PROVO – Tight end Tanner Balderree had only caught five passes in 17 games played at BYU. The junior from Oregon hadn’t scored a touchdown and had certainly never recovered a fumble for the Cougars.
But Balderree had a night he’ll not soon forget Friday, saving his team with a key fumble recovery in the first overtime and catching the winning touchdown in the second overtime as BYU beat Mississippi State 28-21 on Homecoming at LaVell Edwards Stadium.
His 25-yard catch and run off a short pass from Taysom Hill on the first play of the second OT burned the blitzing Bulldogs and put the Cougars ahead by one score.
“I triple-checked that I definitely heard the play right to know what I’m doing, making sure I know my job, going over different scenarios with the coaches before I went out there so I knew I was ready for whatever they threw at us,” Balderree said. “I stepped in and Nick (Kurtz) had an amazing block that set it up for me to run the corner.”
Perhaps Balderree’s biggest play came moments earlier when, in the first OT, he scooped up a Hill fumble in the backfield and ran 6 yards to the MSU 8-yard line. The disaster-averting play came with the Cougars trailing 21-14 and set them up for the tying TD. Hill scored four plays later to force the second overtime.
“Overall I’m really proud of the guys and how they played,” BYU head coach Kalani Sitake said. “A lot of these games have been close, and that takes a toll, but I’m happy with the outcome. We got some things worked out and got the win.”
The defenses set the tone most of the night with each team scoring just two times in regulation. MSU got touchdowns in the first quarter on a Nick Fitzgerald to Keith Mixon 49-yard pass off an option fake and a 1-yard sneak by Fitzgerald in the second quarter.
BYU was within 14-7 at the half with Hunter Marshall scoring on a play-action pass from Hill that found him wide open in the back left corner of the end zone late in the first quarter.
The Cougars evened the score at 14-14 on a diving grab by Moroni Laulu-Pututau with 13:15 left in the game.
Mississippi State had the ball three times in the fourth quarter, but the BYU defense got some key stops. Kai Nacua intercepted Fitzgerald at the BYU 18-yard line with just under eight minutes to play to stop one threat. The Cougars stopped Fitzgerald on a fourth-down keeper at the BYU 31 with 3:05 left. MSU punted on its final fourth-quarter possession.
But the Cougars didn’t have much success either in the fourth, punting the ball twice in the quarter and losing a fumble as time expired on an attempted Hail Mary.
That left it to extra periods for a winner to be decided. MSU had the ball first and took five plays to punch it in, with Fitzgerald going head over heels into the end zone on a second-and-goal.
BYU got a first down to the 14-yard line when Hill dropped to pass. As he cocked the ball to throw, a Bulldog defender knocked the pigskin from his hand. Balderree, who had been thrown into the backfield while trying to protect Hill, saw the loose ball and snatched it up, then rumbled around the left side to the 8. Hill scored moments later to tie the game.
In the second OT, Hill took the first snap and rolled right, but was blitzed hard. He hit Balderree in stride and the big fella evaded one tackler and picked up a nice block to get into the end zone untouched on the 25-yard play.
On the Bulldogs’ possession in the second OT, they got a first down to the BYU 13-yard line. But on the next play, Fitzgerald was sacked by Sae Tautu for a loss of 5 yards. Three plays later, on fourth-and-9 from the 12, Fitzgerald was flushed right and threw a desperation pass toward Justin Johnson in the middle of the end zone. But Fred Warner broke up the attempt and the Cougars were able to celebrate their third victory in a row.
Lost a bit in the excitement was the significant fact that BYU running back Jamaal Williams became the all-time leading rusher at BYU with a 9-yard carry in the first overtime. Williams rushed for 76 yards in the game to increase his career rushing total to 3,468 yards, which broke Harvey Unga’s career mark. Unga, whose last year was in 2009, had 3,455 career rushing yards as a Cougar.
“Kudos to almost everyone out there – former linemen, linemen now,” Williams said. “I’m grateful to get it. Honestly, I wish I could put them before my name because you can’t do it without the line; you can’t do it without everybody and their effort. I just wanted to say thank you and I appreciate it.”
BYU, 4-3, got 165 passing yards from Hill and another 54 rushing from the QB. Kurtz led the Cougars with seven catches for 62 yards.
The Cougars travel to No. 15-ranked Boise State Thursday night in another ESPN game that will start at 8:15 p.m.
Stats: BYU 28, MSU 21 (F/2OT)
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