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In the cold and darkness of a late-November evening in Cache Valley, about a dozen BYU players ran through the north end zone of Maverik Stadium and grabbed the Old Wagon Wheel, then paraded onto the field with the trophy.

Why not? The Cougars snatched everything else that was up for grabs Saturday.

The team that would have been accused of not caring enough about the rivalry if this game had played out differently deserved to have some fun after overwhelming Utah State in a 51-28 victory. BYU earned this win with a series of aggressive plays that kept going the Cougars' way — to the point where they no longer could be viewed as lucky or coincidental.

Tomasi Laulile's fumble return for a touchdown on the last play of the first half, Mitch Mathews' TD reception to open the third quarter and Devon Blackmon's critical catch in traffic when the BYU's fourth-quarter lead was appearing shaky were cases of the Cougars grabbing hold of a game that was either team's for the taking. BYU kept responding, and impressively so.

No better story could have emerged from this rivalry game than USU quarterback Chuckie Keeton's beating the Cougars in his fourth attempt over five seasons, after his career forever changed with his first significant injury occurring against BYU in 2013. The Chuckie angle was developing nicely late in the second quarter, when Keeton's running and passing touchdowns helped give the Aggies a 21-10 lead.

But then Keeton dropped the ball. To their credit, the Cougars kept taking it. In the end, Keeton spoke of "a memorable season, not for 100 percent the right reasons," and that description certainly applied to this game.

If the Cougars had lost, the popular explanation would have been they lacked the proper degree of emotion in a rivalry game. It may even have been true. "We could have come out and started with more emotion, but as the game went on, the emotion started to gather for us," said defensive lineman Bronson Kaufusi.

This game was permanently altered when Mathews found himself alone down the right sideline on BYU's first play after falling behind 21-10. Mathews turned his catch into a 72-yard touchdown. For all of the contested balls the Cougars corralled, "anyone in this room could have caught that one," USU coach Matt Wells said.

Soon afterward, a scrambling Keeton fumbled. Laulile scooped up the ball and weaved his way 37 yards to the end zone to give BYU a 24-21 lead — fortunately so, because time expired during his return. "I'm running with it," Laulile said, "and I'm like, 'I don't know if I'm doing the right thing.' "

Nothing wrong with a touchdown, as it turned out. Mathews then caught a 35-yard TD pass on the opening possession of the second half, after wrestling with an Aggie defender in the end zone. Late in the third quarter, after the Aggies cut BYU's lead to 38-28, the Cougars faced third-and-10 from their 10-yard line. Under pressure, BYU quarterback Tanner Mangum lofted a long pass into thick coverage, with USU's Tyler Floyd positioned for an interception. Blackmon came down with the ball and the Cougars drove for a clinching touchdown.

"Even if they're a little bit covered," Mangum said, "I can put it up for them and they go get it — and that's a quarterback's best friend."

The result is that the Aggies (6-6) have to be accused of underachieving, six weeks after their 52-26 rout of Boise State seemingly opened all kinds of possibilities for them. And having moved beyond the eight-win barrier of the previous three years, BYU (9-3) merited coach Bronco Mendenhall's label of "a very, very good season." When victory No. 9 was offered to them, the Cougars sure seized it.

Twitter: @tribkurt