SAN DIEGO — How tight-knit is this BYU football team?
The postgame conference after Thrusday’s 23-6 win over San Diego State in the Poinsettia Bowl at times giddily degenerated into inside jokes between head coach Bronco Mendenhall and star junior linebacker Kyle Van Noy.
Consider Mendenhall amazed by the interception Van Noy returned for a touchdown to put the Cougars (8-5) ahead by 17 points in the fourth quarter.
“It was remarkable that he actually caught the ball on interceptions,” Mendenhall said with a smile as wide as the Wasatch Range. “He’s not known for having the best hands.”
Van Noy’s response?
“I did play offense. You didn’t recruit me as an athlete.”
“And then we moved you because you couldn’t catch it,” Mendenhall replied.
“Whatever. I don’t know what to say. It’s not funny,” Van Noy said.
Judging by the Aztecs’ body language in a mistake-filled fourth quarter in which they were outscored 20-0, it was Van Noy who had the last laugh. The third team AP All-American, who was named to the 2012 Lombardi and Nagurski Trophy watch lists, made his presence felt all over the field with eight tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, a blocked punt and a forced fumble that he recovered in the end zone for a touchdown in addition to his pick-six.
Though it’s early in the college football bowl season, don’t expect to see a player assert himself defensively and on special teams to the same magnitude that Van Noy did on Thursday night during a game in which only one offensive touchdown was scored.
“It goes back to the sideline,” Van Noy said of the heightened focus when entering the fourth quarter trailing 6-3. “We were talking about as a unit that we need to step up, and someone needs to cause a turnover, and all 11 guys worked as a unit.”
It’s what BYU fans have come to expect. Though their offense raised eyebrows when senior quarterback James Lark threw six touchdowns in his first career start — five to junior receiver Cody Hoffman — in a 50-14 win over New Mexico in the regular-season finale two days after Thanksgiving, the Cougars defense has been about as sturdy of a backbone as there has been in college football in 2012.
With the nation’s second-ranked rushing defense and fifth-ranked scoring defense entering the game, BYU continued to find ways to stomp out an accomplished, young offense that averaged 35.1 points per game and had led San Diego State to seven consecutive victories. By shutting out the Aztecs (9-4) in the second half, the Cougars defense produced its 12th scoreless half of football of the season.
“I think it was one of the best (defenses) that we faced all year,” San Diego State senior offensive lineman Nik Embernate said. “They’re just good at what they do. They have a really big nose up front, and the two ends — Van Noy and (Spencer Hadley) — they just play hard.”
A game that seemed to be in their favor for the entire first half, the Aztecs must have looked at their 6-3 lead when walking back to the locker room at halftime as a significant disappointment.
Limiting BYU to 28 first-half rushing yards, doubling the Cougars in first downs and leading the time of possession battle by more than four minutes at halftime, San Diego State can look back and fault one key momentum-swinging play that kept the Cougars alive and kicking.
Trailing 6-0 late in the second quarter, Mendenhall inserted senior quarterback Riley Nelson into the game as a replacement for Lark, who hadn’t yet broken through against an Aztecs defense that had forced punts on all four BYU possessions. Nelson, who had performed wobbly in his nine starts earlier in the year, may have still been feeling the effects of a rib injury when he threw his 13th interception of the season on a ball that was tipped into the hands of San Diego State defensive back Eric Pinkins on second-and-13.
Pinkins returned the interception into the end zone for what should have been a pick-six — only to have the ball brought back by a completely unnecessary illegal block on sophomore defensive lineman Everett Beed. Beed was actually behind Pinkins’ return when he made the illegal block below the knees.
After a holding call and a Van Noy sack, the Aztecs faced a fourth-and-17 from the BYU 36 and were forced to punt. Instead of a 13-0 lead shortly before the break, San Diego State was forced to play with a precarious lead.
“I believe if we would have scored a touchdown that time we would have been in the lead the rest of the night,” Aztecs coach Rocky Long said.
San Diego State didn’t come close to sniffing the end zone for the rest of the night, accumulating just 70 total yards in the second half.
Second team AP All American punter Riley Stephenson was at his best for BYU, stuffing the Aztecs inside their own 10-yard line three times and forcing SDSU into looking up at a lot of field for the entire second half. The Aztecs never advanced the ball into the Cougars’ side of the field in the final 30 minutes.
Though the loss ended a seven-game San Diego State winning streak, Long still saw plenty of positives after a season in which many pundits viewed the NFL-bound departures of veteran quarterback Ryan Lindley, running back Ronnie Hillman, linebacker Miles Burris and defensive lineman Jerome Long as a setback for the San Diego State program.
Instead, with a developing quarterback in sophomore Adam Dingwell and a shifty running back in sophomore Adam Muema — who gained a workhorse 111 yards on 26 carries — the Aztecs have some skilled pieces to compete for the Big East title when they join the league in 2013.
“Our team was a lot better than anybody gave us credit for in the beginning of the year, and when we were 2-3, everybody was giving up on us,” Long said. “We won seven games and got into a bowl game. That’s a pretty positive season, if you ask me.”
Meanwhile, BYU is perfectly content in its second year as a FBS independent after beating San Diego State for the 28th time in the schools’ 36 meetings.
“Independence has been, I think, a real positive move for our program,” Mendenhall said. “The national landscape of college football is changing dramatically with defections from conferences, realignments at the expense of national rivalries, regional rivalries, all come up for the sake of security and money.”
For Mendenhall, who worked and studied under Long for five years at New Mexico, the win marked the sixth bowl victory in seven years for a BYU program that has produced five double digit-win seasons in his eight years at the helm.
“We had a very similar game as we had tonight against Notre Dame, who plays now for the national championship,” said Mendenhall, referencing a 17-14 loss at the Fighting Irish on October 20.
“There’s no one that we’ve competed against or played that we didn’t take right to the wire. Either we won or we didn’t win, and I think that’ll be the case moving forward. We don’t intend to back away from the competition or exposure, or on members of our coaching staff. We’re increasing the demands because we want more. That’s the direction we’re going.