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San Diego • Perhaps senior linebacker Brandon Ogletree summed it up the best, after the BYU Cougars rallied in the fourth quarter to take a tougher-than-it-looks 23-6 win over San Diego State in the Poinsettia Bowl on Thursday night.
"That's defensive dominance," Ogletree said. "That is deciding as a defense that you are not going to lose another close game."
BYU's nationally ranked defense and superstar linebacker Kyle Van Noy have carried the Cougars all season, so why not in the bowl game against a former rival playing on its home field?
Van Noy scored two touchdowns, recovering a fumble that he caused in the end zone and returning an interception 17 yards for the clinching TD to lift the Cougars to their fourth straight win in a bowl game and send 29 seniors out with smiles on their faces.
"Touchdowns are good," Van Noy said.
Actually, the Cougars' seasonlong mantra has been that touchdowns aren't good, at least from the defense's perspective, and it was their ability to hold the Aztecs to two field goals, instead of touchdowns, when the home team was dominating the first half that coach Rocky Long said was ultimately the difference in the game.
"We felt the momentum turning and just decided in the second half that we were going to come out and unleash hell," Ogletree said. "That has kind of been our mantra all season."
The Cougars (8-5) took their first lead of the game early in the fourth quarter when Van Noy rolled in from the left side and dislodged the football from quarterback Adam Dingwell. He pounced on it in the end zone, and after a lengthy review, replay officials refused to overturn the call on the field and awarded BYU a touchdown.
The Aztecs, who had their seven-game winning streak snapped, lost the ball again moments later on a bad snap, and it took the Cougars just one play a 14-yard scamper by Jamaal Williams to find the end zone and take a 16-6 lead.
Until those two costly mistakes, the Aztecs had mostly dominated the game.
But Van Noy wasn't finished. He returned an interception 17 yards for a touchdown to give the Cougars a 17-point lead, sending scores of SDSU fans to the exits.
"As the nature of the game started to shift, we became more and more aggressive on defense," BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall said.
The Cougars outgained the Aztecs 296-263 and were 10 for 19 on third down, but their offense did just enough to win. It was the fifth time BYU's defense did not allow an offensive touchdown this season.
Lost in the defense's dominating performance, perhaps, is the fact that senior punter Riley Stephenson pinned the Aztecs three times inside their 10-yard line with short, precision punts.
"Our punting game really ended up making the difference," Mendenhall said.
The Cougars had a miserable first half at least until the final two minutes. After James Lark struggled to move the team the first four possessions, Mendenhall gave Riley Nelson a chance, but Nelson threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown (only to be nullified by an illegal block penalty), and Mendenhall went back to Lark for the rest of the game.
After the 74-yard drive at the end of the first half, Justin Sorensen's 24-yard field goal cut SDSU's lead to 6-3 at the break, although the Aztecs had dominated most of the first 30 minutes.
"We came out of the locker room at halftime with so much resolve," said receiver JD Falslev. "There wasn't any way we were going to let our seniors walk off this field with a loss."
Storylines BYU wins 4th straight bowl game
O IN SHORT • BYU's defense scores two touchdowns and sets up another as the Cougars win their fourth straight bowl game
KEY MOMENT • Kyle Van Noy forces a fumble and jumps on it in the end zone to give the Cougars their first lead of the game in the fourth quarter.