SAN DIEGO -- With its offense struggling, BYU's highly regarded defense came to the rescue.
"We were talking as a unit and saying that someone needs to step up and cause a turnover," junior linebacker Kyle Van Noy said. "All the guys work as a unit. I just happened to get lucky and make the play. We had a blitz going on, and I just happened to make a play and come up with the ball."
Van Noy's strip and recovery of San Diego State quarterback Adam Dingwell's fumble in the end zone initiated a string of fourth-quarter miscues by the Aztecs, allowing the Cougars to rally for a 23-6 victory in the San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl before 38,442 at Qualcomm Stadium on Thursday night.
Van Noy, who scored two of the Cougars' touchdowns, sparked a 20-point run in the fourth after BYU entered it trailing 6-3. He knocked the ball out of the hand of Dingwell, who was attempting a pass, and produced the game's first touchdown. Replay officials' confirmation was met with boos from the mostly San Diego State crowd.
Even Van Noy, who finished with eight tackles and also had an interception for a touchdown, wasn't sure it was a fumble.
"It happened so fast from my angle (that) you can't really tell if his arm is going in motion," he said. "Replay never lies, usually. (The officials) are mostly right all the time."
San Diego State coach Rocky Long wasn't convinced.
"I think it was close enough that you could have called it either way," Long said. "They decided to call it as a touchdown, so that's what it is. I'm not sure it was, but that's the way they called it, so it counts."
It resulted in the wheels coming off the Aztecs' wagon, and they never regrouped.
"I wish we could have executed better," Aztec senior defensive back Leon McFadden said. "They're a good team, but we didn't execute."
The win was BYU's sixth straight over San Diego State and snapped the Aztecs' seven-game winning streak.
Van Noy's game-changer occurred with 12:32 left. It was the first of four turnovers in the fourth for San Diego State (9-4), which had five total. Dingwell, who completed just 12 of 29 passes for 144 yards, threw three interceptions and lost two fumbles.
Van Noy's fumble recovery occurred just one play after BYU (8-5), which trailed 6-3 entering the fourth, missed a chance to take the lead or at least tie the score. A pass from BYU quarterback James Lark bounced off the hands of wide receiver Cody Hoffman and landed in the hands of SDSU's King Holder at the goal line before the defensive back went down at his 3.
But that's when the Aztecs' meltdown began.
After Van Noy's play gave BYU the lead, San Diego State turned it over again on its next play, as Dingwell fumbled the snap and defensive back Jordan Johnson recovered it at the Aztecs' 14.
On the next play, BYU freshman running back Jamaal Williams scooted into the end zone for a 16-6 lead with 12:15 remaining.
Van Noy scored on a 17-yard interception return with 6:09 left for the final nail in the Aztecs' coffin.
BYU entered the contest ranked third in overall defense at 266.3 yards per game. It ranked second in rushing defense, limiting opponents to a paltry 84.25 yards per game. But San Diego State managed that much in one half, running for 85 of its 108 yards. BYU finished the half with 116 yards overall but was held to 28 on the ground.
Overall, the Aztecs finished with 263 yards, 119 on the ground. Running back Adam Muema led the way with 111 yards rushing on 27 carries.
BYU had 296 yards, 52 rushing. Quarterback James Lark completed 23 of 42 passes for 244 yards. He tossed two interceptions.
However, the Cougars kept the Aztecs out of the end zone and their defense delivered when they needed it most.
BYU punter Justin Sorensen also figured prominently in the outcome. He pinned the Aztecs inside their 3-yard line with four second-half punts.
"Our punting game really ended up making the difference," BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall said.
KEYS: Van Noy's strip and fumble recovery in the end zone changed the tone of the game and gave the Cougars their first lead, which they never relinquished. It also started the Aztecs' fourth-quarter meltdown, with four of their five turnovers occurring in the final quarter.
COUGARS COMMENTS: "Really gratifying to play the way we did. We prided ourselves on stopping the run and I think we did a good job of that. We love playing physical football, and so do they, and we knew it was going to be a good challenge. I think we won that challenge." -- BYU linebacker Brandon Ogletree.
AZTECS QUOTES: "I don't know who got the most valuable player, but I'll tell you who I thought was the most valuable player: their punter. Field position made it tough on the offense. We hung in there for a long time until we turned the ball over, and that kinda broke the gate open. It was more of a field position, turnover game." -- San Diego State coach Rocky Long.