It appeared to be the type of disastrous sequence that could’ve cost the BYU football team the momentum in desperately needed in Saturday’s 29-26 overtime win at Tennessee.
The Cougar defense had been pushed around on the first Volunteer drive of the game but — aided by a Tennessee holding call — had forced the home team to attempt a third-and-19 from the BYU 21-yard line.
The pass from Volunteer quarterback Jarrett Guarantano sailed toward the boundary and although wide receiver Josh Palmer was able to haul it in, it was ruled to be out of bounds. Tennessee looked like it would have to settle for a field goal attempt.
The officiating crew, however, stopped play and went through a video review, eventually awarding Tennessee a completed 16-yard pass on the play.
Now facing a fourth-and-3 from the Cougar 5-yard line, the Volunteers elected to go for it. Guarantano dropped back to pass and fired into traffic at the goal line, where Cougar linebacker Kavika Fonua reached out and deflected it.
But the bounce turned into a fortunate one for the home team as it went right to Tennesee receiver Jauan Jennings for the unlikely 5-yard TD.
BYU head coach Kalani Sitake said Fonua was in the right spot but it was a bad bounce.
“It was frustrating because it was fourth down and we tipped it — but their guy caught it,” Sitake said. “We had a good talk with Kavika because he was right there in position.”
Fonua said he was frustrated with what happened on that play.
“I should’ve had that one,” Fonua said. “Unfortunately that didn’t happen.”
But Sitake said guys had to keep plugging away and getting in position to make things happen. That proved to be prophetic early in the second half when the Cougars trailed 13-3 and needed a big play.
On a third-down conversion attempt, Guaratano tried to force the ball in to a receiver — but once again Fonua was waiting.
This time Fonua got the interception and returned the ball 20 yards to the Tennessee 20-yard line.
“I did my keys, what the coaches asked,” Fonua said. “I read the QB, looked where he was throwing and I just happened to be there. I just happened to get the pick.”
That set BYU up for its first touchdown, which was the big-time play that kept the Cougars in the game when they had to have something go their way.
Fonua also made some big tackles at the end of the game and in overtime, sparking the BYU defense to make big stops. He finished with a career-high 10 tackles including a tackle for a loss.
“We used a bunch of different guys to keep fresh,” Sitake said. “It got to the point where we felt like we were going to make it really hard on them to score. Defensively I felt like our guys were playing well. We weren’t being overly aggressive but were making them earn everything.”
BYU played a double overtime game for the first time since 2016, when the Cougars defeated Mississippi State 28-21. With the win, BYU improved to 7-5 in overtime games since 1996. BYU is now 2-0 in overtime under Kalani Sitake, with both wins coming against SEC opponents.
BYU picked up its third win in an SEC stadium with the victory over Tennessee. The Cougars had previously defeated Mississippi State in Starkville in 2001 (41-38) and Ole Miss in Oxford in 2011 (14-13).
All three victories were by a combined seven points. BYU improved to 7-7 overall against current members of the SEC.
The Neyland Stadium crowd of 92,475 marks the fifth-largest crowd BYU has played in front of. The top five includes:
1. Michigan (2015) 108,940
2. Texas (2011) 100,995
3. Penn State (1991) 96,304
4. Texas (2014) 93,463
5. Tennessee (2019) 92,475
A new ... short?
Kickers often get lauded when they make a new career long field goal but BYU sophomore kicker Jake Oldroyd set a new mark the other direction for his first attempt at Tennessee.
Oldroyd’s 31-yard field goal in the first quarter was the shortest of his career. Previously he had makes of 32, 33, 37, 42 and 43 yards while adding makes from 42 and 33 yards later in Saturday’s game. He has only missed one kick in his career, back in 2016 vs. UCLA.
For the second straight game, BYU lost the opening coin toss. Tennessee deferred and the Cougars got the ball first, driving into Volunteer territory before being forced to punt. BYU also lost the coin toss in overtime, making the Cougars 0-for-3 in 2019 ... BYU captains for Saturday’s game were defensive lineman Trajan Pili, linebacker Isaiah Kaufusi, offensive lineman Brady Christensen and punter/kicker Jake Oldroyd ... Carrying the BYU alumni flags for the game were Kaneakua Friel (TE 07-08, 11-13), Mitch Mathews (WR 09, 12-15), Judd Anderton (DL 00, 04-07) and Jon Pollock (DB 89-92-95). The team flag was carried by Tennessee native QB Joe Critchlow ... announced weather at game time was 84 degrees with clear skies and light winds.