Stewart said. "We moved the ball well enough that we should have had more points on the board, and our defense was playing so well, that we wanted to put up points for them."
The Cougars marched 69 yards for the game-winning touchdown on their first possession of the second half, after the defense forced a three-and-out. Stewart made the 19-yard touchdown pass to Jordan Leslie happen by extending a play the way Taysom Hill used to do.
The senior making his fourth career start got his first win by completing 28 of 45 passes for 316 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions. No throw was bigger than a 28-yarder to Jamaal Williams on third-and-10 that kept alive a drive that ended with a 2-yard touchdown run by Paul Lasike.
Williams suffered a sprained right knee on the play, and Mendenhall said more will be known Monday after an evaluation. He finished with 49 yards on 16 carries.
"Man, I am proud of our players and our coaches," Mendenhall said. "We played a good football game today. Not a perfect football game … but [defensive coordinator] Nick Howell put a fantastic plan together defensively. The kids executed it really, really well against an explosive offense."
BYU has a bye next week, and will play again Nov. 15 at home against UNLV.
Twitter: @drewjay B
O In Short • BYU's much maligned defense pitches a second-half shutout, and the Cougars snap their four-game losing streak with a 27-7 win over Middle Tennessee State.
Key Moment • Punter Scott Arellano delivers a school-record 81-yard punt in the fourth quarter to flip the field in BYU's favor
Key Stat • Christian Stewart completes 28 of 45 passes for 316 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions