Why BYU’s bowl win is stepping stone for Big 12 play

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BYU quarterback Sol-Jay Maiava-Peters (5) reacts to the crowd as team wins the title at the New Mexico Bowl NCAA college football game against SMU in Albuquerque, N.M., Saturday, Dec. 17, 2022.

Chancey Bush/The Albuquerque Journal via AP)

The final BYU game of independence turned into a Hollywood-type movie script.

BYU’s 24-23 win over Southern Methodist didn’t follow any predictable path in the New Mexico Bowl in Albuquerque.

But it did create a winning atmosphere for head coach Kalani Sitake as he finishes recruiting and hiring defensive coaches and sets the tone for membership in a Power 5 conference with an 8-5 record, a season finishing on a 4-0 win streak.

BYU accomplished the win over SMU without completing a single pass in the second half. They won a game on defensive plays while starting fourth-string quarterback Sol-Jay Maiava-Peters, a third-year freshman in his first start with a trophy as offensive MVP of the game. 

The win set the stage for an offseason that will be filled with reloading a roster and embracing a new philosophy on defense. In a sense, new defensive coordinator Jay Hill was holding a tryout for the future defense on Saturday.


Why wait?

On this day, SMU did not complete a pass longer than 35 yards.  

“With the way SMU had been executing, we just wanted to make it tough for them,” said Sitake.

What a stop ✋ 🤙 pic.twitter.com/u4wOZD1pYq

— KSL Sports (@kslsports) December 18, 2022

Facing the nation’s No. 15 offense in SMU, BYU’s defense came up with a pick-six by linebacker Ben Bywater, a 15-yard fourth-quarter fourth-down sack by Alden Tofa and a game-saving tackle by safety Jakob Robinson on a two-point QB sneak try by SMU’s quarterback, Tanner Mordecai, at the end of the game trailing by 1 at 24-23.

Robinson was one-on-one with Mordecai, a QB who had him by 40 pounds. And he brought him down.

It was kind of a signature play for the BYU bowl game. A fitting end to a chaotic month for the program.

SMU was supposed to post 50 points or more on the Cougar defense in this game. In the end SMU ran 33 more plays (87 to 54) and got its 23rd point with eight seconds left in the game. It wasn’t enough by a mile. Or a few yards.

That is defense. 

A defense missing. 

And it was a defense coached with a cadre of graduate assistants and analysts helping Sitake on the sideline in the weeks leading up to the game.

Maiava-Peters had his number called when season starter Jaren Hall couldn’t answer the call due to a high ankle sprain. His backup, Jacob Conover, transferred to ASU. His backup, Cade Fennegan, was also injured and unavailable.

This pic tho 😍 pic.twitter.com/B6Ul54SwZs

— BYU FOOTBALL (@BYUfootball) December 18, 2022

Maiava-Peters ran like a gazelle. He gained nearly 100 yards on 14 carries. SMU, who had its own defensive struggles all year, was left crosseyed and winded. When Chris Brooks raced 22 yards for a touchdown late in the third quarter to put BYU up two touchdowns, who knew that would vault the win for the Cougars?

“They just wanted me to be confident and poised out there,” said Maiava-Peters.

This win, in a sense, with so many starters absent on the BYU roster for this bowl, was a master total team effort — something that solidifies a team. A loss would have cast a cloud over the upcoming offseason workouts and spring practice heading to the Big 12.

The remarkable thing in this story is offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick had to almost create a new BYU offense for Maiava-Peters — not the one Hall ran all season. It meant designing plays Maiava-Peters could master in a short time. And do it without running back Lopini Katoa, freshman All-America guard Campbell Barrington and WR star Puka Nacua, the best athlete on the team.

Maiava-Peters averaged almost 7 yards per carry. He was confident, patient, and ran a lot of option plays, made good decisions, and accelerated through the line when he made his call to tote it himself. In short, Maiava-Peters was a running back on wheels playing QB. Roderick played to his strength and created a trophy for him behind a solid offensive line.

That is trust.

The pick-six by Bywater came on the perfect read of a bubble screen thrown by Mordecai and he had two blockers to fight through to get to the ball. Once he secured it, he outraced three SMU offense-skilled players for a 76-yard TD. It was his third pick of the season.

“I don’t know if that swung the momentum of the game, but it was good to get the ball and give it back to our offense,” said Bywater. “This win builds momentum for next season. Our players are very excited to be working with Jay Hill, we can’t wait.”

What BYU’s defense did to make up for all its faults this season, situations that cost them their defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki, assistant head coach Ed Lamb, linebacker coach Kevin Clune and safety coach Preston Hadley, was prove its resilience.

Back in August, I had BYU winning nine games in the regular season. I believed that would be an outstanding season. They finished with eight. That’s better than seven.

From where the Cougars were in October with four-straight losses, it is a great stepping stone finish for the next step to the Big 12.

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